Spring Harvest's 2005 theme, 'Sing the Lord's song in a strange land' explores the book of Daniel, contrasting how, like the Old Testament prophet, Christians in the UK live in a culture that is 'strange', alien, and according to many commentators, increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. This feature identifies key factors that many claim are working against the church and individual believers. But it's not all bad news - many suggest these are days of opportunity and potential for new growth. We list five potentially positive factors in UK culture, which could result in church growth.
Spring Harvest's 2005 theme, 'Singing the Lord's song in a strange land' explores the book of Daniel, contrasting how, like the Old Testament prophet, Christians in the UK live in a culture that is 'strange', alien, and according to many commentators, increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. This feature identifies key factors that are working against the church and individual believers. But it's not all bad news - we go on to list five key opportunities that some churches and Christian organisations are using and which have resulted in growth and various benefits.
Only time will tell you whether an event is a defining moment or not. A few, such as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6th1945, or the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on September 11th 2001, were instantly accorded 'the world will never be the same again' status. Others, such as the Millennium bug disappeared from our radar screens before many of us had even begun to get concerned. So it may be premature to call the BBC's decision to screen Jerry Springer - The Opera as a defining moment for the church in its battle for the heart and soul of Britain, especially as any Bible student will tell you, 'our fight is not against flesh and blood'. But whichever way we look at it, the BBC screened the theatrical production in spite of 40,000 phone calls or emails, and the lobbying of senior Christian leaders and various Christian organisations; including the measured tones of both the Bishop of Manchester and the Evangelical Alliance and the more aggressive and hard-line Christian Voice.
Many see this as a defining moment - not a 'one-off' skirmish but part of a losing streak in the fight against evil. For example, some Christian groups fear that proposed legislation could undermine the right of Christians to declare why Christianity is true and other religions false. The UK Government is expanding the existing criminal offences of incitement to racial hatred, contained in the Public Order Act 1986. The proposals will make it 'an offence to knowingly use words, behaviour or material that is threatening, abusive or insulting with the intention or likely effect that hatred will be stirred up against a group of people targeted because of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, as well as those targeted on racial grounds'.
Although seeming reasonable, some groups have argued that the interpretation of the law could lead to censure of Christians who explain the differences between Christianity and other faiths, should members of those other faiths 'take offence'. The Newcastle-based, Christian Institute recently flew Daniel Scot to the UK for a series of meetings. Scot, Pakistani-born University Professor of Mathematics, was found 'guilty' of religious vilification after he criticised Islam in a church seminar in Melbourne, Australia. The civil action, taken under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, was brought by Muslims who attended the meeting. Christian Institute claim that the proposed UK law is worse than the Australian legislation and suggest that we could be censured for preaching that Jesus is 'the only way'.
The gloomy outlook is not just at a legislative level, but shared by some well placed to comment on the future of the church in the UK.
Jayne Ozanne recently left the Archbishops' Council, a group of 19 people chaired by the Archbishops who oversee the policy and direction of the Church of England. Her statement on leaving, picked up by The Times, included the lines: 'I see a time of great persecution coming, which will drive Christianity all but underground in the West. I believe that this will primarily take the form of a social and economic persecution, where Christians will be ridiculed for their faith and pressurised into making it a purely private matter. Meanwhile, the established Church will continue to implode and self-destruct, fragmenting into various divisions over a range of internal issues. There will be an increasing number who fear man more than God, and who shy away from admitting that there is any absolute truth. Instead, they will seek to promote a gospel that is socially acceptable to all. As a result, many will continue to leave - disaffected and dismayed by the lack of faith and courage needed to stand the ground.'
The ridicule Jayne Ozanne speaks of is aided by the impression of Christianity that many Britons receive. It's impossible to enter the carriage of a train in London without finding someone reading 'The DaVinci Code', which is not surprising as it was the UK's best-selling book of 2004 with 1.5 million sales. (Indeed in February 2005 the book and its two sequels were in the top ten paperback bestsellers).The plot of American, Dan Brown's novel is a twist on the ancient search for the Holy Grail, which denies the divinity of Jesus, and suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship that produced children. As Dr Peter Jones, scholar in Residence and Adjunct Professor at Westminster Seminary, California, writes: 'The Da Vinci Code uses a fictional structure to get its own message across. While seeming to advocate a search for truth at any price, its real goal is to erode one of the fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith - belief that the original message of the Gospel is the unique, inspired word from God.' Many of the 1.5million readers will forget that it is a 'fiction' bestseller.
