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Is Church decline the fault of evangelicals?

f95c90d264956ff78a638205b463686bLast week Mark Woods posted an intriguing article asking whether evangelicals are to blame for the decline in people claiming to be ‘religious’. He is responding to a new survey conducted on behalf of Linda Woodhead which shows that, for those under 40, ‘no religion’ is the new religion. In a strange way, this might be a reflection of just what evangelicals have claimed for some time.

During the last few years evangelicalism has become the dominant force in UK Christianity. One of its key distinctives is the need for the individual to choose to become a disciple of Jesus. For evangelicals, no one is born a Christian. It is a personal decision, to be marked in the lively and flourishing charismatic-type churches by baptism, the rite of initiation into the Church. Churches might have a “fringe” of people who attend parents and toddler groups and other social-type meetings – and they might even turn up to services occasionally – but they aren’t part of the “real” church unless they’re committed believers.

On this understanding, the reluctance of people to say that they are Christians is an inevitable part of the evangelical narrative: “We know we aren’t Christians, because you tell us we aren’t.”

Woods here brings to the rather two-dimensional sociological analysis the third dimension of theology. The hidden question underlying the Church of England’s ‘Reform and Renewal‘ programme is exactly this question: what is the church, and what does it mean to be a leader of this church? At a conference last week on ‘The Church in Crisis: panic or denial?’ Richard Bauckham addressed just this question. What are we here for as a church?


For the Church of England, as the established church, there has been the accretion of all sorts of things which are not essential to its identity as a church—including, we might suggest, a contribution to the definition of national identity as ‘English’. These things might be useful in certain contexts, but they are not what the church essentially is. Rather than being an innocuous purveyor of pomp and circumstance, theologically speaking the church is defined by its relationship with God. This might seems obvious but it is not always the case in practice in many of its discussions, including the discussions by Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown. So Bauckham four key understandings from the New Testament of what the church is.

1. The people of God.

This is the idea behind the New Testament language of ekklesia. This is a continuation of the language of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) used regarding Israel. The church is the renewed Israel in these end times. This term also has a background in Greek understandings of the democratic government of the city (polis), referring to the citizens’ assembly. In the New Testament it is the assembly—but of God’s people. It is the ekklesia of God. Most often it refers to the people who gather together in a particular place, even when they are not actually doing it. Implicit in this perspective is the reality that the church would not exist if God had not created it; 1 Peter 2.10 expresses this most clearly, where Peter notes (citing the OT) that those he writes to ‘once you were not a people’ until God formed them as a people by means of Jesus’ act of redemption.

2. The Temple of God

This kind of language is also found in 1 Peter 2.5, where Peter’s addressees are ‘living stones, a temple built by God’ but the language is also used explicitly in Paul, both in relation to believers corporately (1 Cor 3.16) and individually (1 Cor 6.19). But, springing from Jesus’ own claim to be the true temple (John 1.14, 2.21) and Paul’s theology of church as body of Christ, it underlies many other aspects of Paul’s thinking. The temple is the place where God promises that his presence will dwell; it is the place where you worship; where God is to be found.

There is a key challenge here: can we think of this idea of church as temple without thinking about church buildings? In the NT, it is an image of the people, not the buildings—and in fact, it is about people in contradistinction to buildings, and one building in particular. God is present wherever this people gather. God makes himself accessible more fully than he could possibly have done in the Jerusalem temple.

3. The Body of Christ

This is an idea that we do not find in the OT nor anywhere outside the Pauline letters. (I am convinced that is springs from Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road in Acts 9, and Jesus’ revelation that whatever is done to his followers is done to him. This notion is found, in other terms, in the gospels, particularly in Matthew 25 and in Johannine ideas of the disciples being ‘one’ with Jesus and being incorporated into him, e.g. in the image of the vine in John 15.) In the Corinthian correspondence, this idea is more about relationships with one another; in Eph 4.15–16 (and its rather startling metaphor of the body ‘growing up into’ the head, whatever we make of that) it is about our relationship with God. It is not concerned with the ‘divinisation’ of the church, but emphasising that this is where the risen and ascended Christ makes himself visible in the world.

4. Disciples of Jesus

As I have explored previously, this language is only used in gospels and Acts. It is an interesting puzzle to see this in only one part of the NT—but it is a pretty significant part, and so hard to ignore. Luke’s use of the term in Acts emphasises continuity between pre and post-Easter faith; much has changed, but not everything. If in the gospels, disciples are people who have spent time with Jesus himself, in Acts disciples are being who have spent time with disciples of Jesus, and then themselves become disciple-making disciples. This is, in effect, Luke’s way of expounding Matthew’s unique term matheteuo in Matt 28.19.

The language of ‘disciple(ship)’ (though the NT never uses the abstract noun) highlights personal commitment to a way of living. The church is a community of people who intentionally fashion their life after the example of Jesus. It is about living the whole of one’s life in the way that Jesus taught and exemplified.

