Sowing in tears on the hard ground of the West
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream
The Englishman was just out of university and spending a year in Tanzania as a volunteer helping with church work. It was a normal swelteringly hot day when he arrived at the secondary school with the Bishop and the Archdeacon. They were greeted by the head teacher who led them to a large hall from which the noise of singing was almost lifting the roof off. The room was packed with students. After an introduction from the Principal, the Bishop gave a hard-hitting message on the importance of hard work, respect for one another, and following Christ as Lord and Saviour. He then introduced the Englishman who sang a couple of songs on his guitar to rapturous applause and cheering, gave a short Gospel message accompanied by a testimony about how he himself had come to faith in Jesus, and invited all those who wanted to accept Christ to put up their hands. Almost the entire group of four hundred schoolchildren responded positively.
The Englishman asked the Archdeacon “Have these kids understood my English? How can they be followed up?” The local churches would do this, he was assured.
Ten years later the same Englishman, now in his third year as a curate in a C of E parish back in England, no longer was permitted to sing Christian songs with his guitar in the local Primary school, after the Head teacher informed him of a change in assembly policy. One dark evening he returned to his wife and small children, his head bowed after another apparently fruitless series of visits to non-churchgoing contacts. “I know I’m not the next Billy Graham”, he said sadly, “but it would be great to see some spark of spiritual interest in just one of these folk”.
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The church in many parts of the world is growing exponentially, sometimes without much depth of discipleship, but nevertheless in ways that are exciting and genuinely transformative for communities. The church in Britain – in fact in much of the West – is shrinking rapidly, with declining relevance for surrounding society. A recent study, authored by Dr Stephen Bullivant of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University in London, shows just how bad the situation is. Media reports last week emphasized different aspects of the depressing conclusions. “Churches lose 11 worshippers for every one new member”, proclaimed the Telegraph; “People of no religion outnumber Christians in England and Wales” headlined the Guardian. Meanwhile the Church Times editorial picked up on the fact that people are not being converted: only 2% of churchgoers come from a non-Christian background.
While the Church of England has admitted that it will probably continue to lose membership for several years to come, it has enough resilience and pockets of strength and growth to ensure survival. The future for Anglicans in Wales and Scotland is more precarious; Methodists may die out completely within 20 years according to some forecasts.
What are some of the reasons for this decline? We can look first at the environment outside the church. The prevailing philosophies in the culture have changed. Postmodernism is now taken for granted – the idea that there is no ultimate truth, so the existence of God, and the nature of human beings and their purpose is a matter of opinion, and the way we should live our lives a matter of choice. Spirituality is an option but organized religion is regarded with indifference or suspicion. Materialism and hedonism have increased: credit is much more widely available and debt encouraged, so we can have what we want now. Technological advances mean instant entertainment and relationship connectivity. Traditional Christianity with its elements of self examination, moral discipline and focus on one who is wholly Other known through a text seems not just boring and irrelevant, but inconvenient. And then there is secularism – the increasingly authoritarian worldview which insists that there is no God and no spiritual realm; and that religion is actually untrue, intolerant and harmful.
So Western culture has moved away from shared understandings which were to some extent dependent on Christian ideas. Many who used to consider themselves Christian (even if they didn’t attend church) have unconsciously moved from a worldview influenced by these ideas, to one that takes on the assumptions of postmodernism, materialism and secularism. But postmodern and secular culture with its sexual ‘freedoms’ and unlimited choices of identity and entertainment has not brought happiness and stability to the soul – in fact the opposite. Biblical Christianity gives a compelling, coherent, hopeful view of ‘life, the universe and everything’, better oriented to understanding the past, to flourishing in the present and to security and joy in the future than any of the other ‘-isms’. So why do people not believe? Is the church to blame for failing to get the Christian message out? Has the Gospel ‘lost’ in the battle of ideas?
