I am fascinated by Paul’s sermon to the court of Areopagus and for the innovative way in which he sought to share the Christian Gospel. This court, which had become a fashionable debating club for the leading people of Athens, took its name from the place where its meetings were held on the Hill of Ares, otherwise known as Mars Hill.
Paul began his address by commenting on an altar inscription: ‘To an unknown Gd’ (Acts 17.22). Scholars do not know why there was such an inscription. My old PhD supervisor suggested that a derelict altar had been repaired, and since the original dedication could not be ascertained, it was entitled ‘To an unknown God’. Others have suggested that the Athenians may have erected the altar in order to placate any deity in whose honour they had not thought to erect a place of worship. Whatever, it provided a marvellous sermon starter for Paul: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17.23).
To my mind, this has so much resonance for today’s church. For as in ancient Greece, so today there are many young people in particular who in their own way are seeking to engage with an ‘unknown God’. This was one of the findings a survey commissioned by the Church of England. The survey was conducted by Savanta and was based on online responses from 2073 adults between 1-3 July 2022, with the results being published on 22 August 2022. Significantly a majority of 18- to 34-year-olds (56%) said they had ever prayed, with a third (32%) reporting that they had prayed in the last month. By contrast, a minority in the 55+ age group said they had ever prayed (41%) with 25% saying they had prayed in the last month. Overall nearly half (48%) said they had ever prayed with just over a quarter (28%) saying they have prayed in the last month. Wow! More than any other group, young people are interested in spiritual things. As, Dr Stephen Hance, National Lead for Evangelism and Witness for the Church of England, said: “These findings… show us that – more than simply being interested in spirituality – they are already exploring it in practice, to a greater extent than their elders.” He went on:
In an age when mindfulness and meditation are more popular than ever, prayer makes sense to people. And with pressures mounting and people of every generation facing huge uncertainty, many people of all ages are drawing strength from God in prayer.
In the light of these findings from the Savanta survey, the results of the voluntary question on religion, which was part of the 2021 Census of England and Wales, make for interesting reading.
For from the 2021 census there we discovered that for the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011. Although despite this decrease, “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question, “No religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12.0 percentage points to 37.2% (22.2 million) from 25.2% (14.1 million) in 2011. There were increases in the number of people who described themselves as “Muslim” (3.9 million, 6.5% in 2021, up from 2.7 million, 4.9% in 2011) and “Hindu” (1.0 million, 1.7% in 2021, up from 818,000, 1.5% in 2011).
Contrast this then with the Savanta census and we come up with the following: although most people do not identify themselves as Christians, nonetheless a large number of non-religious people are interested in spirituality. Indeed, it would appear that they take personal prayer a good deal more seriously than many so-called ‘practicing’ Christian churchgoers. Furthermore, as Nicholas Henshall said in a sermon preached when he was still Dean of Chelmsford, it is “both sobering and exciting to know that the group in our society most likely to pray regularly are people under 35, exactly the demographic missing from most churches”.
True, the results of the census remind us of the enormous challenge which faces today’s churches, many of which are in massive decline, to reach people for Christ. Yet the reality is that while many people have given up on religion, many are longing for God, even though it is a God they are not yet able to name.
As the archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, said after the results of the census were made known: “We have left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian”, but “the same people still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by”.
In other words, where Christian proclamation is combined with sensitivity and creativity, there is no reason not to think we have a real opportunity to share the good news of Jesus crucified and risen. In Athens, for instance, Luke tells us that “Paul was telling the good news about Jesus and his resurrection” (Acts 17.18: see also 17.31). He also went on to call people to “repent” (Acts 17.31) which suggests to my mind that he would also have spoken about the Cross. Would that we had a full transcript of the sermon to the Areopagus!