Having outlined these four aspects, Bauckham then added a note of caution. The recurrent impulse in the Protestant tradition that we ought to be going back to NT in how we do everything. This is trying to have too much of a good thing. There are things about the church in NT which are historical and contextual. Some things took time; some things are unclear. They are instructive but they are not instructions. Nevertheless, these four things give us some important markers in our thinking about church and religion in England and the UK. They mean that some ways of thinking about numerical decline are alien to the NT—in particular, worry that it signals a reduction in the power of the institution, or concern about keeping show on the road. We should be concerned about numbers, but these four ideas clarify why: because we want people to come to faith in Jesus Christ.


This takes us back to the opening question: what are we to make of both the decline of ‘religion’ in the nation, and the parallel decline in church attendance? A friend of a friend posted last week on Facebook some sobering statistics:

By way of comparison, the English Football Premier League has an Average Weekly Attendance throughout the year of 264,300. The combined membership of all political parties in the UK is around 850,000 (which includes 180,000 who have joined Labour as part of the Corbyn surge), a figure which includes many who just pay a membership fee but don’t turn up to anything. While the direction of C of E church attendance is an issue to be concerned about, C of E weekly attendance is still something that dwarfs many other apparently thriving institutions.

In other words, we now live in a society that simple doesn’t opt in. Social media (amongst other things) has made us all into trenchant individualists.

The analysis of Woodhead and Brown doesn’t appear to pay any attention to this—and it collapses any theological perspective under the weight of (naive) sociological concern. Thus Brown can conclude:

But at the same time as people have been growing less religious, the Church of England has been growing more religious: more exclusive, more of a club for self-conscious believers, prouder of being out of step with the people it once served…Under those circumstances, it’s not really surprising that no religion has become the new religion, while “religion” has become something that other people do. The interesting question is whether Christianity in this country can ever recover, or whether some kind of organised humanism could actually replace it.

In this approach, Christianity is simply an aggregate expression of whatever the nation happens to believe—a hard definition to justify on any set of assumptions.

Even Mark Woods analysis is in danger of collapsing three distinct but related issues:

  1. Should the Christian church have a set of core, distinctive beliefs that set it apart from wider culture?
  2. Should the Christian church be engaged in social and communal activity in the society around it?
  3. Should the actual gatherings of people as church include a broad fringe of the sympathetic, the supporting or the inquisitive rather than being sharply defined by affirmation of belief?

The sociological approach answers these questions ‘No, yes, yes.’ Some conservative churches answer ‘Yes, no, no’—they are clear about the gospel, clear about the need for commitment, and have often seen social involvement as an unwanted distraction from ‘proclaiming the gospel.’ Many of the new churches have changed this to ‘Yes, yes, maybe’, as they have added social action to an otherwise ‘conservative’ theological outlook—but still emphasise the importance of commitment and discipleship. Historically, the Church of England has often answered ‘Maybe, maybe, no’—they have been reluctant to spell out core beliefs, often not very intentional about active social engagement, but very relaxed about who turns up and why. As an evangelical Anglican, my answer is ‘Yes, yes, yes’—historically, the Church has at times been very clear about what it believes; there is a compelling argument for expressing the gospel in action as well as words; and people need time and space to explore faith if the church is to grow or be effective.

But without answering ‘yes’ to the first question, and answering it along the lines that Richard Bauckham suggests, it is difficult to see in what way we are talking about ‘church’ at all.


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51 Responses to Is Church decline the fault of evangelicals?

  1. Peter January 25, 2016 at 9:37 am #

    Spot on, Ian!

    • Ian Paul January 25, 2016 at 9:45 am #

      As someone said on Facebook, why are these sorts of questions not asked of ‘liberals’…?

  2. steve hellyer January 25, 2016 at 9:38 am #

    Hi Ian, interesting – just a tiddly point here: in the three numbered possibilities you give near the end, point 3.has two different scenarios (with an ‘or’ between) so it wouldn’t be immediately obvious which your ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is referring to with regard to point 3.. Does that make sense or am I being a bit sleepy on Monday morning?

    • Ian Paul January 25, 2016 at 9:43 am #

      Thanks, Steve—you are quite right. The result of some last-minute revision! Now corrected. So, yes, I do believe in churches having a fringe…

  3. Phill January 25, 2016 at 9:49 am #

    Thanks Ian. Although not directly related to the understanding of church, I saw an interesting article this morning with some statistics:

    http://www.millennialevangelical.com/adapt-and-die-liberal-churches-accept-everyone-still-decline/

    It seems like the statistics agree that church decline is not the fault of evangelicals, strangely enough.

    • Pete J January 25, 2016 at 1:09 pm #

      Those are results from America though! I’m not saying I disagree with you, but I think “cause” is difficult to obtain from just those raw numbers.

      For example I can envisage a scenario where people move from mainstream to evangelical and not everyone survives the evangelicals! The total is still going down.

      I think it is a shame this discussion is again couched in evangelicals v liberals language because I suspect that we could all learn a lot.

      Clearly a lot of people have left the church in the uk.

