Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
When in 1876, the Scot, Alexander Graham Bell and his financial backer, Gardiner G. Hubbard, offered to sell the patent for the telephone to the ‘The Telegraph Company’, in the United States, the President of the company appointed a committee to investigate the offer. Their response was: ‘Technically, we do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognisable speech over a distance of several miles… Gardiner Hubbard's fanciful predictions, while they sound rosy, are based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the technical and economic facts of the situation, and a posture of ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy...
In view of these facts, we feel that Mr Hubbard's request for $100,000 of the sale of this patent is utterly unreasonable, since this device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.’ ??In fairness to the Committee, history is littered with such examples and most of us are not much better at looking into the future. How are you at predicting? If you had been asked in 1992 what the UK church will be like in 2006 what would you have said? There are some major things you couldn’t have known. The UK’s most successful evangelism tool, Alpha, was still under wraps at Holy Trinity, Brompton (it was to be more widely publicised in 1994); Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC ) in East London, the largest church in Europe today at 12,000 was being founded by senior pastor, Matthew Ashimolowo in September 1992, with the 200 who started the church; we were two years into the ‘Decade of Evengelism’ which for all the hype and expectation saw Britain’s churches lose over a million members. If you had heard the words ‘24-7 prayer’ you would assume it was a reference from the Psalms, e-mail and web were just features in BBC’s Tomorrow’s World and had the word ‘podcasting’ been used, you might have assumed it was a new style of fishing. ??So bear this in mind when you reflect on what 10 Christian leaders predict the UK church will be like 14 years ahead in 2020. When you look back at this feature in your archive of Christianity magazines in 2020 (or a web version on your mobile phone) cut them a bit of slack! ??
1. How big will the church be?
In 2020 the UK population is estimated to be around 63m with a rising proportion (12m) over 65. Christian Research (statisticians in the UK church scene) suggests that based on present rates of decline the total church membership will have fallen to 7% of the population compared to 9% today, with decline in Sunday attendance from 6.8 to 4.4%.
Whereas one person in nine was a church member in 1990, that will have declined to one person in 14 by 2020. It suggests that most will attend once a month, with 10% attending at Christmas (down from 20% in 2000). ??However those we asked were more positive in what they think will happen summed up by Right Rev Nick Baines, bishop of Croydon, who suggested there would be: “more attending church in less formal ways” (i.e. not measurable by Sundays). Those we questioned believed that the growth in the black majority churches (one of the few bright spots of recent church attendance statistics) would continue. Interestingly, Katei Kirby, chief executive of African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, which represents many black majority churches, hoped there would be fewer because of better integration: “I hope that church will be identified more by what it does than by the colour of the skin or gender of the person, in the pew or pulpit.” ??Most were pessimistic about rural churches. Christian Research predict that in rural areas, the average Anglican church will have just three people in it by 2010, leaving just the vicar and church mouse by 2020. There was no consensus about whether the styles of ‘gatherings’ advocated by emerging church or fresh expressions church leaders would be in vogue. “I fear there will be a free-for-all in which we will all lose coherence in addressing the big picture of the nation,” says Baines. Hopefully we won’t be talking of ‘stale’ expressions by then… ??In his book, ‘Changing World, Changing Church’ (Monarch 2001), Michael Moynagh imagines a church in Nottingham in 2020 meeting in various ways throughout the week, including church for business people at 7.30 on a Monday morning, where members keep in touch with one another via e-mail during the week. In Moynagh’s world, there are churches for people who like jazz, others for those into classical music or dance, church for those escaping drug and alcohol dependency, and another for Nottingham Forest Football Club supporters! ??Maybe church will be more segmented around affinity groups such that any survey work would have to be more sophisticated than merely measuring traditional Sunday attendance? Certainly Christian Research predicts that church attendance on weekdays will be a third of Sunday attendance, especially in urban areas.
But if those we asked were optimistic about church attendance despite the declining statistics, what exactly is going to change in the UK church for their hopes to be justified?
??2. What will the church landscape be like?
?In 2001 church attendance fell below 10% for the first time since the Dark Ages, causing Christian Research executive director, Peter Brierley to comment: “The trends in the current church-going numbers are frightening for those who care about the Church and the gospel of Jesus Christ for which it stands. They suggest an indifference, a lack of understanding, commitment and interest perhaps unparalleled since Augustine came to these shores in 579AD.” These trends prompt Gerard Kelly, who recently left the UK to be senior pastor of Crossroads Church Amsterdam to extend the model suggested by Moynagh: “The biggest factor affecting us is the demise of Christendom, with church attendance based on ‘obligation and duty’. This is in decline now, and will be gone by 2020. This will not lead to the demise of Christianity as such, but will open up spaces for new formulations of church attendance, based on function, identity and purpose rather than on duty.
Denominations will be replaced by ‘brands’. Whole new ‘brands’ of church will develop between now and 2020, and will come to dominate the church scene. These will combine elements of both ‘gathered’ and ‘dispersed’ church – so that they will be mega churches in one sense and cell churches in another, with large gatherings and events establishing and identifying the brand and smaller local cells (and individuals) working it out.” ??Most of those we spoke with believed that ‘virtual church’ or ‘church on the web’ would increase. But Kelly sees this as a significant factor in all church’s growth and survival: ”By 2020 nearly all churches will be virtual churches, in the sense that membership (brand loyalty) will be mediated through internet contact, and physical attendance will be secondary to this – the fruit rather than the proof of belonging. A tipping point will occur in the coming years when churches realise that they have moved from a position in which their web presence ‘supports and advertises’ their activities as a church to a position in which web presence mediates membership and is supported by physical expressions and gatherings.” ??David Millen director of ministries at Evangelical Ministries, which aims to help churches across Northern Ireland to transition towards greater effectiveness, is fearful that the community dimension might be lost: “Virtual churches are a contradiction in terms. The Church is all about loving and being loved. It is about interdependent working of the various body parts to achieve Kingdom extension. The virtual church deal will offer an alternative where you can relate to a screen and be accountable to no one but yourself. It will be hugely attractive to those who've been burned or have become disillusioned with the status quo church. There will be huge numbers of these 'Christians' who will be fooled into thinking that virtual church is enough.” ??If this seems at all fanciful, bear in mind that technological development in the next few years will mean the Internet will be accessed by TV sets, so it will be as easy for a non church attender to find out where there’s an Alpha course locally, or what provision there is for mothers and toddlers, as it will be to switch TV channels. A case perhaps of ‘church not being remote if found by the Remote’? ?
