Stay-at-Home Christians


AN able journalist, for several years the representative in America of a great foreign newspaper, remarked the other day that the attitude taken toward religion by the average man in these United States is puzzling to a European observer. In his part of the world, he said, men for the most part are either worshipers of God or else anticlerical and probably antireligious; but in this country a great number of people insist on being counted as Christians though they pay little or no attention to public adoration and have next to no knowledge either of Christian doctrine or of the principles of Christian morals. These stay-at-home Christians are determined to protect the Church from every enemy, but are unaware that they themselves constitute the greatest source of hindrance to the Church’s effectiveness.

At first this observer had been impressed by learning that nearly half our population is enrolled in some Christian communion; even more, he had noted with some astonishment that of the ones not so enrolled only a negligible fraction are anticlerical; but then he had also found that almost nobody in America goes to church any more. Is this strange inconsistency, he inquired, the result of some curious illogicality in the American mind, or is the dormant allegiance of a well-disposed laity due to defective spiritual leadership at the altar and in the pulpit? I have, to tell the truth, been wondering a good deal about just how he should have been answered.

There can be little doubt that he was right about his facts. Most Americans are indeed of friendly disposition toward religion, toward the churches, toward the clergy; yet few of them are on any given Sunday to be found worshiping, at least in public. Easter may be thought to be an exception; but inquiry seems to reveal that even on that great day of Christian obligation not many more than three quarters of the nominal membership enter the church door, or only about one third of the whole adult population. It still seems to be generally considered proper to bring one’s children to the Church for baptism; most people still wish marriages performed by some sort of clergyman; and the parson is still in great demand for burying the dead, though the funerals are now more frequently held in private houses or ‘funeral parlors’ than in church buildings. I is, moreover, not difficult for religious bodies to get children in their early teens to submit to a little, usually casual, instruction and to have them ‘join the church’ or ‘get confirmed,’ though such procedure seems often to be regarded more as a graduation from Sunday school or Catechism than as the beginning of a conscious coöperation in a corporate devotional life. Of regular church attendance, however, there is very little left.

I have before me the figures of membership and attendance in six churches in an old New England city, figures which can be matched from any part of the land.

1. A Roman Catholic workingman’s church. Enrolled communicants, 13,000. Usual Easter communions, 9500. Average Sunday attendance, October-June, 7300 — 50 per cent.

2. An Episcopal workingman’s church. Enrolled communicants, 463. Usual Easter communions, 400. Average Sunday attendance, October-June, 165 — 35 per cent.

3. A Methodist workingman’s church. Enrolled members, 950. Usual Easter attendance, 800. Average Sunday attendance, October-June, 375 —39 per cent.

4. A Roman Catholic ' white-collar ‘ church. Enrolled communicants, 2100. Usual Easter communions, 1650. Average Sunday attendance, October-June, 720 — 34 per cent.

5. An Episcopal church in a wealthy neighborhood. Enrolled communicants, 731. Usual Easter communions, 410. Average Sunday attendance, October-June, 208 — 28 per cent.

6. A Congregational church, the most fashionable place of worship in the city. Enrolled members, 1375. Usual Easter congregation, 1500. Average Sunday attendance, October-July, 520 — 37¼ per cent.

These six congregations, it will be noted, are equally divided between Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants, and they draw from various levels of wealth. Yet they agree surprisingly in revealing a small percentage of attendance. Further, a check of over three hundred congregations, casually chosen from all parts of the country and from nine different communions, verifies the conclusion reached by the study of these six New England churches — namely, that less than 40 per cent of the enrolled Christians bother to go to church, though on Easter perhaps as many as 76 per cent of the alleged members do respond to the ringing of the bells. Why this small amount of witness to a faith at least nominally professed?

The usual answer of the clergy seems to be that the fault lies not with the churches but with the people, who are alleged to be so content with things as they are, so this-worldly, so conceited, as to feel little need of God: but surely such an answer shows small knowledge of that bewildered disillusionment and that uncertainty which of late have rapidly become dominant notes in American thinking.