      The minister at my church started his sermon this week by saying the church was being challenged by secularisation. He said the difference between church and the world should be that all are welcome in the church. He thought that the reason most people his age (around 70 I think) went to Sunday school but now don’t go to church is that somebody told them at some point they weren’t welcome. He linked this to the trend in some places to replace grace with legalism

      I don’t think that is the only reason people don’t go to church but it is a reason that is easily fixed and it is a reason that can easily be missed in the endless and stupid war between conservatives and liberals

      • Ian Paul January 25, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

        ‘the difference between church and the world should be that all are welcome in the church.’ Really? So all are not welcome at Costa Coffee?

        • Andrew Godsall January 25, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

          I think you will find that ultimately you are only welcome at Costa Coffee if you want to buy something, or someone is buying it for you aren’t you? Having money is a pre-condition for being welcome at Costa.

          • David Shepherd January 27, 2016 at 6:42 am #

            http://youtu.be/D7_dZTrjw9I

          • Pete J January 27, 2016 at 7:15 am #

            That’s brilliant David!

            I think most churches could learn a lot from considering what attendance is like from a new person’s point of view

        • Pete J January 25, 2016 at 7:23 pm #

          Maybe Costa Coffee are operating on Christian principles!

  4. Ali Campbell January 25, 2016 at 9:53 am #

    Agree, yes, yes and yes. Creasy Dean in “Almost Christian” (2010) nails it when she suggests that we reap what we have sown as the Gospel. There are churches that ask little or nothing, don’t present the claims of Christ or give people a chance to choose to follow. We decline because we preach “it doesn’t really matter”. While I agree with Bauckham, I would add a wider dimension where the Church is one. It is alluded to in the Body of Christ reflections, but we continue to decline, in part, due to our lack of unity. We are all one in Christ – and Jesus knew this would be our greatest challenge . . . not for nothing does the prayer in John 17 focus on this. The Church is One! We re-discover that and who knows what might happen 🙂

    • Richard January 26, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

      Although it is interesting in the light of your post the other week about raising children in the faith how Linda compares the Coe to Norway national church and she suggests that reason they are not seeing such decline is because they have tracked some the societital changes reflecting theologically on the context and adapting liberal theology

  5. Chris Lowdon January 25, 2016 at 10:26 am #

    As one broadly on the liberal Catholic wing of the church, I would also answer all three questions at the end in the affirmative, which may say more about being Anglican than about being Church. And now I had to go to a meeting to discuss how we are going to raise the funds to repair the church tower, the umpteenth meeting I have had on this subject in the last two years, because for Heritage and Civic reasons, I am not allowed to simply let it decay and fall down. That, it seems to me, tells you everything you need to know about the reasons for Church of England decline while the non-buildings centered (evangelical) churches in my parish are thriving.

    • Ian Paul January 26, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

      That’s interesting Chris. And would you agree with the four dimensions of Church delineated here?

  6. Ken Cameron January 25, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    25.1.2016

    I thought that Ian Paul’s article ‘ Is Church decline the fault of evangelicals ? ‘ was interesting and perceptive.

    Some years ago, I made friends with an Armenian priest in Jerusalem – I asked him when he became a Christian, he laughed. He explained that Armenia was the first European country to become Christian and that all Armenians are born Christians. We agreed to differ about conversion. Jesus did not leave instructions about the creation of the church instead he taught his disciples and others from the Hebrew Scriptures, which he himself had inspired as the Living Word. During the 1-3 centuries, Jewish believers often met in synagogues and also as groups of Christians ( meetings that came to be known as churches ). The Gospels and the later writings of Peter, Paul and others show that Jesus intended to begin a mass movement called ‘The Way’ – its followers were committed to following the example and teachings of Jesus within the understanding of being ‘born again ‘ (as we say today) and so submitted to his reign and rule through grace.

    Evangelism in its modern sense can be superficial and unproductive. For example, if a person makes a committment to Jesus by coming forward at a mass meeting or even in a small gathering that in itself may be a dead end. It is essential that a new convert should be discipled and mentored meaning that he or she needs to be linked to a mature Christian for say, 2 years.

    The Church is the Body of the Messiah with Jesus at its head. This is not quite the same as an organisation with Bishops, Superintendents, Pastors, and those sitting in the pews. The NT does discuss church structures but those structures and offices are not in themselves the church. A large group of people need leadership and some kind of rule system in order to work fruitfully for the common good.

    The people of God are firstly the Jews, his first born son; they receive the double portion. The Lord has hindered them with ‘ a veil over their eyes ‘ in order that the Gospel may go out to all the world – which it now has. Paul stated that all Israel will be saved, and that is the truth. Christians need to show some humility because we are in second place although equally loved by the Father. We need to remember that the Bible is firstly an eastern book for an eastern people and so reliance of say the english of the King James Version causes us to fall short. All Christian teaching should be informed through the Hebraic lens. For instance the name above all other names is not Jesus ( a name that did not exist in the Bible times nor is it Yeshua, his birth name. Jews do not refer to the name of God fthrough respect. His name (HaShem = The Name) is Yahweh – no one else has that name. This is the name of Jesus that was given to Jesus ( Phil 2 5-11 ). If you read those verses carefully, you will see that they are an unequivocal declaration that Jesus is God Almighty.

