For the first time in history, more Brits now class themselves as having ‘no religion’ rather than being ‘Christian’, according to a British Social Attitudes survey.
Obviously, this isn’t literally the first time in history. Jesus never said: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations. Oh, except the UK, cos they’re already largely on board.’ But we certainly have the smallest percentage of professing Christians in the UK since Victorian times. Of course, none of this is a surprise to anyone who is genuinely following Jesus (more worrying to me is that we now have the smallest percentage of people wearing top hats since Victorian times). What we are seeing, in fact, is that people have stopped using the word ‘Christian’ when what they really mean is ‘white British and went to Sunday school’.
As society becomes increasingly fragmented and people find their identity in labels other than ‘Christian’, what can we do about it? What are the current identifying brands for British humans, and how do we reach them? Here’s a light-hearted look at some of the new tribes.
Main hangouts: The North, abandoned mines and foodbanks
Likes: Shouting ‘power to the people’, ironic berets and the word ‘comrade’
Dislikes: Anyone who makes more than a living wage
The Corbynista is ethical, rides a bicycle, leaves Communist manifestos in dentists’ waiting rooms and loves to wax lyrical about the good old days before Thatcher, even if – sometimes especially if – they weren’t actually born then. Everything in the media or on TV is apt to be viewed as a thinly veiled attack on Jezza, including Slimming World magazine and Topsy and Tim.
How to engage:
This should be the easiest group to evangelise. Corbynistas love to consider themselves persecuted because of their righteousness, and their leader is monogrammed ‘JC’. Add in their scruffiness and propensity for wearing sandals, and a lot of them are already modern-day Christophanies.
Focusing on the Sermon on the Mount, talking about Jesus’ radical message of preaching good news to the poor and pointing them towards the fellowship of believers in Acts 2:45 (‘They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need’) is a sure-fire way to win friends here. Point out, furthermore, that while their brave leader has yet to overcome Britain’s upper classes, ours has already overcome the world.>
The Happy Moral Pagan
Main hangouts: Next door to you
Likes: Tolerance, Stephen Fry and Game of Thrones
Dislikes: People with exclusive views
The Happy Moral Pagans are our school friends, our ‘spiritual’ work colleagues and the friendly humanist who says ‘excuse me’ in the supermarket as he races past to grab the tzatziki.
This group (essentially the British middle class) represents an evangelistic black hole. And understandably so, as they have been born into a time and place where their level of income, quality of life and possession of a Netflix subscription mean they don’t really need to think about God. They look after their kids, pay their bills, and if they’re struggling with existential guilt they can give £20 to Comic Relief or buy a Big Issue. What does ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23) mean to someone with a nice garden and an Ocado account?
How to engage:
Befriend them. Serve them. Cash-rich people tend to be time-poor, so offer to help. In a hectic walk-and-talk world, offer to sit and listen to them; to their problems, their dreams. You can’t expect the Happy Moral Pagan to love you (their neighbour) as themselves, but they won’t be expecting you to do so either. So do it. And, if appropriate, mention how the vast majority of people who have ever lived have never come close to our shared level of comfort.
In the world outside suburbia, Jesus is the only safe place to be
When phrases such as ‘Do what makes you happy’ and ‘The meaning of life is to give life meaning’ arise, ask what comfort that offers to a sexually abused child or a refugee fleeing from IS. Should there be punishment for evil people? Should there be hope for those whose lives are cut tragically short? Humanism offers nothing so impressive. In the scary, real world outside suburbia, Jesus is the only safe place to be.
The Atheist Memer
Main hangouts: Internet forums and Laser Quest
Likes: Trolling, calling themselves free thinkers and using capital letters to show HOW ANGRY THEY ARE
Dislikes: People with friends who aren’t avatars, and using basic punctuation (also, whatever King Dawkins tells them to)
We’ve all seen this. You’re browsing your Facebook news feed. Annie has just cooked a delicious steak and posted a picture of it (during which time, presumably, the steak has gone cold). As usual, Jenny has written something unbelievably mild and anaemic but rounded it off with ‘rant over’, Tom has joined a new mariachi band and is #blessed and…hang on, what’s this? Ah yes, here comes a stock picture of Hitler with the words ‘Religion kills!’ emblazoned in Copperplate Gothic Bold followed by 2 billion shares and comments like ‘Sooo true’ and ‘U ok, hun?’