There are to-day large numbers of men and women, in all classes of society, who have grave doubts about the sufficiency of man; who are no longer confident about the ability of a secularized education to produce sufficiently virile character in growing boys and girls; who more than suspect that, unaided, humanity is incompetent to arrive at any goal but bedlam; who are dubious about the possibility of a continuance of democracy unless it shall find supernatural sanctions sufficient to justify a rigid self-discipline; who laugh when they think of what once was supposed to be the inevitability of automatic progress into a sure-to-come millennium of enlightenment and liberalism.

There are also many people who, while still properly admiring the achievements of modern science, nevertheless are of the opinion that science alone is no safe guide to man in his moral and spiritual life. Merely to learn more and more about facts and processes is not more fully to understand the totality of things, or even the totality of one’s self; nor does such knowledge alone ensure the development of a safe and happy society. The more we discover how to manipulate nature, the more we put into the hands of evil men the implements of a possible destruction, quite as truly as we give to good men the means toward a larger possible good. Many intelligent people, not alarmists, are inclined to believe that the evil, at least in imminent potentiality, at present outweighs the good. At the very least, they tremble as they contemplate what use men do make of scientific discoveries, and perceive quite clearly that man needs, quite as much as tools, a control in the use of tools — a moral control that science does not give, that only religion of some sort can give. The mere multiplication of devices, which is all that science can mean to most people, ensures to man neither fullness of happiness nor continued safety. A morally incompetent people seems all too likely to wreck the whole elaborate machinery. More and more there are those who realize that what is needed is some good boys and girls for a change; and science seems incompetent to produce them.

A large and ever-growing section of our citizenry in America is disillusioned, seeking once more for a God quite beyond the limitations of those lesser deities too popular these late years. They need, and know they need, adequate spiritual guidance and strength if they are to live courageously in the midst of a world which gives small peace and promises still less in the future. These searching ones have desire to listen to a certain still small voice, and that a voice speaking not from within man’s own ego but from Heaven. They long to fall upon their knees and worship a comprehending Absolute. They are hungry to adore; and yet, somehow, the more alert they become to spiritual necessity, the more they feel inclined to stay away from organized religion and public devotions.

Hopefully these people look, as the more intelligent of human beings have not looked for many a long year, to the Church and its ministers; but what they observe somewhat bewilders them. Can it be that the official proponents of God fail to understand the inner need that moves, the hunger that impels, the ordinary man? It often seems to these wondering ones, from what they see of churchmen and what they hear them say, that the Church is content to live and work on a plane more conventional than spiritual; and they esteem its counsel to those really disturbed in soul both vague and uninspiring. Too rarely do the parsons strike that note of sureness which the man in the street longs to hear, the note which he is persuaded belongs rightfully to the household of faith, the note which says, ‘Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof rage and swell, and though the mountains shake at the tempest.’

Why do the pulpits resound with lectures on almost every conceivable subject except those deeply spiritual ones which alone can strengthen man for life? Why must one listen to well-worn minor platitudes, as though the preachers were twittering birds, almost alone in unawareness of the swift-coming hurricane? Why are Sunday morning ‘exercises’ so hearty, genial, trivial, so designed for the cosy comfort of the impercipient, while the searchers are longing to find God, if there be a God and if He may indeed be found, the Mystery self-revealed and near? And when one does discover, here and there, those whose peace and joy in God are evident, why will they not impart the secret of their faith? How is it that they insist on speaking of secondary and derivative things? Why must they be digging up controversies well forgotten, be using an apologetic that defends only from enemies long dust? How is it that they speak in such archaic language, in words and terms unused for decades in the forum and the shop, words and terms alien or forgotten?