But the steady drip of anti-Christian materials is also produced on this side of the Atlantic. Tony Watkins, project director of Damaris, and author of 'Dark Matter: a thinking fan's guide to Philip Pullman', (Damaris, 2004) told Christianity: "Pullman's portrayal of Christianity is so monochrome - he can only see Christians in negative terms. Pretty well every religious figure in the Dark Materials trilogy is odious. Although Pullman would claim that he has created a fictional world, distinct from the real one, his comments about Christianity in public do suggest that he is comfortable with this view. Indeed he has said that although he once believed (he speaks warmly of his grandfather who was a vicar in the Church of England), he regards belief in God as untenable. The children who read his books (adults also read them) are quite able to distinguish fiction from fact, nevertheless, his view does add to the general dismissal of Christian faith."
But it is not just that Christianity is discredited, or irrelevant. Some sections of the media argue that its doctrine is pernicious, with evangelicalism especially coming in for heavy criticism. The Times ran an article that drew comparison between the evangelical archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan (because both adhere to the strict teaching of a holy book) without any qualification. Tony Watkins believes things may get worse: "I think the culture is getting more hostile to Christianity. This is fuelled by the tolerance agenda and the belief that there should be no limits to sexual expression. Hence when Christians argue for exclusive truth and limits for sex, they are seen as odious."
The church battled against materialism and secular humanism throughout the 20th century, but its fight with relativism could be even more difficult.
The glass is half full
But this description of the church's battle with culture is not the only take on the situation. Some Christian leaders question whether things are as gloomy as some have painted them. As Gerard Kelly, director of the Bless Network, and a member of the Spring Harvest Leadership team puts it: "I understand those who paint a view that things are becoming more hostile towards Christians, but they make the mistake of thinking that it matters."
There are at least five opportunities the church faces in the current climate.
1. Focus on positive comments
Those who believe the evidence could be marshalled other ways include Mark Greene, executive director for London Institute for Contemporary Christianity who writes the 'Connecting with culture' monthly column in Christianity. He says: "Things could indeed get worse for Christians. But the evidence is ambivalent. Many workplaces are welcoming more public faith groups, some aren't. Much of the media seems antagonistic but then much is positive - the rock press on Athlete, May J Blige, Destiny's Child; the theatre press on Laura Michelle Kelly, the new Mary Poppins; … the political press on Blair and Brown's Christianity; the Sun on the Beckhamisation of Christmas, on Jerry Springer and so on. What is clear is that overall our culture seems increasingly unable to address the deep questions people have for identity and purpose - people increasingly 'can't get no satisfaction'. And a culture that isn't delivering satisfaction is a culture open to a different answer."
2. Allow 'less-favoured' status to sharpen us
Others believe we should acknowledge that in any case, we do not live in a Christian nation, so why should we be surprised? John Smith, UK director of the Evangelical Alliance says, "The church is operating in post-Christendom, similar to the people of God in exile. Should we call people back to their 'Christian heritage' or should we learn how to operate in exile? Remember that the oft quoted verse, 'I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you' (Jeremiah 29:10), was written just after the command to 'seek the peace of the city'. In that sense Christians should be 'up for' the good things within culture. We need to be salt, light and yeast in our witness. Seeking to be agents of change we don't necessarily further the kingdom by retreating into a ghetto." "With increasing secularism, there is opportunity for the church to be more robust," says Gerard Kelly. "We need to disciple people so that they have an inner strength to cope with the attacks. This is especially true for younger people. We need to take responsibility and not assume that state education is going to help them become 'decent human beings'. " And there are those who positively embrace this change in the prevailing culture. "The fact that the church today has influence but not power is a good thing, and will help the church in Britain to become robust," says Steve Chalke, founding director of Oasis Global. "Daniel found himself in Babylon when he wanted to be in Jerusalem, wanted to be worshipping Yahweh in a land that worshipped other gods. Yet it was in this furnace that his faith was strengthened, so that a few thousand years later we are still considering it."
Although the Anglican church is inextricably linked with 'Christendom' as it has existed in the UK, Ruth Dearnley is quick to affirm its role in the post-modern landscape. "I also think that the Church of England is in a good place to capitalise on the situation, though it is facing difficult times. It has to be both a hospice and a nursery. We have to take the decision to allow some church congregations to die gracefully and for that to be OK, but also nurture new churches. We also need to be aware that the experiments on new forms of church are on-going and diversity is the name of the game. Yes it may be church in a 'club' but it is not a static new form of church, but it too will continue to change and develop its worship life just as the local Baptist church is developing its community involvement life. We are all on the move."