    When Jesus returns, he will reign in Jerusalem from a Temple that has yet to be built. Incidentally, there is a school of academic Muslim thought, that repudiates any claim to the Temple Mount by Islam. The Muslim presence on the Temple Mount is historically about politics and domination.

    The reason for church decline in the UK can be summed up in the phrase, ‘in the world and of it’. That is the lamentable status of many so called churches in 2016. Have you ever been to a church where the preacher turned to the congregation and explained that if you are not ‘born again’, you will burn in hell fire for ever ? Unlikely. Historically, many heard a Bible thumping sermon and were frightened into the Kingdom, the end justified the means. Just not PC for today’s sophisticated folk who like to have many options if not escape routes.

    The church should change its presentation in every generation in order to make the Gospel attractive and understandable to the unsaved but that must not include editing the Bible as an act of appeasement.

    There have always been problems in human society from Cain and Abel to today however it is arguable that the position is now acute, particularly in the sense that every day is obviously a day nearer the End which includes the advent of the Anti Messiah as described in Revelation. Abortion, homosexuality, homosexual marriage, drug taking, drunkeness, divorce, break ups between unmarried parents, single parent families, the absence of a male role model for many children. All of this adds up to the destruction of family life and sheer licence. Who is behind these developments and who is gaining ground as western society becomes more like Sodom ?

    Yes, satan knows that if the family is destroyed then God’s plan will be thwarted.

    However the good news is that satan was defeated on the Cross and ultimatey, we win ! Before we get there, we will experience more pain especially if the denominational churches continue to pander to the ways of this world. Within this bleak assessment, it is also true that there are lively, spirit filled churches and fellowships but they are few and far between.

    Finally as to the three questions posed at the end of the article, the answer is yes, yes, yes … as qualified above.

    Ken Cameron

    • Andrew Godsall January 25, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

      Ken you said: “Have you ever been to a church where the preacher turned to the congregation and explained that if you are not ‘born again’, you will burn in hell fire for ever ?”

      Sadly, I have. The problem, Ken, is that this explanation is simply not true.

      • Pete J January 25, 2016 at 7:32 pm #

        Andrew – I agree. We have a God of love, not of hate. I wonder if this style of sermon has ever won any soul. Fear is a powerful motivator, but love is more genuine.

  7. Tim Jackson January 25, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    Towards the end of the article, you write: “Many of the new churches have changed this to ‘No, yes, maybe’.”
    Can you be clearer about who/what these “new churches” are? From my, probably very limited, experience they would want to say ‘Yes’ to point 1. Quite often new churches form because they are in an area where the established (‘old’) churches don’t “have a set of core, distinctive beliefs” or, if they do, you wouldn’t really notice them …

    • Ian Paul January 26, 2016 at 6:33 pm #

      Thanks Tim. I realise that was not very clear, so have re-written and expanded it. Hope it makes more sense now!

  8. Pete J January 25, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

    I think

    yes – but these should be genuine christian beliefs and not just being different for the sake of being different.

    Yes

    Yes – it should be very rare indeed (maybe if anothers safety is in danger) that anyone is turned away from church

  9. Tricia January 25, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    I think a good analogy is the ethos of the Northumbria Community. It is likened to a dance which is continuous. The members of the community are always leading and generating the dance, but anyone can step in and join the dance, leave or leave and return or become a leader of the dance. A local church can model this welcome.

  10. Greg Smith January 25, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

    “The sociological approach answers these questions ‘No, yes, yes”… That’s not fair to sociology…I’m a sociologist and I have regular debates with Linda Woodhead on just this issue…and I agree for both sociological and theological reasons that the answer should be 3 yesses,

    While it is true that the ethos of the age is “non-joining” there is plenty of evidence that high commitment churches are more vibrant and more likely to be self sustaining and self replicating. The danger is that by setting up high boundary fences of belief and morality and answering 2 and/or 3 “no” they will fail to connect at all with wider society… and then just become an inward looking sect.. Evangelical churches in the CofE are well placed…and in many parishes especially in UPAs etc. do the job well.. when everybody else has fled… or is just passing through.. I’m not so sure about suburban or rurual parishes though.

    But there are others as well (locally our Free Methodists and some of the new churches are yes, yes, yes groups and flourish).. and pluralism is healthy. (market competition perhaps?) What I find so irritating about these debates is that they all seem stuck in an established church paradigm.. The effortless superiority of the CofE seems to dominate the narrative, with an occasional sideways look to the RCs. We need to look at the whole wider ecology of religion in society.. not just individual congrgations or denominations.. I try to do this in my paper here http://gregsmith.synthasite.com/resources/Reassembling%20the%20church%20article.pdf

    • Ian Paul January 25, 2016 at 2:13 pm #

      Greg, that’s really interesting—thanks for commenting.

      I was interested in your debate about this with Linda Woodhead. I am guessing you disagree with this? I think you are right—my comment was shorthand, and in fact I say so on the earlier post that I linked to. The work of Rodney Stark demonstrates that movements with *distinctive* values have historically made more impact and grown greater followings.

      I don’t really understand why people are at all influenced by Woodhead and Brown. The idea that the only way to draw people is to be just like them is not a lot more than a counsel of despair.

