Christianity Decline In The UK
Commentators and observers frequently tell us that Christianity is in serious decline in the UK, with some of them saying that it is in terminal decline. Is it? If it is, why is that so? In addressing that issue, I will begin by looking at what happened to the church in the early centuries of Christianity, and then consider how this is relevant to the United Kingdom in general, and Scotland and England in particular.
Furthermore, I will certainly propose that Christianity as seen in the UK has lost its credibility today, and I will suggest that the reason for this is that the ‘otherness’ of church has been discarded in favour of respectability and acceptability in the eyes of the nations. I will attempt show from my own understanding how this situation can be reversed if the lessons of the past are learned deeply. I will conclude that, in today’s society, the answer of God to the state of the visible church in the UK today is the power of the Holy Spirit.
In order to look for the reasons for the decline of mainline Christianity in the United Kingdom, we must first consider the early years of Christianity in the centuries after Christ, and see what happened there. Wright speaks of an aggressive, evangelistic Christianity that burst into life in the Roman Empire in the years after Christ; a Christianity that posed a threat to the cohesion of the entire Roman Empire because of the irreversible clash between two different and opposing modes of thought. This clash was brought to an end by the “truly brilliant idea” of making Christianity the single religion of the Roman Empire.
Wright observes that “The legalising of the Christian religion in this particular fashion was the greatest disaster to have befallen the church in all its history.” The real effect, he believed, was the paganising of the church, the invasion into the church of a foreign and destructive spirit, and the church being permeated with the far-from-Christian concerns of the state. Lloyd-Jones observation of today’s church was certainly true of the church then: “The church is no longer distinct from the world, for instead of the church going out into the world we have allowed the world to capture the church from the inside.” “Once more,” says Wright, “religion was being used in the service of political power and social cohesion, but in a way which transformed the religion of the cross into something quite different.”
The result was staggering. “The persecuted minority became the persecuting majority. The little flock became the established authority.” The church was no longer a radical body of the people of Christ, but it had become the servant of every citizen; it was religion for the people, how the people wanted it and when they wanted it. The church was now the servant of the state, and had lost its distinctiveness; the church was bankrupt of the presence and power of God, the organic body of Christ had become a state-controlled institution. Tozer’s observation of the twentieth-century church is appropriate for then: “The church and the world have become so mixed up that it is hard to tell one from the other.”
Now it is, of course, true to say that the church has a visible human form simply because it is a collection of human beings. “The church is at the same time the object of faith and the object of empiricism. It is at the same time an eschatological and a historical power.” There will always be the visible form and therefore, to some extent, the human institution, of church.
It is not possible to avoid this, because “the church is the concrete form in which men experience the history of Christ.” However, what kind of concrete form the church is in is quite a different matter altogether. The church’s self-identity will be crucial in determining its concrete form, and it is at this point that we must consider a crucial question: Is the church the means of salvation among human beings, or is it the result of salvation working among human beings? Or is it both?
It is my current thinking that the institutional church believes that it is the means of salvation among human beings, while the organic body of Christ – the otherness of church – knows that it is the result of salvation working among human beings. The state Christian church of the Roman Empire lost its reality of otherness – and with it its true self-identity – and believed itself to be the means by which the whole earth would be saved.
As the state church, it saw itself as being in the ideal position to influence the nation and thereafter the world, but failed to realise that, in the act of becoming the state church, it surrendered its vital identity and reality – its otherness. As Moltmann had concluded, the church is not the church for the people, but rather the church of the people; but the state church of the Roman Empire was the church for the people as much as the churches of England and Scotland are today.
For this is surely what happened in England and Scotland with their respective national state churches following the Reformation. Moltmann speaks of what occurs when Christian community and civil community amalgamate and the church becomes the state church, and, in doing so, he describes the English and Scottish situations perfectly. Part of his observation is that “church fellowship becomes not so much fellowship in the church as fellowship with the church.”
“The sacraments of … baptism and the Lord’s Supper recede behind the clerical ministrations of infant baptism, confirmation, the marriage ceremony, and burial.” Moltmann saw very clearly that a state church is always a compromised church. “Establishment Christianity can only be lived by making a compromise with family, professional, social and political laws and duties.” As Newbigin highlighted, “the church has historically entangled proclamation with coercion and political power, this has understandably caused rejection of the gospel”; although, actually, it has really been rejection of the attitudes of those who pushed the gospel in that way.
By losing its otherness, “church has therefore lost its radical nature as a counterculture driven by the politics of Jesus and has made itself the watch dog for morality and a chaplain to society.” “For the real Church does not live by a religious and moral cultural tradition, but by the word of the living God, which proclaims judgment over kings and priests, over the rulers and the governed, over the ecclesiastical and social institutions.”
Now, all of this is crucial to an understanding of why mainline Christianity is declining in the United Kingdom today, because, when the church surrenders its identity and otherness and becomes the established state church, it loses all credibility in the eyes of the very people that it believes it is reaching. It is this loss of credibility that is at the heart of Christianity’s decline in the United Kingdom today.