3. Capitalise on cynicism about religion
The common complaint that 'religion causes more harm than good' has hardly been helped by September 11, the tensions in Iraq, fears of terrorist attacks and the feeling that the US is wanting to dominate the world with its brand of democratic Christianity. But this in itself is a great opportunity to the believer who understands the Gospel and is quick to explain the differences between the Christian myths and the real thing.
"It's a fantastic time for the Gospel, because the Gospel works, it has power," says Mark Greene. "A consumerist, post-modern generation wants something that works. And they want something that works for all of their life, not just some bits of it. So we have something true and real, something relevant to people's deepest yearnings for adventure and intimacy and something radical enough to actually deliver. Let the good news roll!"
Ruth Dearnley, a member of the Spring Harvest Leadership team, whose husband is vicar of St Mary's Wendover, Buckinghamshire, told Christianity: "I believe the church is at a place where with many things stripped away, we are more useful in building the kingdom. If I could choose the generation in which my children are to grow and live in his church it would be today, rather than a supposed 'more Christian' yesteryear." So the present climate could provide many opportunities for the believer prepared to answer to the non believer's statement: "I'm not religious" with the reply: "Great - neither am I…."
4. Build on the growing opportunities
Throughout the UK many churches are 'on the move'. They are not cowering in the shadows cast by the prevailing culture, but facing the challenges of a post-Christian Britain. Courses such as Alpha, Christianity Explored and the Y-Course continue to help people investigate Christianity. Many are learning to rejoice in progress made, rather than bemoan the state of play. "I don't believe it is a 'cop out' to talk in terms of valuing the bridge building and the blessing we were to people we met, even if they never come to church," says Smith. "Just as we have the 'Engels scale' for acknowledging that people may be at different points on a journey towards conversion and on to full discipleship, maybe we need a scale for 'signs of the kingdom'."
Such signs of the kingdom can be seen through servant-hearted evangelism initiatives such as The Message in Manchester, Soul in the City in London and the forthcoming Merseyfest in Liverpool. Evangelist, J John continues to see encouraging responses to his 'Ten series' in churches across the UK. Many churches have been able to put Christ back on the agenda through sensible use and support of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ, which was seen by many non-believers last Easter and is now widely available on DVD. Analysts suggest that the first two years are crucial in a believer's life: in these years he or she still has a network of friends who they can talk about their new found faith. So the fruit of the thousands who come to faith is that tens of thousands can be influenced if the new believer is sufficiently equipped for the experience and not submerged in the Christian culture. New converts could be the seed from which more growth comes.
5. Develop a Daniel mentality
So maybe we shouldn't ask whether the BBC's decision to screen Jerry Springer - The Opera is a defining moment. Maybe that would be too simplistic and play into the hands of those who exaggerate the problems to bolster their own ministry and worldview, or to back up their own prejudices.
Instead we should make sure that we understand the UK culture and the place where God has placed us and work as Daniel worked, within the cultural constraints, serving as best we can, open to God to breakthrough as he chooses to use us to be conduit for his revelation. After all the church continues to be built worldwide in the most unlikely places where darkness seems to reign, and in places where the prevailing climate is much harder than the UK. If we can learn from believers in China and other lands who have faced the worst a hostile state can throw at them and come through as a vibrant church, able to remind the culture of the existence of a loving God - then who knows, maybe we will create defining moments of our own?
Culture Wars: five hostile factors
- Materialism: The belief that money can buy happiness continues to dominate the lives of Britons and many churches. Often linked to secular humanism - see below.
- Secular humanism: A religious worldview (though its adherents would question whether they were religious) which believes that what we see is all there is. Essentially atheistic, there is no after life or all embracing purpose to life. Morality is decided by what people think is right, not an external authority.
- New Age: Unlike most formal religions, it has no holy text, central organisation, membership, formal clergy, geographic centre, dogma, creed, etc. A free-flowing spiritual movement; a network of believers and practitioners who share somewhat similar beliefs and practices, which they add on to whichever formal religion they follow, if any.
- Radical Islam: Some branches of Islam teach that that it is the will of Allah that the land where they live comes under Islamic rule eventually. War is justified as a means of achieving Allah's goal.
- Negative media: Newsworthy Christian stories are often sidelined(e.g. coverage of Soul in the City) Christian arguments ridiculed, or parodied because they are so alien to the prevailing culture.