      I should say that I don’t intend at any point to exude effortless superiority. Here in Nottingham, the largest and most influential churches are non-Anglican, and Anglican (including evangelical) churches overall are not doing all that well.

      • SeekTruthFromFacts January 25, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

        It’s been claimed that the relative strength of Nonconformity in the East Midlands can be traced all the way back to the Lollards. I think it was Diarmaid MacCulloch, but I can’t remember for sure.

  11. Tim Jackson January 25, 2016 at 4:35 pm #

    Another thought about this, with a rural perspective.
    I remembered this article, about rural fresh expressions of church (https://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/guide/examples/rural) – scroll halfway down the page to the ‘Things to keep in mind’ heading and look at the second point.
    I wonder what anyone else thinks?

    • SeekTruthFromFacts January 25, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

      That link leads to thought-provoking advice; thank you, Tim.

  12. James Byron January 25, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

    “Should the Christian church have a set of core, distinctive beliefs that set it apart from wider culture?”

    Surely there’s no default answer to this? — it depends on the beliefs held by wider culture. In Christendom, you’d expect churches and culture to cohere; in pluralist societies, it’ll vary, depending on the church in question, and its theology.

    • Ian Paul January 26, 2016 at 6:34 pm #

      Yes, but some appear to think the answer should always be ‘No’.

      • Andrew January 27, 2016 at 5:26 am #

        I suspect James’ reading depends on whether you think “set it apart from wider culture” is a goal or a consequence. Being different for the sake of being different is not a virtue. Neither is being the same for the sake of being the same.

        The Christian church should have a core set of beliefs which are universal, in that they hold irrespective of culture and across all cultures. But it is good for the local church to be informed by the surrounding culture, and it is also good for the surrounding culture to be transformed by the local church. But if there is no distinction between Christian and non-Christian then the church has been assimilated to the point it is no longer Christian (or perhaps, rarely, everyone is Christian and the church needs to expand its mission field).

  13. Rhys Lewis January 25, 2016 at 9:12 pm #

    I grew up in a working class family from East London in the 50s and 60s. Apart from a bit of Sunday School the churches had no real foothold in our large family. Then, apart from the wholly uninspiring assemblies at school (I liked singing so the hymns were a bonus) Christianity had hardly any significant presence among the hundred and twenty boys in my year. I went on to teach in a school of a thousand students – some years we could muster three for the Christian Union, sometimes up to ten. I often feel that this conversation about decline is being had by people who were brought up in the church and who thereby gained a quite unrealistic impression of the significance of the church in the eyes of the population as a whole for the last 60 years. i realise this doesn’t help much with the questions you’re raising about going forward but it surely would be helpful to get the baseline right.

    • Ian Paul January 26, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

      Thanks Rhys, that is interesting. And there have surely been many times when the church failed to reach significant sections of society.

      But the analysis cited is based on overall numbers in the UK or England, rather than anyone’s individual experience. Overall numerical decline is a reality, and (as Andrew Brown himself points out below) needs some kind of explanation.

  14. Andrew Brown January 25, 2016 at 10:18 pm #

    I’d imagine one reason why people find Woodhead and Brown convincing is that their thesis actually does something to explain the observed facts. The theory that the C of E would be in great shape if it weren’t for all the liberals (which seems to underlie your arguments) requires one to ignore the way in which attendance and allegiance have both collapsed in the last thirty years, a period in which the evangelical influence has steadily grown.

    As for the idea that “The only way to draw people in is to be a lot more like them” — this misrepresents our position entirely and it also misunderstands the problem. What did for Church attendance in this country is not that people were not drawn in: it is that they walked out, or died without transmitting the habit of faith to their children.

    • Ian Paul January 26, 2016 at 6:54 pm #

      Andrew, thanks very much for taking the trouble to comment—I appreciate it. Several things to note.

      First, you final observation is not, to my knowledge, supported by the evidence. There is little or no suggestion in numerical analysis that people have walked out—at least, not any more than they have in the past. In rural areas (where people cannot ‘shop around’) numbers have been declining more slowly than in urban areas. But in urban areas, if people take offence at one tradition, they can find a home easily enough in another. The stats do support the idea that faith has not been passed on to the next generation, but that does indeed support the idea that ‘people were not drawn in.’

      Second, I am curious that ‘we should become more like culture’ is not part of what you are arguing. In your Guardian piece, I quote your closing comments:

      ‘But at the same time as people have been growing less religious, the Church of England has been growing more religious: more exclusive, more of a club for self-conscious believers, prouder of being out of step with the people it once served…’

      The strong implication here is that the issue is the distance between church and culture, and you appear to think that the widening gap is both a practical problem and a bad thing in principle. The remedy must surely then be to close the gap—i.e. for the church to become ‘less religious’. That is why I cited Bauckham in his challenge to go ‘back to basics’ in understanding what the church is for. If it should, instead, become ‘less religious’, then what is the Church? I am not sure whether I have simply misread this, or whether you intended to say it differently. But when I have read Linda Woodhead, I have similarly been given the strong impression that the Church should not be so out of step with contemporary culture, but should remove barriers to belief by dropping objections to things that ‘most people’ find acceptable. (Most people would find it odd to think that an obscure Jew 2,000 years ago uniquely reveals to us the truth about God, so I am not sure where that leaves you…)

      Third, your observations are certainly not the only way to explain the facts, as Greg Smith helpfully points out above. And of course Rodney Stark, a sociologist, would take an 180-degree opposite view about the dynamics of faith communities as they relate to surrounding culture. There is widespread support for the idea that religious groups with high thresholds of commitment and belief actual fare much better in times of social transition than groups with lower such thresholds—and the data for the C of E supports that overall. As someone has said elsewhere ‘We are not seeing the death of Christianity, but we are seeing the death of nominal Christianity.’

