“Wherever industry spreads, the Church usually does not.…”

An analysis of the “strange mystique” of the technological age

It is a painful fact that wherever industry spreads, the Church usually does not spread. In Britain the smaller community of the rural area expands into a bigger population in the town, and that population does not have a church-centered life. This is equally true of the red-belt around Paris, where the worker-priests sweated from 1943 until the Vatican ordered them to cease in 1954 (after which some complied, twenty got married, and numbers of others carried on quietly). It is true also of the African in the copper-belt and the other industrialized parts of Africa, even though there he may still be a churchgoer in the rural set-up to which he returns.

The Church is still seeking to reach a stratum of society that has never been effectively reached in proportion to its size in the community. In the mid-nineteenth century the Church of England said, If only we had the Methodist free type of service we could reach the industrial workers; the Methodists said, If only we had the Church of England parochial system we could reach them; the Congregationalists said, We think God must have called us to the middle classes, since only they come to our churches. Yet Bishop Edward Wickham points out in his book Encounter with Modern Society that industry is the basis of modern society. If we wish to influence men, we must influence this fundamental influence to which men are subjected. How?

One essential is that we must not be afraid of technology. Some writers give the impression that technology has rubbed out man’s sense of the “vertical.” But I think they are “falling for” technology as men fell for the Darwinian theory of evolution, which everything had to fit or men couldn’t believe any more. Nels Ferré has been quoted in this magazine as saying that “as a description of method, how creation took place, evolution had much merit, but as explanation it is sheer faith, an incredible mystique. And yet hard-headed thinkers fell prey to such a gullible faith in the name of science. As an ideology, educators themselves are now beginning to see the stark and startling nature of this faith, but in the meantime education trained away from the church countless millions, who swallowed this mystique of truth” (italics supplied). And the mid-twentieth century is producing a new “mystique of truth” in terms of technology and cybernetics (the employment of machines in place of muscles, and computers and the like in place of human brains to guide them). If the Lord Jesus tarries, scholars will be explaining in the mid-twenty-first century how men in our era thought of the technological age in terms of this “mystique of truth.” It is no such thing. Technology has nothing to say to the manager of the automated factory whose wife dies in her forties.

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Industry has tremendous power. We read in Colossians that God upholds all things by the word of his power, and the upholding agent is Christ, the agent of that power. The Ford assembly line would stop more quickly if the Lord Jesus were to withdraw his power than ever it would if someone were to shout, “All out!” The organist at my former church was horrified because we put a model diesel train in the sanctuary for our industrial harvest thanksgiving (he seemed to think it was somehow a defilement), but what is more religious about two or three cabbages and half a dozen apples?

Looking Under The Mat

We must not forget the soft underbelly of technology—the technologically displaced. A recent BBC program on industrial efficiency showed how slow we British are, and what we have to learn from America. And under the mat, where the lazy sweep the dirt, was hidden “the other America,” in which, we may deduce from surveys by Michael Harrington (1962) and the Saturday Evening Post (December, 1963), something like 40 million people live in poverty. This technological age needs the Gospel and the doctrine of a Holy God who requires justice, as any age before ours did.

A Christian worker remarked that what the working people needed was another dose of unemployment. Really? Did they go to church when there was mass unemployment? When I collected my father’s outstanding dole money from our local labor exchange a few days after his death, I didn’t notice that the line was full of fellow Christians. America has shown that affluence helps churchgoing (although material betterment and spiritual betterment are not to be confused). This does not please the Bishop of Woolwich. It pleases me. Rightly treated, affluence may yet drive its soul-starved slaves to church in Britain; and if the Gospel is preached, some of them may be saved. It would not be hard at times to gain the impression that people who have always known a good measure of comfort find it somehow indecent that working men have such things as cars, television sets, and refrigerators: let’s be careful of this, too. Dr. Zweig in his sociological study Worker in an Affluent Society has shown that the vast majority of those whom he interviewed in a car factory and in an electrical lamp works held to belief in God. Much that is said about modern unbelieving man lacks careful sociological documentation, for it tends to reflect the awful doubts of the speakers rather than of those spoken about!