Here are some ways in which the church has contributed to its own demise in the face of cultural change. Firstly, confused theology. Those who are entrusted with the responsibility of teaching the faith, the clergy and lay preachers, have for decades been taught in residential colleges and part-time Diocesan training schemes that the Bible is not effective or trustworthy. Amazingly, many have come out the other side skeptical of the skeptics and still with strong faith in the Gospel, but sadly, many have not, and are unable to articulate basic doctrines of the reality of God and the spiritual realm, sin, heaven, hell, the atonement, the uniqueness of Christ and the true nature of humanity created in God’s image. As a result the mainline churches have allowed a situation of pluralism to develop, where mutually incompatible ‘Gospel’ messages are proclaimed from neighbouring parishes or even in the same pulpit by different speakers. Rather than refuting the false teachings of the culture and uniting around the biblical message of God saving us and us living for him, Christians are encouraged to rejoice in the unity of church institutions and celebrate the diversity of our messages. No wonder most people, especially men, have decided that if the church does not point to anything other than itself and community, there are more exciting things to do, for example football.
Secondly, postmodernism and materialism have affected even the committed who believe the biblical message. Evangelicals have become very comfortable. Sharing our faith can bring conflict, unpopularity, even financial implications. Many of us work very hard during the week, and church and the Christian life are in the compartment of leisure pursuit for personal growth and relaxation in our free time. Tolerance and respect for the choices of others mean that often we are unable to see beyond my faith as ‘true for me’, and the paths that others choose as equally valid.
Thirdly, there is a lot of poor practice in our churches. Despite a plethora of excellent resources on how to be more welcoming, how to improve the worship, how to preach engagingly and compellingly, how to have better home groups and so on, there are still many churches where the experience of these things is uninspiring, where there is little or no prayer, decent children’s work or vision for mission.
However, if church growth were simply a matter of right doctrine, committed members and great coffee, we would not be seeing decline, and the hardness of Gospel work illustrated by the story at the beginning of this piece. Many churches, especially small fellowships led by dedicated pastors with a core of prayerful and committed laity, work incredibly hard to make constant improvements in church life and community outreach, and see themselves only holding their own or growing slightly. In a parish of 5000 people in a best case scenario if the Anglican church were to grow from 100 to 150 and the Baptist one increases from 25 to 50 in say 7 years, we would think that was amazing and very unusual. Compare this with sub Saharan Africa, where an urban area with a similar population might have more than a dozen churches varying in size from 20 to 200, many of which might not tick many of our boxes in terms of quality of leadership, theological correctness, facilities or mission plans, but are growing and planting. We have to accept, perhaps, that God is sovereign, the Spirit blows where he wills, that the seed falls in different types of soil, and that we are called to faithfulness in corner of the field we have been allocated, not to think we are responsible for turning back the tide of unbelief in the nation.
Realism about church decline and cultural indifference and hostility to God is not a reason for fatalism. Some have pointed out that numerical decline is a ‘refining’ of the church: as nominal Christians leave, the committed ones remain. Historian Tim Stanley, while being simplistic in saying all we have to do is evangelise (many are doing so, but with discouraging results) reminds us that the visible place of faith and the church in the nation’s life is cyclical: we’re in a downturn but it may come back. The Bible records periods where the people of God saw amazing miracles and powerful salvific action of God in the present, and other times when they had to cling on to what God had done long before and promised to do in the future. When the apostle Paul says that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation, he is not envisaging a Christian-friendly environment but a culture where people have rejected God for a lie , and are “filled with every kind of wickedness” (Romans 1:25; 29). Jesus himself was crucified by a coalition of Roman power, religious compromise and popular cynicism; after his resurrection and ascension, Peter, filled with the Spirit, was able to say to a crowd “you killed him, but God raised him” (Acts 3:15), and thousands were converted to faith in Christ in a few weeks.
But if we should guard against hopeless pessimism, so we should also avoid a fantasy Christianity that does not acknowledge the very serious problems with the church and our culture. All is not well. We need contemporary Nehemiahs, burdened and distraught by the spiritual poverty of their homeland, interceding with tears, making a realistic assessment of the situation, absolutely clear that there is only one Gospel message, and then at God’s right time saying:
“You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall…”