It’s not the external forces of secularism, individualism or consumerism that are the biggest threat to the Church today. If we want to understand Church decline, we need to look at ourselves, says Deborah Sloan


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Do a quick web search on the reasons for declining church attendance and you are likely to come across the three ‘isms’ - secularism, individualism and consumerism.

Between them, they have caused churchgoers to abandon the pews, diminished the Church’s role in the public square, forced the closure of thousands of buildings and erased faith-based education. While they have been a threat for decades, it seems Covid may have accelerated their power. In a time of huge global uncertainty, many regular worshippers turned their backs on the Church, deciding to either exercise or place their faith elsewhere.

If secularism is the main protagonist attacking the Church, then individualism and consumerism are its able accomplices. Individualism decrees that each person is unique and has the right to live as they choose. Consumerism is all about gratification. When shaped by consumerism, people approach everything as if its primary purpose is to make them feel good.

But have these threats been exaggerated?

A closer look

The principles which underpin secularism protect many of the liberties that we benefit from, including the freedom to practice our faith. Rather than being specifically anti-Christian, secularism challenges the institutional control, political supremacy and social capital previously enjoyed by the Church.

The idea that secularism and an absence of moral values are inextricably linked is naïve. Secularism says that religion is not necessary for the existence of morality. Human rights, justice, equality, dignity and compassion evidence the impact of Christianity on the world but they do also exist outside the Church. Christians don’t have the monopoly on good values.

The rise of cultural Christianity demonstrates that certain attitudes - such as consumerism - are just as prevalent inside the Church as outside it. Many Christians believe the Church is there to serve them. They view it as a transactional experience, church-hopping to find what they want, consume what they need and discard what feels too hard.

The primary aim of the Christian Church is not to demand that its voice be heard

Perhaps these threats are key learnings for the Church around reformation and revival. The three -isms are seen as negative; rarely as opportunities. But secularism highlights that the Church must be culturally relevant. It cannot exist detached from the environment in which it operates. Consumerism highlights how desperately people want something that satisfies them. Individualism highlights the desire to be accepted. The Church has much to offer here. In an age of existential longing, people need to hear that they have worth; that God knows each of them by name.

Internal threats

If these three external threats have been exaggerated, perhaps there are internal threats which have largely been ignored. Perhaps the greatest threat to the Church is actually within its own walls: The rise of classism (an increasingly middle-class Church); the rise of intellectualism (competitive theology diminishing the importance of the humble faith) and the rise of legalism (a sub-culture of exclusive rules and behaviours where only those who conform are welcome).

It could be argued that there is not a rejection of Christianity, nor a push to banish faith from public life. Post-Covid, people are increasingly open to the spiritual. They believe in and ask for prayer. They are actively looking for meaning and are seeking a higher purpose. They want to feel anchored and safe in a destabilising world. They want to be part of a welcoming and supportive community.

The primary aim of the Church is not to demand that its voice be heard, nor its presence felt. It is to make Jesus known. It is to grow Jesus followers. It is to enable lives to be transformed by Christ. Let’s stop focussing on the threats, and start right there.