Church decline in Britain: what remedies?

Sep 5, 2017 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Two very different articles about church decline catch my eye this week. First, Ruth Gledhill in Christian Today interprets the latest figures from the British Social Attitudes survey. Headlining with “massive collapse in numbers of Anglicans”, Gledhill highlights the main finding of the survey, that 53% of Brits now describe themselves as having no religion – the highest such figure ever – while only 15% describe themselves as Anglican or C of E, down from 30% in 2000. All of the other figures she selects are quite simply apocalyptic, for example 70% of 18-24 year olds have no religion. Bishop Paul Bayes of Liverpool is quoted being as positive as he can, suggesting that ‘no religion’ might mean a continued openness to God rather than a decision for atheism, and that the church can show the relevance of faith by making “a bigger difference” in society. The humanists of course are delighted, seeing the figures as evidence that state partnership with churches – for example in education – should be ended.

At the start of her piece Ruth Gledhill bizarrely attempts to link the decline in C of E numbers with “conservative evangelicalism currently in the ascendancy…resolutely committed to an interpretation of the Bible opposed to same-sex marriage.” Presumably she is referring to the Archbishops, who despite being as yet unconvinced about redefining marriage, have nevertheless given a strong lead towards LGBT “maximum freedom” and “radical inclusion”, banning “conversion therapy” and affirming gender transition. During the tenure of this and the previous Archbishop, the leadership of the C of E has become increasingly LGBT affirming, and more excluding of those with orthodox biblical views, as this website has continually recorded. So the real analysis is precisely the opposite of what Ruth Gledhill says: as the C of E has been moving in a more liberal direction in the past 15 years, numbers have sharply declined.

One could make a case for arguing that the Church has lost members because it hasn’t liberalised as quickly as society, until we look at the actual figures from the BSA survey, here.

While the decline of the C of E has been very severe, other denominations have held up reasonably well, especially those following traditional, conservative teachings. Gledhill mentions Roman Catholics maintaining a steady 9% of the population since 1990, but she fails to notice that in the ‘other Christian’ column, ie denominations that are not Anglican or Catholic, the percentage of the population has remained at around 17% for the past 35 years. And those who say they are from Baptist, independent Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are more likely to actually attend church than most Anglicans. So while the C of E is still the biggest church, it now contains a minority of the total number of Christians.

The stats become even more interesting by age. While 71% of all 18-24 year olds have no religion, only 3% of this age group are Anglican, compared to 14% of the population who affiliate to other Protestant churches. A visit to any recently formed independent evangelical or Pentecostal church will bear this out: the young Christians are there, not in the Anglican churches (with the exception of evangelical congregations in student centres). Anecdotal evidence appears to suggest that committed Christian young people are leaving Anglican churches in Britain and gravitating towards congregations and ministries which offer vibrant worship, clear biblical teaching that equips them to stand firm against immorality and godlessness in society, and create opportunities for leadership, evangelism and social action based on agreed biblical foundations.

So a crumb of comfort can be taken from the fact that while Anglican affiliation is rapidly declining, other denominations, especially those clearly adhering to apostolic Christianity, are holding their own. But this doesn’t obscure the underlying seriousness of the problem of rapid secularisation. Peter Kerridge promotes his new book with the speculative title “If entrepreneurs ran the church”, in a fascinating article on the Premier site.

He begins:

With UK Church attendance in steady decline, is it time for Christian leaders to take advice from people with a track record of running successful organisations?,

and then features excerpts from three interviews with such people, all of whom offer views which are honest, challenging but ultimately don’t really get us any closer to the ‘silver bullet’ of reversing overall church decline and promoting growth.

One really refreshing and entertaining aspect of the interviews is the way the three entrepreneurs are not afraid to take on sensitive issues. For example, Joanna Bicknell says bluntly that too many people tasked with presenting the Gospel up front in churches are simply not up to the job:

If I am presenting a range of products to Walmart… I’m not going to send a junior accounts person in my business to make a critical presentation. In Church, because we’re all Christian and because we want to be nice to people, we let well-meaning people do the wrong jobs.

She also advocates taking church out into the community, but in doing so betrays a view of mission which is difficult to reconcile with some of the things Jesus said about popularity not necessarily being the best indicator of faithfulness:

I think if we’re to have any hope of being liked for God [sic], we have to be doing things in our communities.

Many churches are, of course, and are liked, but without seeing the growth they long for.

Lord Edmiston identifies a serious problem of increasing numbers of the population with zero knowledge of Scripture, to the extent that the nation is no longer ‘post-Christian’ but ‘pre-Christian’. He says that if only church leaders could listen more closely to the ‘unseen CEO’, put aside personal ambition, and get all churches to work together, things would improve. But despite the church’s problems, God has managed to achieve what no human business has done – keep a product on the market for 2000 years!

Stationery magnate Ray George has fairly standard advice which many churches are trying to follow:

We have to make the inside of the church warm, friendly, with coffee areas, places for young people to come and just be themselves.

But his take on what to do with large numbers of small struggling congregations would really infuriate the liberal Catholic critics of the current C of E Renewal and Reform programme. First, prioritise vision over tradition, and second:

if you’ve got five churches, perhaps we should pick the strongest one, shut the other four and minister to that one…central church which meets the needs of a particular area. Somehow Christian leaders have got to come together and agree how to develop each area for mission and outreach.

When thinking strategically about mission in a very difficult context, such as we have in Britain, its important that such ideas should be on the table, even if we can think of reasons why we might not agree with them. Kerridge’s article shows why we need the insights of entrepreneurs to help the church in its mission, but ultimately none of the suggestions address what are the real problems: confusion about the nature of the product that the church offers, and more and more of the general public deciding that they don’t want that product anyway. Sales techniques and image improvements can only go so far. The entrepreneur sees the solution to turning around a company in human ingenuity and hard work. “We don’t know what to do; we need help” is not in the vocabulary of most successful entrepreneurs. In the case of the church, supernatural outside assistance is required, so we need to pray, as well as doing the faithful work of teaching the truth, rebuking error and making disciples.

See also: British pass another milestone on the journey away from faith, by Madeleine Davies, Church Times

Germany: the rise of Islam, by Guilio Meotti, Gatestone Institute (article begins with figures showing “free fall of German Christianity”)


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