Religion, at least the kind of religion that can save anyone from the wayward wilderness around him, is something more than a series of propositions about which to debate; something more than a conservation of respectabilities; something more than an Establishment; something more than the fellowship of a conventicle; something more than an emotion or the survival of a past emotion. The only religion for which thinking people have respect or yearning — in fact, what they suspect is the only religion that is not a sham and a subterfuge — is the religion which comes into being as man cries out in deepest need and finds an answer that makes life something beyond tragedy. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.’ That is an old saying which seems to ring true. The fault most commonly found with the Church is not that it is too religious, but that it is not nearly religious enough. Its programme and appeal are too hesitant, its wisdom too greatly of this world, its God too much reduced to man’s poor level, too domesticated. The religion which the man of the moment meets with in the churches is apt to seem to him not so much alive as are his own faint gropings.

The world — well the ordinary person knows it — is not enlightened, but in darkness, and for the most part aware of that darkness. Men understand no more the meaning of things, the nature of being. Therefore they are possessed by fears — fears that give birth to license and ribaldry and brute desire, to injustice and oppression. The really modern man gropes in a darkness peopled by terrifying shapes past his understanding. He is wandering in a wilderness of facts and processes, and his soul faints within him. Is there no light from out beyond him, that he may walk without stumbling, falling? Religion, he thinks, ought to bring men and women to God in such a way that God may lift the scales from their eyes and strengthen feeble knees, and give desire to go on. ‘In the Name of Jesus the Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.’ Can religion still say things like that? If so, why in the name of man’s need does it not do it?


There seems no doubt that most people to-day are leading a meaningless existence, and that this lack of realized objective is the parent of a general discontent and world-weariness. We go on and on and on, from day to day, until after a while we go off and come to nothing. So most people seem to think. If they retain a vague belief, as some still do, that when we die we shall somehow still persist, even that persistence is mainly, as they see it, just going on and on somewhere else. Just going on and on without a goal to reach is a terrible bore, whether before death or after it. It seems a thing intolerable and unreasonable that, in a universe where everything else has meaning, only human beings should have an existence which gets nowhere; and yet most of our contemporaries act as if that were true.

Men do, however, rebel instinctively, in this as in any other era, against the thought that their lives are like water poured out fruitlessly upon the ground; and they try to find something for which to live. But the things which they commonly pick out as life objectives are too often inadequate. Because they are inadequate, when men win through to them they are not satisfied; and when men do not get at them they are unduly disappointed. Either way, they become cynical and irritable. Thus they aim at pleasure, which grows stale when they are still quite young. Or they aim at wealth, which buys little of happiness when they have amassed it. Or they aim at applause and popularity, only to discover that the mob which gives these things is both sycophantic and fickle. Or they aim at wielding power, and find that power is bought at price of hatred and abuse. Or they aim at curious learning, and lo, the more they know expertly, the more a greater mystery confronts them. Or they aim higher, at human love; but hearts beloved are apt to grow cold, and, even if they do not, the beloved die.

None of these aimings is at an evil thing; fun and possessions and power and learning and human love are all good things. Only they are not what men were meant to aim at; and so, in the nature of things, they cannot satisfy. Nothing will do to aim at except that for which man, as man, was made. Without such an objective, life is not worth the living; human beings are frustrated, bored.

The younger generation is likely to feel all this, perhaps, more vigorously and vitally than do its elders. The older generation, which lived its earlier days in a world of unquestioned progress, fascinated by an expanding physical opportunity, was more easily fooled about life than its children are. It is not because youth is in physical distress that it is restless, but because it doubts the worth-whileness of pursuing, at a cost of increasing ruthlessness, goals of personal plenty, ambition, and activity. If life, it says, is only gilt and gingerbread, entertaining to be entertained, mating and procreating, getting and spending, each for himself or herself or for his or her children, is it worth bothering about? Many of them consciously think not; more think the same subconsciously.

