Specifically, because the churches need vibrant families — including families that reproduce themselves, as secular people tend not to do — they must also understand that strengthening the natural family is the first order of business in bringing people back to God. As has been amply documented by the British political scientist Eric Kaufmann in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? and the American author Jonathan Last in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, believers have many more children than do non-believers. In an increasingly secular and childless age, the churches need to make that job easier.
This is not an abstract call to rhetorical arms, but rather one to grassroots efforts, one parish at a time, dedicated to all manner of things that might make family life easier or more attractive to secular people. More babysitting, support groups, marriage counselling, meal drop-offs, healthcare volunteering, car pools, prayer groups that double as social hours, free tutoring, and other seemingly humdrum but systematic efforts might do more to re-evangelise Western culture than all the pontifical councils in Rome.
Put differently, the welfare state has been an ineffective and hideously expensive substitute for the fractured Western family. If the churches are to succeed, they must compete successfully against it.
There’s a lot of chatter these days about how Christianity needs to “engage the culture”, with a lot of clever drivel on how to do that. Most of that clever drivel centres around how to repackage ourselves–and in many cases our beliefs–to be more acceptable to the world around us.
Such rhetoric overlooks one key point: our culture is so trashy and dysfunctional it isn’t worth engaging. What it needs is to be superseded. This is especially true in the lower reaches of our society, which is–contrary to much conventional wisdom–more unchurched than other strata of society. The prop for that trashiness–and the breakdown of the family that followed–is in simple terms the dole, in its many manifestations. It is not only hideously expensive but financially unsustainable, to steal a term from the left. Sooner or later something is going to have to give.
To do that the issue of the family itself is going to have to be addressed. Up until now restoration of the family has largely been perceived as either a political issue or wrapped in the obsessive natalism that has enthralled American Evangelicalism, a natalism that is pushing us towards a “waist-down” type of religion that is more apt for Mormonism than for Christianity.
But giving birth is, with due respect to the pro-life community, only the beginning. What needs to happen afterwards is described above. Beyond the doing, however, is the being. We talk about how the family needs to be restored, but the best way for the Christian church to lead the way on this is to first be a family. We’ve gone on at length about the authority of the church and we’ve made our churches purveyors of social services. But a family that is simply an authority structure isn’t much of a family, and for all of its inefficiencies and wrongheaded philosophies we’re at a disadvantage with the state simply as a provider. In the end, if we as the church function as a family, we are an exemplar of what a family should be, and sooner or later our people will get the message and try this at home.
One of the things I’ve always liked about the Church of God is that, for all of its faults, it’s traditionally had the feel of an extended family. That needs to be cultivated in as many places and as many churches as will accept the seed. It’s our most powerful weapon in a world that basically doesn’t like us but really has no Plan B to the highest and best of what Our Lord has to offer.