I spent three weeks in the UK at the end of last year, and during my stay something of a statistical explosion occurred—if such a phrase isn’t oxymoronic! New figures from The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that less than half of British people now identify as Christian—46.2 per cent (27.5 million) claim to be Christian, a 13.1 per cent decrease from a decade ago. This has led some British church leaders to react with surprise and disappointment, but more level-headed commentators wonder why the decline wasn’t even greater.
It’s interesting that a census report here in Canada late last year showed something similar, with the pattern replicated throughout most of Europe and North America. Where there is religious expansion it’s often in the growing Hindu and Muslim communities, and humanism and atheism —or sometimes just sheer indifference—are flourishing.
A factor that should give pause to progressives here and across the Atlantic whatever their religious beliefs is that Christian growth in Britain is often within conservative elements, whether they be Catholic, evangelical, or inside the Church of England, and sometimes the greater Anglican Communion. No surprise really, in that certainty sells in times of transition and instability, especially when glued to religious culture. That goes for politics too, which explains the rise of a hard right internationally. Nuance is vital but not always satisfying.
And here’s where it all becomes so frustrating. Mainstream churches, based on authentic Gospel principles of love, justice, forgiveness, acceptance, progress, and peace simply aren’t always doing a very good job of selling the brand. It’s almost as though we’re more concerned with apologies than apologetics. There are many exceptions of course, but anybody who has seen the international church has seen the pattern at work.
There’s some sensibility involved, of course, in that churches often have a lot to answer for, and no denominational record is spotless. Truth cries out to be heard, accompanied by contrition. But in that we follow a first-century Jewish rabbi who was terrifyingly revolutionary, and preached a way of life that would change the world, you’d think we could interest younger people who are often profoundly spiritual and searching. I write a great deal for the mainstream media and often hear from people, of all ages and backgrounds, who simply hadn’t known that Christianity was as I describe it.
A major obstacle is the public face of Christianity that’s so often depicted, not entirely unfairly, in the press and on television and radio. We hear of activists when they oppose equal marriage, make homophobic statements, protest against women’s reproductive rights, or generally scream “no” instead of singing “yes”.
In the US that problem is much deeper, and more representative of the massively influential Christian right. In Britain, and here in Canada, it’s far less the case but still an enormous obstacle. The noisiest splashing tends to come from the shallowest end of the pool, even if most of the swimmers are elsewhere. In other words, Christians need to jump in rather than look on.
Yet there are also positives for Christ followers in this latest report. The early church had it right I think, and the organized faith only lost its way when Rome, empire, and governments took control, and as a consequence a communal and peaceable minority became an aggressive and intolerant majority. Gospel work surely isn’t about being part of the establishment or walking hand in hand with the rich and powerful. That’s certainly not what Jesus did.
The field is being levelled, and that requires Christians to make their argument anew, which is no bad thing. State church or otherwise, we who try to live by the Gospel should be given no favours, and mustn’t assume privileged entry into the public square.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that 46.2 per cent wouldn’t be even lower if we asked a few more questions, and the figures in Canada are also likely more severe than we think. But that means opportunities rather than despair. If we want people to become Christian, it’s up to those already there to get on with it. We have, as they say, some explaining to do. And explaining, delivering the greatest story ever told, should be a joy and not a burden. It’s in our hands, where it should be.