      Fourth (and I am particularly open to correction here) you and Linda appear to look primarily at issues internal to the Church to explain the decline of both attendance and religious belief. But I wonder whether better explanations should actually be found in society. Linda has recently drawn attention to the divide at age 40. It is worth then asking what happened 40 years ago—or perhaps 30, as this boundary generation were coming into their teen years—in society. as I recall it, there was a sudden and seismic shift in Western culture which might explain a lot.

      • Andrew Godsall January 27, 2016 at 9:17 am #

        “It is worth then asking what happened 40 years ago—or perhaps 30, as this boundary generation were coming into their teen years—in society. as I recall it, there was a sudden and seismic shift in Western culture which might explain a lot.”

        The seismic shift was the digital revolution. Is that what you are thinking about? Or the opening up of Eastern European boundaries? I was working in the BBC World Service at the time and both of those things were seismic for our work and by far the most significant in Western Culture. Or are you thinking of something else?

        • Ian Paul January 27, 2016 at 9:26 am #

          No, the seismic shift was the introduction of neo-liberalism, the triumph of free-market capitalism and consumerism as the unquestioned source of salvation.

          ‘Loadsamoney’!

          It is this that, more than anything else, has undermined notions of commitment and discipleship.

          • Andrew Godsall January 27, 2016 at 10:17 am #

            Ah, we have some good agreement at last Ian! I agree that Thatcher and Reagan have a great deal to answer for in our part of the West…….
            But I think the digital revolution was a bit more sudden and has probably done more to foster the notion of individualism.

          • Ian Paul January 27, 2016 at 10:22 am #

            But the digital revolution couldn’t really have happened without neo-liberalism, since tech companies require the accumulation of capital which is only possible in such economic times. And they then monopolise both economic and cultural capital.

        • Ian Paul January 27, 2016 at 10:18 am #

          (For some reason I am now tempted to describe the individualism delivered by digital technology as the whore that rides the beast of economic neoliberalism. But that gets us into a whole other discussion…)

          • Pete J January 27, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

            I think you are right. This cultural change has also caused many younger people to not have ownership of the geographical community they live in* which is what the parish system is based on. It has also lead to much less “free time”

            *a large number of working age people have had to move at least once for work and another large number work a long way from where their partner works. Another large number of people have had to move away from the communities in which they were raised because of prohibitive housing costs.

      • Andrew Brown January 31, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

        Very short:
        1) agree that stats are unequivocal that faith, whether nominal or otherwise, is not passed on to next generation among Christians. 40% retention rate in Linda’s newest figures, vs 95% for “no religion”. But there is also a lot of evidence that people stop going to church — basically, from attendance figures. Even the oldest cohorts there were once part of of a cohort in which churchgoing was much more widespread than it is among their contemporaries today.

        2) The understanding that the real church is the core of committed self-conscious attenders has always been present i the C of E but it has also always been contested. It is, sociologically speaking, the division between “church” and “sect”. Well within living memory, the C of E was run on the basis that it ought not to be a “sect”. This has changed. And I would say that a religious group which transforms itself from “church” to “sect” has become something entirely different as well as very much smaller. Less “religious” is another way of saying “less of a sect and more of a church”. I’m putting both terms in scare quotes because I don’t want either to seem prejudicial.
        A “church” has contact with the vast majority of its members at festivals and hatch/match/dispatch rituals. Those are the places where it needs to keep in touch with the moral sense of the society around it. The long resistance to the remarriage of divorced people (something no one now has a serious problem with) and to women priests (ditto) and to openly gay people (changing more slowly, but changing) — the demands for commitment before baptism — these things all tended to make the official C of E position look wrong and immoral to the peripheral and occasional members. If you’re going to change at all, and I think that evangelical and mainstream opinion has changed irrevocably on the first two, then it would be best to have changed quickly and gracefully. In that sense the official teaching should have kept abreast of public feeling. Nothing more silly than fighting to the penultimate ditch.

        3) Stark seems to be arguing that “sects” weather big social changes better than “churches” and that may be true. It’s also irrelevant. At the start of this period the C of E was not and did not want to be a “sect”. Arguing that it should have been one all along doesn’t solve the problem that, as a “church”, it faced.

        4) I think that along with David Thurfjell in his work on Sweden we’d say that developments inside and outside the established church combined to the effects we see. The great shift in culture was essentially the collapse of traditional authority, or of the culture of the old imperial and militaristic state. That’s not coming back. Some institutions weathered it much better than others. The army did well. The law did well. The Church did it very badly. The monarchy wobbled under Diana but seems once more to be OK at least for the moment.

