Rethinking decline

A couple of weeks ago I was at a Christian-Jewish study day during which a rabbi suggested that when God promises land, that promise may be conditional on moral behaviour and right relationship with God.

At first I didn’t think much about this. As a Christian I don’t feel as if I have been promised any particular part of the earth.  Our scriptures remind us that we are citizens of heaven or called to seek the reign of God that doesn’t have a geographical location.

Over the last few days  this idea has been swirling around my mind as I have started to think what it might mean to me as a Christian. While theoretically the Church is not associated with any part of land it has, for much of its history, had territory. Since the alignment with the Roman Empire the church has gained and lost ground. Since the days of Henry VIII this little island has been considered a Christian country.

But research being quoted this week shows that certainly in this corner of creation the Church is losing territory.  Far fewer people than ever identify as Christians – in the UK the percentage of people describing themselves as non-religious rose to 48.5% in 2014 whereas the number of people describing themselves as Anglican plunged from 44.5% in 1983 to 19% in 2014.

Church leaders, statisticians and strategists have been aware of decline for decades now. We have theorised and blamed – blamed the culture, the fragmentation of society, rampant consumerism, the media, new moral codes and changing family patterns. We have blamed our worship, our clergy, our buildings and our leaders. But have we looked at our behaviour and our fundamental relationship with God?

I remember the writer Elaine Storkey saying about 20 years ago that the Church cannot recruit unless we have the moral high ground and I have been mulling that over ever since. Do we think God has anything to do with either our growth or decline or do we look simply to modernisation and mission initiatives?

This week we have been told it’s mission or extinction for the church. But might it be repentance or lose ground? I love the Church of England deeply – it has nurtured me from birth and I have seen its kindness, its beauty, its humanity and its love. But I know it well enough to know it is flawed. So flawed that according to recent research published in the Invisible Church study there are thousands of people, possibly millions, who love God, want to follow Jesus, read their Bible and pray but can’t or won’t go to church.

I don’t think God is punishing the Church with decline but I think it is possible that there is a judgement happening.  Judgement calls us to examine ourselves, to change, to look honestly beyond the gloss and spin and to try and see truthfully.

Nor do I believe that God is abandoning the Church. If the Church, as I know it, does decline, I believe that there will be new shoots of faith emerging. In fact there are already shoots of growth both inside and outside the established Churches and denominations.

One of those shoots of growth that is blossoming across denominations is in the astonishing rise in Christian social action. Might there be a church emerging that sides with the poor, that is in solidarity with the oppressed, that risks the work of reconciliation and stands defiantly against greed and exploitation.

Most mission initiatives try to make it easier for people to join the church but I think if we made it harder, perhaps really hard, we might see growth that is far deeper and more transformative than we could imagine, as, really believing in our calling to follow Jesus, we begin again the ground of the Kingdom of God .

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4 thoughts on “Rethinking decline

  1. I absolutely agree with you that the most important test of the Churches is whether they side with the poor. Though it may be so in Birmingham but in a place like Oundle we don’t even begin to touch the majority of the inhabitants who are nearer to being working class than middle class. The only possible exception is in the outreach to young people where one or two less well off young have been drawn in by an initiative called West Porch cafe which encourages young people from all backgrounds to come into the church on a Wednesday afternoon to have refreshments, play games and chat. Apart from that, at least in St Peter’s it is Zilch. We all go contentedly along our middle class cultured way and I believe we do deserve judgment. Well done coming out with it Love Dazza

  2. Very good – as usual. What a great writer and thinker you are. Have just seen on utube a move to have more fashionable women’s clergy clothing, but not for formal occasions. Also Tim Stanley’s article on the non-decline of the church – largely self-promoted he seems to think. Millie

  3. Preach it, sister! This is real diaconal thinking, and I absolutely agree with you. I too am very dissatisfied with the blame game and the endless search for ’causes’ which to me seem like looking in the wrong place. Has anybody asked what God thinks? What you say is prophetic, speaking truth to power. And maybe that’s one of the things of which we need to repent – our love affair as a church with power. I’d like to repost this on Deacon.

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