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The relevance of the Christian Gospel is shown by its social implications. H. L. Ellison pointed out (The Churchman, December, 1960) that one of the expectations of the Messiah’s coming was social righteousness. He said that the Jew, when faced with Jesus of Nazareth today, is hindered by the lack of concern for this in the Church. That same lack has hindered the industrial masses, too—and evangelicals have this matter at their fingertips because they take seriously the Old Testament and the whole biblical revelation of a Holy God who requires justice in society because he is just. God cares about justice for the widow and the fatherless and, we may add, the old-age pensioner. He cares about right prices (see Amos and proper weights). He is the original inspector of weights and measures. When workers are not paid properly, their cry, James tells us, is heard in heaven, though it may pass the ears of the boardroom en route. Paul urges the Colossians to pay their slaves properly. He exhorts the Ephesian workers not to be clock-watchers, or crawlers (men-pleasers working when the boss is looking), and he advises employers that their boss is in heaven. When evangelicals lay hold on the element of social righteousness in a new way, people will see its relevance.

In his book The Christian in an Industrial Society, H. F. R. Catherwood says, “Society cannot be redeemed, but it can be reformed according to God’s law.” We need a theology of work, too. We need to see that there is nothing more religious about teaching than there is about industrial activity. How many of us are likely to encourage our young folk to what we might call “nicer” jobs, and away from industry?

The relevance of the Gospel is shown because it meets my deepest need. What I have in common with the highest in the land is sin, the great leveler. But others must know God has cleansed me from sin. They must know I have needed the cleansing. Do congregations know that their pastor needs cleansing, or do they think, “He wouldn’t have the thoughts I have …”? He does, and they ought to know that he does, and that he is repenting. I know they haven’t much sense of sin in some of our work places, but it can come. I think we need this awareness more in the Church. We are a fellowship of sinners, albeit redeemed sinners; but because we are regarded in some sense as a fellowship of saints, a lot of people feel our company is no place for them. Bonhoeffer is right when he says that the Church should be the place where people are allowed to fail.

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An English bishop said recently in a Sunday newspaper that people are no longer afraid of death. I don’t know where he does his homework. As a parish minister I am not aware of any real disappearance of the fear of death. The relevance of the Gospel is further shown by its triumphant answer to death in the name of the Crucified who conquered death.

Problems Of Proclamation

Among the hindrances to the proclamation of the Gospel in industrial areas is language. In October, 1963, an Anglican weekly featured an article, “Hands Off the Prayer Book.” It claimed to prove that the majority of people do not want much change; but of those who had expressed views, the chief age group was forty to fifty-nine.

None will deny that some of the sentiments expressed in our Anglican worship (rightly, I believe) need careful explanation. In another Anglican newspaper a curate whom God had blessed in work among tough teen-agers (some of whom have been led to Christ) said that when he got them to Evening Prayer and began, “Dearly beloved brethren, the scripture moveth us in sundry places …,” one of them said, “What’s happened to old Jack?” We desperately need language people can understand; yet a major Church of England conference regularly begins with a service in Latin.

Another difficulty concerns ministerial personnel. Jesus did not have the attachment to the academic ministry that we have. His disciples were chosen from a genuine sociological cross section. It is said that Bishop Selwyn hindered the work among the Maoris of New Zealand because he insisted on academic standards, thus ruling Maoris out of the ministry. That emphasis has had the same effect on the Church’s outreach to the working masses of Britain.

I am sure that Bishop Wickham is right when he says the actual encounter of the Church with the world of industry must be by laymen. And they will earn the right to speak by their social concern. In the Church of England we do not really respect laymen; and here some evangelicals seem as bad as our priestly brethren. As the laity get much more responsibility, including a share in the area of doctrine (such matters are at present dealt with by bishops and clergy), they will become more accustomed to shouldering their burden for witness in the world. My warden changes places with me at alternate meetings of the parochial church council, and I join the church on the “floor.” This helps to put things in their right perspective. There is much more that needs to be done. We will never meet the challenge of proclamation of the Gospel in industry until we practice what we preach in the matter of the priesthood of all believers.

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One last thing. I believe that if we can get people from the industrial sphere of society to hear Billy Graham when he comes to Britain in 1966, many of them will hear the still small Voice speaking forgiveness of sins and eternal life through his Name. And if the posters and publicity that come out seem gaudy to my fellow clergy, if they feel they might not want them on their church notice boards, they might remember that such posters are not designed for the dear old lady who has sat faithfully in her pew for the past fifty years: they are designed for the people who live in the gaudy, noisy world outside.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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