We stand at the greatest moment of opportunity for the church since the Second World War[i]. However, recent church PR hasn’t been good. The Church of England’s high profile deliberations over the issues of women bishops and same-sex unions, (whatever our personal convictions on the matters), are not what any of us wish the church to be known for. What’s next for the body of Christ in the UK?
We’re in what some commentators call post-Christendom[ii]. In the past, our great-grandparents went to church, knew the Christmas story, and could recall a good number of the Ten Commandments. Most British people were confessedly religious, if not necessarily personally converted.
Today, if you interview ten people you’ll hear eleven spiritualities. It’s a pseudo-god marketplace, like ancient Athens all over again. Meanwhile, many people perceive Christianity to be boring, irrelevant and untrue[iii]. This is actually an unprecedented opportunity, because the incoming generation of adults regards most things to be ultimately boring, irrelevant and untrue. There are so many options, so many facets of choice, that it’s difficult to choose a cereal let alone come to a worldview. Meanwhile, the traditional idols of materialism, health, and prosperity have fallen yet again, which is of course nothing new under the sun.
The church, often still beholden to an Enlightenment understanding of both the world and its own role, is a little disoriented. The ‘decade of evangelism’, the 90s, saw us lose a million people. More recently, an EA study of Christian beliefs found that 57% of those surveyed felt ‘I can share the Gospel well enough without needing to use words’. (One wonders whether the expression of this comparatively simple sentiment was uttered in non-verbal irony by even a single respondent).
Many have to come believe that the gospel as a message can be demonstrated but not fully communicated without words. The very thing we need to do most right now is that deeply unfashionable thing—talk. Us Brits are a reserved people, often going to extraneous lengths simply to avoid conflict; it’s why we queue. From the pulpit, we are generally taught that listening is always to be preferred to speaking. Besides, even a foolish man is thought to be wise if he doesn’t say anything (Proverbs 17.28).
The future of the church is dependent, however, on our speaking (Romans 10.14-15).
Our culture perceives Christian thinking as outdated moralism. It might not be what we are saying, but it is certainly what a lot of people are hearing. Without intending it, we mostly sound like the ‘older brother’ of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-29).
Loving and speaking
In communicating the Good News of what God has done in Jesus, we are guilty of detaching an otherwise accurate message of the atonement so utterly from the everyday vernacular and the experience of normal people that it is rendered incomprehensible. Many in the UK today hold misconceptions (about God, the church and Jesus) which can only be dispelled by hearing the Gospel clearly in ways which they can simply understand. People do need to be loved, included, cared for, tolerated, and listened to—but someone also needs to speak.
We have an unparalleled opportunity to bring the Gospel to bear on the things people are already talking about, not the things we think they should be talking about. In the past, the difference between the Gospel and licentiousness was made unavoidably clear. People know full well, perhaps too well, that Christians regularly take certain moral stances on a number of high-profile issues. Today, we need to drive an enormous wedge between the Gospel and moralism. In the perceptions of our nation, they are so close as to be often indistinguishable.
Who do we want to be?
Contemporary Brits want to be healthy, wealthy, happy, secure, popular, and employed. The Gospel has all manner of things to say to these desires, because Jesus is the fulfilment of all the things we want, even if we don’t realise it. He is the greater exponent—the only exemplar—of all the things our culture truly values or aspires to. He stands up to the hypocrites (Matthew 23.13-36), cares for the poor and sick (Matthew 4.23-25), challenges the rich (Matthew 10.17-27), pokes fun at religiosity (Matthew 21.23-27), makes weekends fun (Matthew1v1-14), ploughs through 100 tonnes of bacon (Mark 5.13), and dies for a righteous cause (Mark 15.33-41). He is the person we wish we were.
Imagine, then, if we became so enamoured with the Gospel, so excited to communicate it, that our ability to bring it to bear on the contentions of our day, flourished. Imagine if we were so conversant, so understanding, of the dreams and aspirations of our society that our aptitude in connecting them with Jesus was a matter of course. Imagine if, rather then pursuing the tempting self-satisfied posture of doctrinal or ethical precision, we were able, with tears and smiles as necessary, to engage with the hot-button questions in a way that made people actually want to hear more. Just like Jesus did. The religious and the irreligious alike clamoured round him, compelled both intellectually and personally to hear and dialogue around the third way. It’s fully possible.
Salt-seasoned, compelling, Christo-centric conversation even around the hot topics can happen. Frankly, this needs to happen. The Gospel is always relevant, but sometimes we aren’t. The solution isn’t better music, cooler preachers, selective mutism, or sitting cross-legged around a scented candle, it’s bringing the implications of the cross and the resurrection to bear on the problems of our time.
The UK has a rich theological history. We’re great at talking about what the New Testament authors thought. We now also need to get doing what they did. The future of the British church could be glorious. The Olympics were great, but we were once the greatest missionary sending nation in the world. It could happen again. If Old Testament history teaches anything, it is that nations can and do change their orientation to God in a generation (see 1 and 2 Kings)—in either direction. Let’s get talking.
[i] Justin Welby, sermon at Trent Vineyard, 27/1/13
[ii] Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom
[iii] As stated and countered by The Alpha Course