How to halt the decline

Since writing last week’s blog – Develop an invitational decline or die – my attention was drawn to an online article entitled, Why is UK Church attendance falling and what can be done about it? 12 leaders respond (Premier Christianity, 12 April 2022).

The friend who sent me the link, commented: “It seemed like the usual ‘kick the church while its down’ stuff, where we project onto the church our own frustration”. I tend to agree. What is more, some of the comments were totally unfair:

Robert Beckford, for instance, claimed that “the church hasn’t declined because it hasn’t de colonised… It is a tragedy that dance floors on Saturday nights are inclusive, while Sunday mornings in church are apartheid”. Undoubtedly the British church failed the Windrush generation, but the reality is that today many churches are happily multicultural. My experience of large black churches is limited, but the one really large black Baptist church I know happily associates with other churches in the London Baptist Association, and this very week asked me to join in celebrating the 70th birthday of its founding pastor, one of my former students at Spurgeon’s. Beckford bemoans the fact that there are few black people teaching theology in the university sector, but fails to take account that there are an increasing number of black leaders now training people for ministry. In Chelmsford, for instance, the leader of the St Mellitus ‘branch’ is West African. For the record, the Bishop of Chelmsford is from Iran and has a PhD in church history; while the Bishop of Bradwell is Indian and has a PhD in theology. True, we have a way to go before all the churches in Britain are fully integrated, but we are on the way!

Then another leader, Kate Gaddini, claimed that “it’s time leaders started addressing systematic misogyny and valuing women as equal members of the body of Christ”, and said that is why so many young women are put off church. My immediate reaction is ‘what world are you living in?’ Many of the churches I know are led by women, and will increasingly be led by women. The General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain is a woman; three of the four regional ministers in my local Baptist association are women; in the Chelmsford Diocese the Bishop of Chelmsford is a woman, and so is the Bishop of Barking. Today the churches where women are treated as not equal members of the body of Christ are a small minority.

Yet another leader, Natalie Williams, claimed that the church is middle class with little room for the working class, and that is why we are not growing. Next week you will see my positive review of her recent book, co-authored with Paul Brown, Invisible Divides. But my impression of those entering Baptist ministry today are increasingly ‘lower middle class’, if not actually ‘working class’. I find it fascinating that whereas the Archbishop of Canterbury went to public school, the Archbishop of York was educated in a secondary modern school and as a result has a real touch with ‘ordinary people’ (if you will forgive such an expression). My own father, who became a notable New Testament scholar, had to leave school at 16 to support his family, and learnt the Greek alphabet from an electricians’ diary.

And so the litany of criticism continued. Andrea Williams of Christian Concern claimed that “the church is declining because we have forgotten how to love Jesus. We have forgotten that Jesus Christ is Lord and King, ruling over the kings of the earth”. That may be true of some churches, but I do not think it is fair to accuse all declining churches that they have forgotten to love Jesus. The other Sunday I was preaching in a small London suburban church, which had seen better days. There were no young families, just twenty five mostly older people, who every Wednesday morning faithfully meet together for a two-hour prayer meeting. I had arrived early for the service, so had an opportunity to talk to one lady in her 80s, and found her to be radiant with her love for Jesus.

Calvin Robinson of GB News attacked the leaders of the church as having “lost all sense of direction”. In particular, he claimed that “the church as an institution has become increasingly liberal, attempting to chase societal norms, instead of offering an alternative option to an increasingly godless society”. As a general statement, that is untrue. Read Stephen Cottrell’s latest book, Dear England: Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World. I can’t think of a better book to challenge a non-Christian. Stephen Cottrell may not be an Evangelical, but he has a Gospel heart.

I confess that I found the article disappointing, not least because those interviewed failed to share any practical insights which might help leaders to ‘halt the decline’. What is more, some gave the impression that there is only one way to win people for Christ and his church – their way! For instance, Mike Royal believed that we need to learn from the black churches: “to stem the decline, services need to be vibrant and provide a sense of uplift for those who attend”. No doubt many would find that kind of worship appealing – but not everybody! There is a place for what Anglicans have described as ‘the mixed economy’, to ensure that churches attract all kinds of people. Frankly I am at the stage in life when I appreciate a quieter style of worship. And, of course, I am not alone. The retired now form a major section of the British population. However, many Evangelical churches are so focussed on the younger generation that older people are effectively excluded. Although I am impressed by what another leader, Tim Hughes, has achieved in his Birmingham church-plant, it is just a church for young people – a church deliberately made up of one kind of people is to my mind a denial of the Gospel!

My friend who sent me the link, made another criticism:

One thing that struck me is that no-one, not one, turned round and said, ‘I don’t think there is a problem with the church. The issue is with a self-righteous, materialistic society that has turned its back on God and is largely only interested in spirituality in a flesh-centred, personal-development sort of way. What we need to do is stay faithful to Christ through this difficult and challenging time.’ Why is it always the church’s fault? I KNOW churches aren’t perfect. But they never have been, nor will they be. The NT teaches us that. Why do we endless berate the Bride of Christ, which He loves and gave His life for, and not berate the increasing sinfulness and all-out rebellion of the world in which we live?

What do you think?

One comment

  1. Paul I liked this article I was unsure where it was going but on reflection I like the conclusion and agree 100%
    God bless you
    Peter

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