3. What will local mission look like??
Every mission organisation (hopefully) has statistics upon which it bases its activity. Key for Andy Bathgate, chief “We have asked, ‘What will it take’ to reach these children and young people? It will take an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, equipping God’s people, especially Jesus-following children and young people, to speak and live the gospel. It will take God’s people to be committed to discipling and to take seriously the development of multi-age communities in which children and young people play their full part. It will take a fresh concern for the urban poor, living in areas where the church is increasingly weak and aged.”
In Wales too there is an awareness that something needs to be done to stem the tide away from church. At 7% Wales has the lowest proportion of church attendance of the four countries within the UK. Rob James, chair of the Executive and the Council of The Evangelical Alliance, Wales, is hopeful that signs of a ‘turning tide’ will be accurate: “There is, a growing interest in church planting. Church leaders are beginning to put aside their secondary differences and stand together for the sake of the Kingdom. Our track record of working together has not been particularly brilliant over the past few generations, but the situation is now perceived as so desperate that evangelicals are being propelled into working together in a new way.”
Across the Irish Sea, church attendance is highest of all four countries, but declining, with around half of the population attending a church (down from two thirds in the late 80s). Karen Jardine, public affairs officer and development officer, Evangelical Alliance, Northern Ireland says: “Churches will have to decide whether maintenance is a higher priority than mission. This is true of our church buildings many of which are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain to meet new legal requirements. While not denying our heritage there may be more churches which are knocked down to start again over the next 15 years.”
David Millen of Evangelical Ministries is optimistic about the prospects for the Province: “Where churches are willing to hear his call to again become radical and relevant centres of servant agape love they will see much growth. I expect that this emergent church will be seeing rapid growth by 2020.”
Some within youth ministry believe there is cause for optimism as the ‘Y’ generation (people born between 1981 and 1995) start to take leadership roles. Roy Crowne, national director Youth for Christ says: “Young people are not bogged down with distinctions between social action and proclamation, for them it is ‘both and’. They want to know how to live and what to do. There are some exceptions in some denominations, but at YFC we are greatly encouraged.”
All of which begs the question: How can we nurture the enthusiasm of young people appropriately so that they are ready for leadership in 2020? As for modes of evangelism, maybe ‘open air preaching’ will be banned and door-to-door only possible for licensed groups? (Certainly respondents believed persecution will increase). In any case the rich will live behind walled villages and gated neighbourhoods repelling unwanted evangelists. That said, most churches have already dropped these methods in favour of more relational approaches. But no doubt there will still be some churches in 2020 who will meet on Sundays at 10.30 (scheduled to fit in with the local farmer’s milking time) and 6.30 (to fit in with local servants) – timings showing excellent cultural accommodation, for the Victorian era...
4. What about the UK’s part in global mission?
?“Without doubt the factor which will affect world mission the most in 2020 will be what mission historian Andrew Walls calls the southward shift of the centre of gravity of the church,” says Eddie Arthur, a leadership trainer and a speaker and teacher on mission issues with Wycliffe Bible Translators. “A slow decline in the church in the west, coupled with explosive growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America means that there are now fewer Christians in the traditional sending countries than in what we think of as ‘mission fields’. By 2020 these rising churches will be gaining influence and leadership of the world Christian movement and the role of the traditional churches will change greatly.” Arthur believes that as southern leadership takes over, mission leadership will be more relational and less ‘methodology driven’ and that the ‘west’ will need to learn to support their work financially. The west has 80% of the resources and just 20% of the personnel. You do the maths.
The number of missionaries leaving the UK for overseas has declined in the last decade from 6,200 to 4,900 and the largest proportion of givers to mission comes from older church members, which by 2020 will have declined further. But Arthur adds that this does not mean that there will be no place for British missionaries going overseas in 2020: “However, any missionaries should not expect to be in positions of leadership. Their role - under national direction - will be to equip and train southern Christians to meet the needs of evangelising and discipling in their own part of the world. In all probability, the economic inequalities of today will continue and there will be a real need for Christian development and medical work.”
Maybe our local mission needs will be given increasing impetus as the rest of the world’s church joins us in reaching the nation, especially as many parts of the UK will house people not indigenous to the UK? Will we be ready?
The challenge for us all is to be ready to meet the challenge of standing for Christ whatever the environment is like. God willing, you will be part of and help to shape the church of 2020. The gloomy projections from Christian Research don’t have to be true. If in every one of the 48,000 churches in the UK, saw just two people came to faith every year for the next 14 years there would be no numerical decline, and most could and should aim for higher things.
The church in the UK has some magnificent churches, Bible Colleges, para church leaders and movements, and conferences. Should we not be praying that the very best and godly minds within the UK church are communicating with each other and pooling wisdom and resources so that we meet the crisis in our nations and help to ensure that the more optimistic expectations are justified? Or maybe such a thought is ‘based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the facts of the situation’? Just call me Alexander Graham Bell.