The church in recent decades has not been successful in the UK. The results shown below, although a little old now, are from one of many surveys that tell the same story – church attendance has been in decline for a long time.
In the latest UK census, 60% of the population identified themselves as Christian, yet typically only 5% attend church.
In my town, the leaders of the churches meet regularly to discuss matters of importance. This is seen as a success, and there are some noble initiatives that involve people from many churches working together: running a charity for the homeless, running food banks, helping people get out of debt, offering a friendship and flip-flops to late night-clubbers. This is excellent work, and if similar things are not happening in your town then you have some catching up to do! But we must wait and see if this good work makes a difference to the statistics above.
If a business saw sales steadily declining like church attendance, the management would be desperate to explore anything that might change this trend. A struggling business would go and talk with customers, and would work with key customers to improve the service that they provide. Innovative products would be developed and tried on the market. Similarly, one would expect the church to encourage any initiative that aims to connect with ordinary people.
However, in mature businesses and large institutions there will always be those in charge who will want to decide what goes ahead and what doesn’t. There will be procedures and processes that try to reduce risk. That’s fine if sales are good, but in difficult times it brings sluggish response and inertia allows the competition to steal the custom. In contrast, entrepreneurs see an opportunity in a market and act swiftly to see if they can make it a success. Sometimes they fail but other times a life-changing product emerges.
I have been involved in a number of initiatives that the church has not been ready to engage with, and I have met others who have been unable to pursue their passion because it did not match with their leader’s view. There is only so much discouragement that enthusiastic men and women can take before they give up trying. I reached a point where I realised that it was impossible for me to work within the constraints imposed by the institutional church. If I were to continue to try I would simply upset others and frustrate myself. Entrepreneurs don’t fit well in big business. However, I couldn’t give up trying to make God relevant to people today.
I wonder how many others simply give up and lose heart. If you have had similar experiences of feeling chained down and prevented from pursuing your passion, then be encouraged. Try again. Have a go. By yourself if needs be. If God – that essence of goodness, creator and sustainer of everything, supreme love – if God has given you a passion – don’t let human institutions stop you from pursuing it.
Resistance to change would be less of a problem if it weren’t for the statistics mentioned earlier. But given the state of church attendance, what is going wrong? In my experience, those in church circles simply don’t realize what the barriers that discourage interest in church.
To the 95% of the population who haven’t become immune to church, the activities offer little attraction. I suggest below three possible reasons why the church is unable to connect with the average man and woman in England.
1) the church today doesn’t offer a solid explanation of who and what God is.
Many Christians in the public arena portray God as a God of the supernatural. He will answer your prayers, but he isn’t involved in everyday life. As science continues to discover more about the universe, there is less and less that can requires supernatural intervention and more and more that appears to have a satisfactory secular explanation.
Church leaders are rarely specialists in science and are not well equipped to deal with, for example, the apparent conflict between evolution and Genesis. As science advances, outspoken atheists will claim that God is on the run, and use graphs like that above to support their case.
In the 11th century Anselm was trying to understand and explain what God must be like, and did not constrain God to the supernatural. In my view we need more of this today. People need to understand how God fits with the discoveries of science. We need to understand how to respond to TV programs like for instance Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life series. We need to show that a credible God is not just a God of the supernatural but a God of everything. We need to show that the universe is more than a material universe. I offer some thoughts on this elsewhere on this blog.
2) The church has diluted and distracted from the central message that Christ brought
In a rapidly changing world it is good to have something solid to hold on to. The Bible is often grasped as that solid thing. However, it seems to me that Christians have fallen in love with the Bible and turn backwards somersaults to try to justify that everything in it is completely accurate and that God must have had a reason for it. The Bible contains the Old Testament, and if you have a viewpoint that everything in the Bible is true then there are difficult implications. It says God hates homosexuality, but not why he does. He is a God of wrath and anger, commanding genocide, yet he is also love, and we are made in his image . Paul wrote letters that said a lot about who should do what in meetings 2000 years ago, and since his letters are in the Bible things like women priests and bishops are the issues of major importance. They are what we see church goers arguing about, and unfortunately they are not always gracious in the way they do it. All of this is a distraction.
The central message of Christianity can be found in the Gospels. You could throw away the rest of the Bible – indeed in times of explosive growth the gospel message was all there was. People need to hear what Jesus taught, not stories about who got swallowed by what whale.
3) The church insists on subjecting attendees to uncomfortable and embarrassing experiences.
Everyone ‘knows’ that good Christians have to go to church (which is not true by the way). So who outside the church would want to be a good Christian when it means:
Sit still and be quiet. Stand and sit to order. Enforced action songs. Waving flags. Amateur dramatics. Organ music. 300 year old songs, that everyone must join in (or at least pretend to). Weak coffee and embarrassing conversations. Cold. Hard seats that are too close together. Don’t ask questions. Don’t suggest anything might be different. Smile and pretend to be friendly even if you feel miserable.
Regular churchgoers put up with this and probably don’t notice anymore, but as I wrote in my book The Leap:
When I was much younger and recently married, I thought it would be nice to give my wife some sexy underwear – but how was I to get it? I braced myself and went into the ladies underwear shop. OK, I’m inside, but now what? It would seem perverted to be fondling ladies underwear. An assistant comes up, and I’m supposed to know what size and type of underwear I’m looking for. Do I want red or black? Silk? Lacy bits? Aaaaagh! – get me out of here!
That’s how I felt in church too, before I became a Christian. I look at non-Christians in christening parties and realise that that’s how they must be feeling too. The church environment can be very alien and uncomfortable.
The church needs to decide what the Sunday meeting is for. I was at a discussion group where we asked that question, and each of the people in the group had a different answer, including a strategic call to arms / instruction for the week, a time to meet other Christians, a time to quietly contemplate God, an ‘outreach’ event to invite friends to. I fear it can’t be a ‘one size fits all’, and so the church need to think carefully about what the Sunday service is. It’s worth reflecting that for example William Wilberforce was not acting under instruction from his church leader when he fought for the abolition of slavery, but I am sure he obtained spiritual support and encouragement from his church.
Finally, I am convinced that today as throughout history we need the many who stood up in a synagogue and read out: “He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free”