When the figures are counted and the churches decline is announced the broad family of evangelicals (with its estimated 17 different 'tribes'), usually express some sorrow, offer some insights into why evangelical numbers are stable or growing, and silently think 'decline happens to theologically liberal churches, not to us.'
On the face of it,this is true. Newer or independent church groupings have seen significant (transfer) growth over the last 20 years, and the research of Peter Brierley further suggests that denominations such as the Baptists, where a strong evangelical core exists, are seeing stable numbers or growth. Anglican theological colleges report that evangelicals dominate the ranks of their recruits, and that there is a shortage of traditionally evangelical parishes to accommodate them when they leave.
In recent times we've seen the Evangelical Alliance grow to around 50,000 members, TearFund become one of the UK's leading aid and relief charities, and a plethora of 'Bible Weeks' and events attract huge numbers. So that means everything is allright, doesn't it? Well, yes, because these are not the only encouraging signs. Search hard enough and you'll discover academic studies that suggest that orthodox Christians live longer, have more stable marriages and enjoy more sex than their secular counterparts. There is growing evidence to suggest that the wisdom of the Bible really works. So everything should be fine, shouldn't it?
After all, we are the ones who are shoring up the voluntary sector contribution to social welfare. And its writers and artists from the Christian faith community such as Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit), Susan Howatch, John Grisham, Creed and Mary, Mary, who are making a positive contribution to mainstream culture. So, although it's not perfect, things are not bad, are they? We'll grow over the next 20-30 years and the liberals will keep declining and everything will be fine. We may be living in a kind of delusion. Buoyed by positive news, we may be ignoring the cracks in our foundations. It's time for some tough questions.
Are evangelical churches keeping the young people raised in the church community? Are we attracting adult converts? Where do these adult converts come from, and is an earlier contact with Christianity often key to their pilgrimage? And why is the church so bad at keeping men?
As we explore these questions we will need to set aside our innate evangelical pride and face the fact that, despite the heroic and passionate work being done for Christ by many, evangelicalism in the UK may not be in the healthy state we imagine it is.
In the midst of our new found confidence and our culturally relevant music, our informal dress styles and our non-legalistic attitudes, and despite record numbers of youth workers on our church payrolls, we are losing a generation as they pass through their teens and into early adulthood.
In the recently published Generation X report, commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance and undertaken by Christian Research, it emerges that of 940,000 0-9 year-olds who went to church in 1979, only 330,000 remained by 1998. As we enter the new Millennium a smaller number than any previous 'decade' group is growing into their 30s within the church. Brierley also notes that traditionally there have been more 0-15 year-olds in church than their numbers in the general population would suggest. In 1979 and 1989 a quarter of churchgoers were under 15, one fifth of the general population was in this age bracket. By 1998, the numbers merely mirrored each other, suggesting that the church was losing its ability to attract children to Sunday activities, without their parents.
Whilst circumstantial evidence suggests that many churches continue to reach children through midweek clubs, schools work and work in the community, unless this is a deliberate policy, many evangelical churches are set for decades of decline. Why? Because there will be less 'children of the church' coming through to adult membership, and less people with a 'Christian memory' turning to the church in their adult years.
And the root of this sickness is? A failure in many churches to even begin to teach about a Christian worldview.Even as we pay lip service to the idea of a sacred/secular divide being non-biblical and Greek in origin, we offer our young people little or no tools with which to analyse the workplace, popular culture, education and their everyday lives.
We feed their parents' concern for the child's self-worth, or appropriate discipline, and end up with emotionally well balanced, disciplined heathens. Comb the literature of Christian parenting and seek to find ideas about how you can pass on your Christian tradition, your values and your worldview, and you may well find virtually nothing, or little that is relevant to the UK. The average Christian parent is involved in a dance of accommodation, praying desperately for their child, worried about confronting them and finding no arrows in the quiver of wisdom when they need to respond to the attacks on faith their children suffer.
We think we know that other traditions in the church 'have lost the plot', but actually we lack confidence in our own traditions, creeds and wisdoms. The evangelical church in the UK will stagnate in the coming decades, unless it rediscovers a basic discipleship pattern which seeks to disciple all the generations with a robust faith.
Why robust? Because evangelistic activity in past decades and even now still relies on a Christian ‘deposit ’within a community. This was very much the case with Billy Graham, and remains so with Alpha, which often sees its greatest success in Anglican churches with their large 'nominal' fringes.
For the rest of the church, only a highly deliberate effort to develop long term friendships within the community via personal or church activities,will release the trust that means that people will be receptive to the good news of Jesus Christ. But what if the issues are deeper than we thought? What if more children's work and more youth workers and more culturally sensitive evangelism doesn't address the real root problems? Thinking back through the last 35 years, we see the evangelical church locked into a pattern of adaptation rather than transformation.
The young people need contemporary music – let's give it to them. A doubting society wants 'evidence' for Christianity's truth claims. Here's several best sellers to meet that need, sir.
The church is failing in the biblical justice arena. Give us 10-15 years and we'll mobilise everybody very successfully. Is there anything else you would like us to tinker with? Post modern worship – no problem. Internet evangelism – no problem. Just adjust our methodology, sound a call to action and everything will be fine. But of course all of this is only the surface polishing. Woe betide if you suggest less church meetings, less sermons, more storytelling and a return to tradition. The conservatives rise to defend the sermon, the charismatics to denounce tradition (constant change is here to stay), the academics to belittle storytelling and the pious to defend the latest addition to the church meeting rota.
The reality is this.We're great at evangelism, but stagnant in the discipleship arena by a complete surrender of the idea of a learning community. Be provoked by the following statements.