        • Andrew Brown January 31, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

          “very short” haha. Sorry.

  15. Philippe Lafon January 26, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

    Very good article, thank you. Being part of a yes, yes, yes church (and movement, Newfrontiers), I have to agree with what you say here.

    You say “Bauckham then added a note of caution. The recurrent impulse in the Protestant tradition that we ought to be going back to NT in how we do everything. This is trying to have too much of a good thing. There are things about the church in NT which are historical and contextual. Some things took time; some things are unclear. They are instructive but they are not instructions.” I’d love to know what you have in mind here. How can we have “too much of a good thing” when we try and emulate the NT?

  16. Deborah Salmon January 26, 2016 at 5:35 pm #

    I do know there are many reasons why people have stopped coming to church and each answer will be individual. We have a lovely (small but growing) congregation! One of the things that are church do well is be committed to one another, sharing lives, difficult times, joys celebrations, listening, and being there! I remember Russ Parker saying listening is one of the best healing things to do and many of our folks do!
    A lovely lady who has joined us recently said she walked through the doors and felt ” a big hug” before anyone had even really spoken to her. Another gentleman recently said the same. I know some of the reasons for church decline and probably cant answer this question but i do know where the presence of the lord is people find life 🙂

  17. Chris Green January 27, 2016 at 8:07 am #

    Thank you, Ian – a really stimulating respond to the Woodhouse/Brown theses, which I equally find implausible. It’s merely a longer version of the theme on finds on various liberal websites, that its the wretched conservatives holding us back from the major cultural breakthrough, and the one on the ground that larger (evangelical) churches only flourish by sucking the oxygen out of everyone else’s atmosphere.

    And of course church planting is therefore an anathema because it multiplies the problem. I often go back to that scene in Jurassic Park, where Jeff Goldblum realises that not only are the dinosaurs still alive – they’re breeding.

    I am, though, intrigued, by RB’s selection of those four elements. The first is surely right, although the heading should be (as the paragraph makes clear), ‘The People of God, Gathered’, as it’s that last word which is fundamental to our Christian experience. Of all the NT descriptions of ‘church’, ‘church/ekklesia’ stands out for not being a metaphor, but a straight and factual description.

    But at least two other images could claim to be on that list as most significant. One would be God’s flock, with its leaders being (under)shepherds, feeding, leading, and guarding the sheep from ever-present wolves, and the other might be the Bride of Christ, waiting and keeping herself pure.. Either of those would knock off that problematic ‘disciples’ category: it’s a true category, but not of a ‘gathered’ people, and therefore not truly a description of ‘church’, only of ‘Christians.’

    • Ian Paul January 27, 2016 at 8:59 am #

      Chris, thanks for the comments here. And thanks for reflections on the four-fold exposition of the Church.

      On the church ‘gathered’, I think I agree with Richard’s qualification here. Although the most common (and earliest?) use of this is describing the people as they gather together, but the time goes beyond that. So most of the uses in e.g. Romans and 1 Cor suggest an actual gathering, but in 1 Cor 10.32 and 1 Cor 12.28 there is a sense of a more ‘abstract’ and universal sense. See also Gal 1.13. This reaches full expression in Ephesians, and is of course one of the reasons why people consider Ephesians post-Pauline. This is clearly *not* a ‘factual description’ of people gathering together in one place.

      On the second question, again I am not sure the text supports your assertion. I agree with you that ‘flock’ and ‘bride’ are important images. But they are not nearly as significant (at least numerically) in the NT as the others. ‘Disciples’ occurs 233 times in the NT; for that reason alone it would be hard not to consider it as of first importance. And read in context, it is certainly not about ‘individuals’. No-one in first century Judaism could think of the term apart from connection a. with the master (rabbi) and therefore b. with others who had gathered around. Culturally, it is a collective term.

  18. Chris Green January 27, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    I don’t think I’d go with the early/late axis, as so much that there are two poles: an earthly, local gathering, and a heavenly gathering, of which the local is an expression. The heavenly picture *is* a gathering. That tracks across all the data, whatever its putative date Both have ‘gathering’ in their essential nature – and I would argue that all the examples you cite are examples of the former (Gal 1 being a reference to the Jerusalem assembly). All the NT refs to ‘church’ are best explained as one of those two gatherings (and there are probably only 4 or so in the ‘heavenly’ sense) The only possible NT exception to that bipolarity is Acts 9:31, and even there I think it is most plausible to take is as a backward reference to the Jerusalem assembly which has been scattered, against its essential nature, by Saul in Acts 8, and whose story is still being told at that point.

    I’d defend ‘shepherd/sheep’ not so much by numerical appearance as by spread: OT (Law, Psalms and Prophets), and NT (all four gospels, Acts, Pauline, Petrine and Johannine material).There are also a range of related secondary images (under shepherd, wolf, gate) which expand the idea’s centrality.

