Reports on the demise of the church in Britain have (to borrow a phrase) been greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt that the anti-Christian bias of some within the British media is in part the cause of this negativity. But we must admit they have plenty of data on hand to support their bad news stories. During the last 30 years we have witnessed a steady decline in mainline church denominations. Baptist, Anglican and Methodist church attendance has reduced by between 20% to 40%.
Coincidently, this is approximately how long I have been in pastoral ministry and I have personally noticed the numerical decline so frequently reported in the press. However, what is not often reported is the phenomenal growth of Pentecostal churches during the same period. Pentecostal Church membership has grown by 178%. I certainly have witnessed that and not just in Kensington Temple where I have served for twenty-five out of those thirty years. In many British cities, the large, fast-growing churches are Pentecostal. Clearly, we must be doing something right.
There are other positives signs. Despite the discouraging predictions of the prophets of doom and gloom, the national religious identity, is still largely Christian. 71.6% of respondents in the 2001 National Census stated Christianity was their faith. In 2010 the Office of National Statistics surveyed 250,000 people and 71% said they were Christian. Apparently, there has been no decrease over the last 10 years.
This prevailing cultural attachment to Christianity is paying good dividends wherever Christian believers reach out in evangelism. Some are too quick to dismiss the increasing pockets of church growth evident in many British cities by pointing out that they are mainly among immigrant populations and ethnic minorities. True, many of the most encouraging signs are found among these communities, but it is nevertheless happening today, and it is happening in Britain. We still have a responsive environment in which to proclaim Christ. For years now in London, one in two serious conversations about Christ leads to a personal commitment. We regularly see signs and wonders on the streets and in our communities. Increasing numbers of those from Muslim backgrounds and other religions are also joyfully coming to faith in Christ.
Another little-known fact is the rise of the new church planting movement in Britain. Between 1998 and 2005 churches were being planted across the UK at a rate faster than Starbucks could open new coffee shops. 481 Starbucks new branches were opened while 500 new churches were planted. At that time the coffee business was booming and Starbucks was one of the great pre-credit crunch commercial success stories. That success was openly reported, but little attention was given to the greater spiritual success story of church planting.
Today, there are positive signs of life returning to the non-Pentecostal denominations. We are encouraged to notice the results of recent statistical surveys which provide hard evidence suggesting the long decline in British main-stream church attendance has finally stabilised. For example, the Baptist Union of Great Britain has seen attendance rise in recent years with particular growth among young people aged 13 to 18.
The Church of England has also seen modest but steady growth in attendance over the last ten years. These figures include midweek attendance and not just Sunday morning worship, showing how churches have been adapting and changing in recent years. But there are many aspects of church growth that do not yet figure in the statistics that reveal the situation is even better than we thought. These include recent Anglican “fresh expressions” of church – a relevant and flexible approach to church designed to impact and transform whole communities.
The Anglican Church has also has been responsible for devising the most successful evangelistic tool in recent British church history. Two and a half million people have attended Alpha courses in Britain with courses now available for the workplace and for prisons, 70% of which are officially registered as Alpha course providers.
Christianity is increasingly being publically acknowledged as a vital arm of social and spiritual care, not only in prisons, but also hospitals, youth work, marriage and family support groups, drug rehabilitation. There are, of course, highly-vocal and all too often successful secular attempts to stifle specifically Christian faith-based projects of social outreach to the community. But our efforts have been largely welcomed by the public powers – apart from, of course, those whose personal agendas are motivated by the new Christianophobia.
But, desperate (and, therefore, increasingly shrill) secular-humanist objections to Christian influence in the public arena, cannot persuade government agencies to refuse the help coming from Christian churches. Constrained by finance, the statutory sector is creaking under the weight of the ever-burgeoning social needs of our society. The government and the nation are becoming increasingly dependent upon the initiatives coming from voluntary organisations, a great number of which are Christian-based. More than ever, Britain is looking for help from practical and relevant expressions of Christianity and is increasingly open to them as a constructive force for good.
With these positive signs, there are, however, some disturbing trends increasingly evident within the spiritual climate of Britain. In June 2008, the Church of England issued a report entitled “Moral, But No Compass” criticising the policies of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for favouring Islam and minority religions and of paying mere lip service to Christianity. The report voiced growing concerns held by a broad range of Church groups, Christian agencies and Denominational leaders about the perceived growing marginalisation of Christian values and ethics in British society.
In the wake of the widespread looting and rioting that shocked Britain in August 2011 other reports highlighted what was called our “broken society”. It seemed as if the lid was taken off and we could see what was seething inside – a mass-produced mess of relational dysfunction, benefit dependence and moral decay. Church leaders pointed out that these were the inevitable effects of the selfish “me” culture that always dominates society when Christian values are ignored.