It is because they doubt the worth of such pursuits as have fascinated their fathers and mothers that many young people feel the appeal of the totalitarian ideologies. These new systems declare bluntly, indeed they proclaim, that the usual ends of life as it has lately been lived — individual pleasure, personal possessions, and private power — are ridiculous. They bid their followers labor for larger things. They demand and offer lives made meaningful because laid down for the earthly welfare of a folk. They envisage a community wherein all shall have enough and nobody be plagued by an excess of wealth or a surfeit of pleasure, accompanied, as these always are, by the envy and hate of those who have not. The totalitarian gospels have their great appeal, despite the ‘hard-boiled’ and materialistic language which their advocates frequently employ, because of a Messianic aim at mutual service. Small wonder that they sound attractive to a youth who looks on their promised land from a tired wilderness of scramble and grab, a world of sound and fury which seems to him to signify nothing!

It is not because of their idealisms that Communism and Fascism are to be opposed, but because their aims are also not enough, also merely of a world which crumbles, and because .in consequence of this they fail to take into account the disruptive, antisocial force of man’s inherent greed, the imperiousness of his appetites for wealth and for power when these are not brought under the control of a divine Absolute. The socialized state without a supernatural sanction soon ceases to be a paradise and becomes itself a held for all the power-seeking and cupidity that marred its predecessors. It is not enough of an improvement to attempt to pursue the usual inadequate goals collectively, rather than individually. Worldliness is not cured by socializing it, but by escaping from it. Man must come to know that he does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

Surely it is the primary function of religion to show man what his true and life-integrating aim must be, to reveal that spiritual Absolute toward which he must aim if he would avoid personal frustration and social calamity. It would seem that everything about religion —its creed, its code, its cult — must hang somehow on that. The ordinary man keeps asking himself why, since that is the case, the churches cannot, or at least do not, reveal what that adequate and predestined goal for life is, and how to approach it.


Apparently Christianity made its powerful appeal in the earlier days chiefly because its advocates were sure that they did indeed know what life was all about. It is impressive, that climax to which Peter the Apostle worked up at the end of the discourse he delivered on the Pentecost after Christ’s earthly life had ended. The Holy Ghost had come upon the Apostles. Whatever exactly these strange words may mean, at least this was true of those first Christians, that they suddenly realized the import of Jesus in this world, the impact of Jesus upon this world. Jesus had come to reveal in Himself what God intended a human being to be, and also to found an endless spiritual organism wherein those who sought to live in that fashion should have opportunity for comradeship with one another and with a changeless and undefeatable God.

The realization of all this made the brethren hilariously happy, and they went about telling everyone what fun they found the world. They were so gay that many who looked on them thought they were fuddled. Then Peter arose and talked to the crowd. ’We are not drunk,’ said he. It was only nine o’clock in the morning; even habitual drunkards are sober at that hour. It was not wine that made them hilarious. Rather that old prophecy was fulfilled which Joel spoke when he said, ‘In the last days I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’ Then Peter recounted to his hearers how Jesus had come to earth; how people had hated and killed Him for His goodness; how He had risen from that death in vindication of His teaching and had told His followers to go and do what He had showed them — to do it with courage and joy, because that which He had revealed and imparted had God behind it and could never be overthrown. And with many other words did Peter testify and exhort, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this untoward generation.’

Now ‘untoward’ is an unusual sort of word, and mighty significant. ‘Untoward’ is an English translation of the Greek σκολιός and it means ‘going this way and that way without direction,’ or ‘dodging around minus an objective.’ A derived meaning became ‘peevish’ or ‘bad-tempered,’ because people who do not know where they are going, or why, get irritable. The English translation, taken literally, was a stroke of genius on the part of those who put the Bible into our tongue. ‘Untoward’ — not going toward anything, running around in circles. ‘Save yourselves,’ bade Peter, ‘save yourselves from the meaningless whirlpool that is the common lot in your day.’

If men adored the kind of God revealed by Christ and depended upon that God, He would show them how to live, would lead them into a life that would be rich and stimulating, would teach them by way of hard and stern self-discipline for love’s sake — not all at once but day by day, little by little, in terms of problems as they came. He could make them independent of greed and regardless of applause. He could give them purpose — His purpose. He could deliver them from pettiness. He could make them instruments to help Him overthrow the kingdoms of this world and build a world worth having. He could save them from that horrible approach to futility which without Him seemed to stare them in the face. He could free them from going round in circles. He could rescue them from their untoward generation.