We are failing to pass on to our children even the basic outlines of our faith
While church sponsored activities may help unchurched children learn the basic Christian narrative, is the demise of the Sunday School prize, the unwillingness of some Christian retailers to stock children's literature in depth,and sheer parental inertia depriving many children of a working foundation for seeing life from God's perspective? The Deuteronomy 6:4 call to parents is echoed several times in Scripture.
The culture of the 45-minute sermon is killing us
The cult of the sermon has its roots in a pagan/Greek worship of oratorical skills and rhetoric. I can find little biblical precedent for the dull 40 minute monologues that passes for communication in many churches. The sermon paradigm is choking the church to death, with the men often dying first, as they react to an implicit 'this is the truth, I alone share it and question it if you can handle the implicit pariah status that will confer on you'.
This doesn't mean we need less teaching. We need more, but imparted via conversation, dialogue, small groups, one-to-one mentoring, books, videos, etc. The traditional three-point sermon with its abstract reasoning and logical progressions may reflect the careful theological adjustments of Paul's letters to the churches, but doesn't do justice to the rest of the scripture which largely reports oral dialogue between people, nations, prophets and God. We are the people of a parable teller. Why don't we tell more stories?
In our despising of tradition we've cast ourselves adrift on a sea of aimlessness
The only reason for setting aside an old tradition is to replace it with a new one. The Christians in the early church still met – it just wasn't on a Saturday. Hung up as many of us were about liturgy,hymn sandwiches, one man ministry and the traditional Sunday School,we've often ended up with a solution that is worse than the problem. Sunday Schools desperate for volunteers,worship that is performance,a withering of the spiritual gifts,and a teaching programme that meanders around the foothills of theological faddism, rather than trekking through the sometimes difficult mountains of the whole counsel of God.
In a culture that values relationships and the wisdom of the past,perhaps we should stop trying to modernise the church and try and make it more ancient. And we should plan.David Pawson is right – a stately progression through the Bible discovering truth in its original context has to be better than a random topicality.
Church is a lonely place – and you often wouldn’t choose to be there
Take the spiritual temperature of your church. Are your small groups well attended?Do your people eat together often? Do the men talk about sports and the women arrange to go out together? Do your people waste time together? If they don't your church is sick. Full of teaching and empty of life, your people live in isolation, attending church out of habit or social need but not actually enjoying it. They're all acquainted with each other but they don't really know each other. The men in particular have nowhere to turn when life is tough and no real context to talk out their faith. They can neither give nor receive wisdom in a non-meeting context.
Real discipleship mentoring and character modelling takes place in the everydayness of life. Jesus shared his wisdom over meals and in end of day conversations,in public debates and by pithy stories. He had three close friends and 12 friends and hundreds of acquaintances.He fished and cooked and talked.
We've got to get over our guilt about relaxing and enjoying the goodness of God. We learn more when trust is built and friendship gives wisdom and accountability.
Practice makes perfect – so why do we make church a spectator sport
The passage in Corinthians about arriving at a gathering with a song or reading or exhortation shouldn't really be in most of our Bibles should it? It works best in a smaller gathering but we either don't have them or don't allow participation in many cases. Meetings dominated by worship leaders or preachers keep us passive and disengaged.
It ought to be a rule in our churches that everyone has a job. There should be a deliberate policy of giving jobs to anyone over the age of eight and a willingness to let young people minister to their peers and to the adults. In a tradition that looks to the stories of Josiah, David, Samuel and Joseph for its foundations the idea that the young cannot bring wisdom to the older generation has no biblical basis Killing your church, young or old, is simple. Bore them to death by dominating from the front,give them challenging messages but no work to do, ignore their tough questions.People who like that style will flock to you and your fellow elders/leaders,but the other 75–80% of us will stop coming.
Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs.Paul told people to be ready to take part in the gatherings. What part of this 'lets be doing the deeds as well as speaking the words' strategy don't we understand in many of our churches? The ones that do, have thriving children and youth work. Many teenagers in past generations grew in faith by teaching in the Sunday School.
People learn by doing – so lets be deliberate in providing the opportunity
Goodbye to revelation – hello to barrenness. Memory verses, prayer meetings, public bible readings,daily quiet times. Somewhere along the line they all got a bad name. Trite tunes, long prayers, monotonous readings in 16th century English,legalistic strictures about a missed quiet time all played their part. Their marginalisation within church life sends out a powerful signal. 'This isn't very important and we're not going to recommend any models of how you might do it. We're not modelling it in a corporate context, so you'll have to work it all out for yourself.'
Memory verses are a tool of the Holy Spirit in building us up.Focussed prayer times can be a vital part of church and home life.We can do creative bible readings in church and we can let people know that a missed quiet time doesn't mean that they are backslidden.If we model several methods we can release people from the feeling that they don ’t fit if they ’re a quiet prayer person and everyone else is noisy But it requires us to be intentional. And if we aren't we will die.Full of pride at our orthodoxy and our adherence to the received wisdom but ultimately unbiblical and barren, not giving life but taking it away.
Ask yourselves 6 questions:
- How do we pass on our Christian story to the children of the church and the wider culture?
- Does my church have more than one teaching methodology and is serious about the non–sermon ones in terms of training?
- Do we promote a regular cycle of teaching and celebration. Is there a belief that in the midst of making sense of todays world we've actually made sense of the world of the Bible and the wisdom it has for us?
- Are we friends to each other? Do we waste time together eating and drinking and relaxing? Jesus did.
- Do you have to be 35 to do anything in the church? Are the stories of 12 year-old boys changing the destiny of Israel with prophecies not enough to provoke us to change?
- Will we be brave enough to suggest that there are several ways of reading the Bible and praying and then model them?
Just because we're successful doesn't mean we're invincible. We may just be dying slower. Will we wake up and strengthen the things that remain?