Britain, with the fourth largest economy in the world, is home to the largest proportion of personal debt, drug addiction and the highest proportion of family breakdown. In 2011, it was reported that in the previous 15 years alcohol consumption amongst adolescents had doubled with 10 per cent of 11 to 12 year-olds regularly binge drinking. Britain remains the abortion capital of Europe and now ranks fifth in the world for the number of abortions behind Russia, the US and Japan.
The breakdown of marriage and the family in Britain is now undeniable. Marriage statistics for England and Wales in 2009 were the lowest in 112 years, while divorce statistics continued to soar with an estimated £20 billion annual cost to public funds due to the on-going effects and long term damage of family breakdown. Despite the growing body of evidence that marriage is the most stable family structure, successive governments have refused to promote it as an important part of fixing our broken society. The Millenium Cohort Study (which surveyed more than 15,00 children born in 2001 and 2002) showed that by the age of three, the children of cohabiting parents were generally three times more likely to have suffered the break-up of their family than the children of married parents.
One might expect that governmental authorities would be conceding that the “liberal experiment” had failed and that it was time to pay more attention to the Christian values upon which Britain, along with the rest of Western Civilisation, was founded. Not so. The government’s attitude to Islam comes dangerously close to favouritism. This vocal minority is all but being promoted by governmental attitudes and actions, and Britain edges nearer and nearer to full Islamisation.
The “no go areas” for non-Muslims in the parts of Britain’s inner cities where there are significant majority Muslim populations, the introduction of Sharia law by stealth and the increasing introduction of Muslim dietary laws in public places, expose government decisions not to preserve, but to abandon the traditional Christian values of Britain. Successive governments have shown a stubborn refusal to understand the true nature of Islam. They have never admitted that the plain teaching of the Quran and the Hadith, which is consistently upheld by countless authoritative Fatwas binding upon all Muslims, represents true Islam. Instead, they have chosen to promote the bizarre view that violent Jihad, anti-Semitism, intolerance of other religions and the harsh penalties of Sharia, so clearly taught in Islam, are nothing but a cynical perversion of the true Islam which is actually tolerant, peace loving and consistent with the democratic values of the West.
While this perceived favouritism continues to appease Islam, the opposition to Christians is fast developing into thinly-veiled persecution. Examples of discrimination against Christians abound, including the intolerance toward those who refuse to accept the gay life-style to be morally viable, and the scorn heaped out on those who dare to share their faith with a Muslim. Surely, freedom of opinion and speech have died in Britain when a Christian couple is banned from fostering children after refusing to condone homosexuality. Or, when a Christian owner of a café displaying Bible verses is told (incorrectly) by police that he is breaking the law. Or, when a nurse is suspended for offering to pray for a patient. Or, when a van driver faces disciplinary action if he refuses to remove a palm cross from his dashboard. Or, a supply teacher is dismissed when she mentions praying for a child’s family.
We should not label all opposition as persecution, but when one in four Christians say they have suffered discrimination in the workplace, it is time to pay attention. The trend is being noticed by Christians and non Christians alike. In a May 2010 a ComRes poll of Christians and non-Christians, showed that 38% believed that the marginalisation of Christianity was increasing. In March 2011, a similar ComRes poll found that 37% of the general public felt the Government favours other religions over Christianity. In the 2010 survey, 43% of the general public said they expected the marginalisation of Christians in society to increase in the next five years.
From a Christian perspective, we notice both the positive and the negative trends in our society. How should we evaluate these? What is God saying to us? I truly believe that the only hope for our nation is the gospel of Christ. Not just because it is the only hope of heaven to a world lost and on its way to perdition, but also because the gospel is the only hope for the kind of restoration our society needs. This is the message and way of life we are called as churches to experience, demonstrate and proclaim. If we want to rise to the challenges of a nation needing truth we must become good news for that nation and not just preach good news to it.
Therefore, I believe that the most urgent need of the hour is for a root-and-branch reappraisal of the way we understand and do church in today’s world. It is not, fundamentally, about structure but about returning to Christ as the only foundation of our vision and values. Nothing short of a widespread revival of radical Christian faith and living will come up to the mark.
A quote from Francis Schaeffer, the Christian philosopher and activist, underlines the fact that the credibility of our message lies in the quality of our corporate life. He said, “Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful—Christian community is the final apologetic.” We must show our nation that Christ is real and that he is everything we claim him to be. It must begin with us.