    I agree that rabbi/disciple is implicitly a gathered term (although one can still be a disciple on one’s own, so it is a broader concept) but if you want to go for a collective term like that a much better title to explore is Messiah, which necessarily involves a messianic people (in Christ) Alternatively the famous Prophet/priest/king triad necessarily involved people – and all four of those are explicitly followed through the corpus.

    This is fun. Can I self-advertise? I wrote the volume on the Church for the Bible Speaks Today series, available at all the usual retailers…

  19. AKMA January 27, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    Just a note to say that “disciples” has certainly grown into the sense that you describe here, Ian, but its conventional meaning for ordinary usage in Greek wold have been for “students” (or “followers” in the sense of “learning from”, not just “trooping around after”). In context, this will surely have included “modelling life upon…”, but it’s worth underscoring that one of the presuppositions of the terminology of “disciples” involves the churches’ role in teaching, something the church has not been fully committed to in all circumstances (though evangelical churches often provide a helpful, and healthful, counterexample).

    • Pete J January 29, 2016 at 7:20 am #

      I think that very much depends on the church – a lot of modern evangelical churches are all about the worship, whereas there is a lot of good preaching in churches that would not consider themselves evangelical.

  20. JoM January 27, 2016 at 6:15 pm #

    I speak as a fringe individual.Most of my friends are similar to me, so I perceive the fringe to be the silent majority. We may very well tick the “no religion” box on census day, but still we go to Church for weddings, midnight mass and funerals. Vestigial or otherwise we have reverence for the teachings of Jesus, we try to love thy neighbour. Some of us affirm belief in God, many of us exist on a spectrum of agnosticism although few of us are outright atheists. Despite doubt, we see Christianity as an essential foundation of our society. We see it as a bulwark against the nihilistic, utilitarian, subjective and frankly bleak moral relativism of secular humanism and we see it as the only viable bulwark against the onslaught of militant Islam.

    I believe people like me number millions, and we are all to play for.

    I think we would be impressed if the Church spoke up. If it advocated practical Christianity. Charity, love thy neighbour, turn the other cheek, these are ideals few people would disagree with and they aren’t plucked out of thin air or the result of simple humanity, but people are taking them for granted and assuming they can exist forever unchanchanged in the absence of Christianity. It is time for the Church to lay claim to these, but I cannot honestly remember the last time I heard a senior CoE cleric simply and publicly state that these are the eternal values for which they stand!

    Maybe the Media does the Church no favours, I don’t know, but what I do know is that when others vying for the public soul open their mouths nobody is left in any doubt what they believe in. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins, or the NSS, I’m even talking about Islamists (although thankfully most reject them).

    We should not, for example, have an Archbishop conveying his own doubts about God after the Paris attacks. There is a great deal of apologetics and theology rationalising the presence of God at such times, and the Church should not be afraid to trust the logic of arguments developed over centuries by some of the greatest thinkers on the human condition ever.

    Don’t you believe that if you can lay the foundation, then the Holy Spirit can do its work? Well try making the foundation simple, clear and worldly, and by worldly I mean practical – things that the average man can understand and aspire to – Love thy neighbour, love strangers, love God. The basic covenant of Abraham. This would be a start.

  21. Sarah Gundry January 27, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

    If we compare numbers in the 19th C and 20thC, memberships in general are in decline in the UK. There are fewer people attending football matches (due to high cost of tickets and health & safety regs); there are fewer members of trade unions, cycling and hill walking clubs, etc. The need to fill workers’ leisure time as part of the socialist work ethic is in decline and spare time is filled with television. The WI, Scouts, Boys’ Brigade, youth clubs etc. are all in decline, due a lack of volunteer leaders, not keeping in step with current interests and parents believing that paid for after school activities are better quality and safer (child protection issue), than free or cheap activities where the kids cannot gain nationally recognised accreditation e.g. judo, ballet, tennis, swimming, football, cricket, piano, tutoring, etc..
    The church has to keep up with changes in parental aspirations, young people’s interests, and play a supportive role in family needs. It needs to keep up with young adults’ interests and needs, as well as those of middle aged singles, gay couples, married couples without children, retired couples and singles, etc..
    Only if the practical needs are being met and reflected in teaching.
    Not all young people want a loud band playing tune based on five notes and to express their love for God by waving their hands in the air demonstratively, with the repeated verses (Incase God hadn’t heard them the first time!). They think that they have no rituals, but standing to singing three or four loud upbeat songs with hands in the air, then sitting to pray prayer, a couple of quiet songs then a bible reading followed by a talk, followed by more quiet songs which gradually get louder (while prayer ministry is offered) before the end of the service.
    Some young folk love traditional church music, and the rituals of the CofE, because they want their religious experience to be different from the music they listen to day to day. They want quiet and space to think and hence they choose that kind of church.
    But as Ian Paul points out, the trend or fashion for young people is to say that they have no religion. That is not to say that they are generally happy for priests or vicars to pray for them, if they are in hospital (personal anecdotal experience of a year as an in-patient in hospital) or on a night out and meet up with the Street Pastor Team; and young people will pray if they are in trouble or someone they care about deeply is in trouble – so even though they “say” they have no religion, but when push comes to shove, they do, even if it’s not our evangelical or trad CofE version!

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