The religion of which this was the central message, during the decades that followed that Petrine allocution, spread like wild fire in the dried grass of a parchedly sophisticated world. In next to no time it had knocked into next to nothing the totalitarianism of an empire beside which Hitler’s and Mussolini’s régimes look like a pair of democratic Sunday schools. It built up the sort of spiritual culture that produced an Augustine, a Francis of Assisi, a Bernard, a Theresa, and set the myriads of the saints to living and dying happily for God and for their fellow men. That looks like the real thing in the way of a message. Why, our puzzled citizen wonders, is it possible for him to go to church after church without hearing that message shouted with joy in every sermon and breathed triumphantly in every prayer?

As one reads the facts about early Christianity, he discovers that saving one’s self did not, to Peter and his kind, mean an escaping from a futile and cracking civilization just for the sake of one’s own selfish enjoyment. To be saved in such a way seemed to them to be damned. Men must not seek, they knew, to escape from their generation merely in order that they may be serene while the generation as such is abandoned and goes drearily on to Hell. Part of the price of redemption is that those who are being redeemed shall come back to that generation which goes round in circles, to that culture still ‘untoward,’ and seek to save it as a whole from its stultifying self-absorption. The rescued are to live in this world according to a God-imparted, other-worldly wisdom. To do that, of course, is to court this world’s misunderstanding and hate — to run the risk of repudiation, starvation, death. But while the many may cry Crucify, the disillusioned and the seeking ones will look on him who has broken free from the common bondage, who gayly pursues the wisdom and the love of God, and will find in him a strength and a peace such as no worldling can possibly impart.

We are bid to save ourselves from this untoward generation, not for selfish happiness but that we may find courage for the struggle to save that generation from untowardness, to rescue the brethren from futility, to build a nobler, saner life than most men now can glimpse. It costs something to defy the world in order that one may help to save the world: that seems to most plain-thinking people an axiom. Why, the stay-at-home Christian wonders, cannot the parsons see the necessity of that inevitable first defiance, upon which all else depends? He is waiting for the Church to put that first thing first.


But, it may well be asked, what good does this stay-at-home Christian expect to bring about by continuing thus to wait for a larger leadership from the Church before he will coöperate by way of a vital self-investment in the Church? Why does he not enlist a few kindred spirits, attend his church, make his presence felt, and encourage his pastor to be brave in placing God first, in giving new beauty and reverence to worship, in proclaiming the this-worldly compulsions of an other-worldly answer to life’s problem? If we content ourselves with once-a-year attendance upon God, with fewer and fewer acts of faith, if we permit our unexpressed devotion to be pushed into the basement of the subconscious mind, how can Christianity possibly continue to be a source of strength to us? How can we pass it on as a vital power from God to those children of ours whose lives are going to be, if possible, more difficult to live successfully even than our own?

We had best not stop at home if, as we say, the Church is somnolent and the parsons spiritually dormant. Why not get inside and become instruments through which God can put new life into seemingly dead bones? If the Church is to remain composed for the larger part of men and women only once a year articulately religious and at all times interested but vaguely in the spiritual life, its missionary effectiveness will soon cease, its funds dry up and disappear, youth be unattracted and age become cynically discouraged. One cannot impart new life to the Church by demanding that somebody else give it some sort of hypodermic injection for a synthetic stimulation. The stay-at-home, once-ayear Christian is the first who must be revived. It is he who takes the heart out of the whole spiritual enterprise. He says he wants a Church that matters. How can it possibly matter if, to the extent of 62 per cent, it is composed of chaps like him? We shall have as good a Church as we insist on having; but no demand is heard if it be voiced by those who stay apart and grumble in complacent self-excuse.