This is a question that used to flit, smirking, through my mind in my days as a religious sceptic. I wouldn’t say I was ever an atheist, but I certainly had no belief in any sort of religious higher power. Some superior force out there somewhere, perhaps, but not something or someone to be worshipped or praised or relied on.
How could there be a father figure I didn’t know about? And why would I need one when I was so clever and powerful myself?
If you had asked me then why churches were full of old people, I would have said it was because they had more time on their hands and they were closer to death, so they were covering themselves in case the grim reaper came calling and found them unprepared. Like dodgy businessmen and their accountants getting their story straight before going to see the bank manager, they were making sure they had answers for any awkward questions.
Now, I see that it’s not so much that the old people are there, but that the younger ones aren’t. As children, we might be taken to church, partly to expose us to the possibility of God and partly because if we were there, we weren’t somewhere else, getting up to no good.
I’m pretty sure that was my own parents’ rationale. It was a safe environment. Okay, you can get into trouble anywhere, but you’re less likely to do it during a service or at choir practice than hanging around on street corners.
So that put – and still puts – a few young people in church. And with them are their parents, young adults still in the early stages of building their lives. Their mothers, anyway. The fathers might still believe they were in charge, despite having played such a small and simple role in the creation of a child.
And the old people were there.
What you didn’t see were the 20 to 35-year-old single people, because they were too busy recovering from working hard and playing hard. And they didn’t feel the need to be there, anyway, because when you’re in the prime of life you feel in control. Motivational speakers fill us with the notion of doing everything ourselves. We have to make it happen. We are responsible for our own destiny. There is no such word as can’t.
Admirable sentiments, in many ways. And “driven” people are often successful. What are they driven by? Financial security, perhaps. But it’s more likely to be ambition, desire for material things, and once they’ve got them, that can turn to greed.
But one thing such people are not doing is thanking God. They may be congratulating themselves, but that is widely regarded as a bad thing that leads to complacency, so they are urged to put that achievement in the bank and set off in pursuit of the next.
Have you ever wondered why professional footballers don’t always smile after scoring a goal? It’s because they (or their coaches) are afraid that enjoying the moment will lead to relaxation and switching off, leaving the team vulnerable. So, they score, they punch the air and they snarl “Come on!” as if they had just conceded a goal rather than gained one.
Such people are, in short, not humble enough to believe in God, because if they do that, they are not believing in themselves, and they are taught that that way lies failure.
As we get older, the vast majority of us will suffer setbacks, tragedies or health problems. And such things teach us that it is not all in our control.
That is why the church population is as it is. Churches are not full of weak people: they are full of people who do their best but are humble enough to understand that their strengths and talents alone – they alone – are not enough.