Muslims are often described by Europeans as fanatical, although this is a charge that is not often levelled at Christians today! Holy wars, death to infidels, a total willingness to die for Allah, and many other characteristics are used by some people to show why Muslims are fanatical. I would suggest that a better way to describe Muslims is faithful. I would further suggest that because they are faithful to their religion, they, as Muslims, do not have a credibility gap between what they believe and how they are seen to live. Their religion is plausible and credible because they are plausible and credible. Plausible and credible is precisely what mainline Christianity is not in the United Kingdom today, and this I will put forward as the most important reason for mainline Christianity’s decline.
The mainline Christian church of the last few generations has claimed to be the possessor of absolute truth while, at the same time, showing nothing of the presence and power of the God that it claims to represent. Such claims turn absolute truth into a set of doctrines or theology enshrined in creeds or confessions, the holding of which proves (or disproves) the validity of faith. How far this church has moved from its roots!
Now there most certainly is absolute truth. “That truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience; it is certainly not to be found by repeating abstract nouns like justice and love; it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. The truth is personal, concrete, historical.” As Fowler has stated: “Truth is lived; it is a pattern of being in relation to others and to God.”
Therefore, Newbigin speaks of mission as God’s mission, not ours; as the work of God where the church is, not the work of the church where God is. “It is God who acts in the power of his Spirit, doing mighty works, creating signs of a new age, working secretly in the hearts of men and women to draw them to Christ.” This is precisely what mainline Christianity has been bankrupt of, and this is precisely why mainline Christianity has been declining for so long.
The church glibly declares that the gospel changes lives, but it seems that there is no power to effect that change. Little wonder that Lloyd-Jones spoke of “our ignorance of the power of God, especially in our own lives”. The power lies not in the belief, nor the doctrine, nor the theology; not even in the gospel itself. For, as Willard points out, it is not the gospel that saves a person, but Jesus; it is not believing in Jesus that proves someone to be a Christian, but a living relationship with Jesus. This is the otherness of Christianity.
The believer’s union with Christ was a theme on which Spurgeon reflected, preached and at times rhapsodized, and I have absolutely no doubt that Spurgeon did so because the union was real. But today we do not preach, teach, live or show union with Christ; we preach for a decision, we teach for conformity, we live for meetings and we show mere religion. The power and the reality – the otherness – are gone, and with them went our credibility.
No wonder Wright declared that “we are more likely to gain a proper hearing for our faith (in the Western world at least) if we adopt a position of modest advocacy rather than of strident dogmatism.” If we will honestly examine the past, then “the Christian church must learn to return to where she once started from, in order that she may go forward into the future.” Will we dare to accept the challenge?
The uniting of state and church had effected a change in the way that Christianity is viewed by the world at large, and Christianity is increasingly described as irrelevant, archaic and out-of-date. As Bruce put it: “The greatest damage done by science and technology to religious world-views is not in displacing religiously sanctioned ideas about the world (though they have done that) but in subtly altering the way we think about the world so as to make religious beliefs and rituals ever more irrelevant.” The tragedy is that “secular values have imperceptibly eroded and replaced Christian values and some people have not even noticed the difference.”
If Christianity is to reverse the decline that is endemic in the United Kingdom, then the otherness that marked the New Testament church needs to be recovered. “If the Church is to move forward with joy and power in this age she will need to be filled with fresh infusions of God’s Spirit, proclaiming and receiving the Real Presence of God in the individual and corporate lives of her members.” Surely it is that Real Presence which marks out God’s people in this world; not theological conformity, doctrinal ‘purity’ or ecclesiastical agreement.
As Tozer lamented: “How empty and meaningless is the average church service today. All the means are in evidence; the one ominous weakness is the absence of the Spirit’s power.” Many things have been tried, and all have failed, as Tozer knew. “More education, better organization, finer equipment, more advanced methods – all are unavailing. I think there can be no doubt that the need above all needs in the Church of God at this moment is the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Likewise, Lloyd-Jones “felt very strongly that a demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit was the only answer to the moribund state of the church in his day.” Cymbala, too, recognised how the church could again be filled with life: “The answer is not in any human methodology. The answer is in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Lloyd-Jones expresses his frustration over Christianity’s decline and, at the same time, pointed to the answer: “We are so decorous, we are so controlled, we do everything with such decency and order that there is no life, there is no warmth, there is no power! But that is not New Testament Christianity. Does your faith melt and move your heart? Does it get rid of the ice that is in you, the coldness in your heart, and the stiffness? The essence of New Testament Christianity is this warmth that is invariably the result of the presence of the Spirit.”
Christianity in the United Kingdom today has lost touch with the world because it has lost touch with its God. The otherness that marked out the church of the New Testament has been lost and the United Kingdom is the poorer for it. The uniting of church and state has done the damage historically, and the credibility of Christianity as a living faith in the Living God has disappeared under the weight of doctrine and theology dogmatically proposed. The church has become so much a part of the world that it is impossible to tell them apart. Otherness has become sameness.
I leave Tozer to remind us that “the Church has been propagated by the Holy Spirit, so we can only worship in the Spirit, we can only pray in the Spirit, and we can only preach effectively in the Spirit, and what we do must be done by the power of the Spirit.” May it be so again in our day.
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