The Internet memer is faceless, shadowy, mysterious and usually called Colin. He or she may appear among your Facebook friends or just as message board users such as CaptainAtheist76 or CptnAthiest75. Either way, they are angry and it’s your fault/the fault of the Crusades (although it can usually be traced back to Alanis Morissette not signing their T-shirts in the 90s).
How to engage:
Unplug your computer! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a debate on Facebook that hasn’t quickly descended into asinine name-calling on both sides. The desire to defend, correct and engage in light-hearted debate is something we all feel, but Facebook is not the place. People are a lot braver behind a computer screen (compare the ratio of online Call of Duty gamers to actual soldiers) and playing the online sophist is a lot easier with Wikipedia as your wingman. So private message them, affirm your mutual desire to search for the truth, offer to buy them coffee and cake, and see what happens.
Without the eyes of social media on them, they’re much less likely to react like cornered animals. They may well have had a bad experience with Christians, so love them, pray blessing over them and search eBay for signed Alanis Morissette memorabilia.
The Alpha Male
Main hangouts: The pavement outside bars
Likes: Reflections of himself and saying the word ‘banter’
Dislikes: People who don’t go to the gym and talking about his relationship with his dad
The Alpha Male has gone by many names over the years and is constantly trying to reinvent himself. From the Viking raiders to Quadrophenic mods and rockers, to tracksuited 80s hooligans, the Alpha is a timeless male, which is ironic given how he always seems to think of himself as the universe’s favourite, often referring to himself as a ‘gift’.
The current brand of Alpha Male tends to have a surface area largely made up of tattoos and is so overly bench-pressed, if you look closely you can often see the heartbeat in his forehead. (I once saw a guy at the gym whose veins were so pronounced I mistook him for a 3D map of European rivers.)
The Alpha Male hates authority and any talk of weakness, so the notion of submitting to a higher and stronger power makes him angrier than the idea of wearing a loose-fitting T-shirt. After all, Jesus died, whereas the Alpha acts as though he probably never will. So what can we do?
How to engage:
The Alpha is often craving the attention and affirmation he was never given during childhood, so talking about God as a loving, ever-present Father is a good way in. The pinnacle of self-sacrifice for an Alpha is getting a round in, so there’s also the fact that Jesus went slightly further and laid down his life for his friends; and not just for his friends, but for people who hated him. He took one for the team, squatting the sins of the world on his shoulders and finding the burden light. Good lad.
Main hangouts: Vintage clothing stores
Likes: Wearing glasses they in no way need, and using the word ‘artisan’, particularly when it’s easier not to use it
Dislikes: Matching clothing and ‘the man’
‘Hipster’ can mean many things. One definition might be ‘people who religiously follow the latest fashion and consider themselves outside of the social mainstream’.
With their 80s cartoon accessories, massive beards and toned physiques, a lot of UK hipsters look like sexy chess champions; the sort of guy who 20 years ago would have been lambasted for drinking cider and wearing checked shirts, but who now is regarded as some kind of subversive superman. Their facial hair is often so dense it could be used to smuggle Bibles into North Korea. The universality of thick beards is such that in certain areas of London it’s possible to believe you have stepped back in time to the American Civil War, only with camper uniforms and better coffee.
How to engage:
Stress that Jesus was so hated by authority they ended up killing him, but not before he had made it trendy to hang out with prostitutes and shown how hating your enemies was too mainstream, man.
Their facial hair is often so dense it could be used to smuggle Bibles into North Korea
JC started the most countercultural trend of all time. A movement so fresh that 2,000 years later, 2.2 billion people are still loving the guy with the beard. He also had two dads before it was cool.
Low numbers has never been an insurmountable problem for biblical Christianity. The whole thing started with 11 guys in a function room above a pub, and it’s never, ever stopped growing since. So the best we can do is to signpost Jesus for people through our words and actions.
And there are amazing things happening! Christians Against Poverty saw 800 people come to faith last year, while members of the refugee community are meeting Jesus in dreams and visions, and getting baptised in their droves.
We’re Psalm-34-verse-2-ing it: the afflicted are hearing and they’re glad! So let’s trust Revelation 7:9 where it says that people from all nations and all tribes will be gathered round the throne. I just hope I don’t mistake Jesus for one of the Hipsters. Totes awks.
Andy Kind is a comedian, author and creative director at Westwood Christian Centre, Huddersfield westwood-centre.org.uk