Back in February of last year, Richard Dawkins decided he was going to have a public rant about the number of people who call themselves Christians but don’t go to church. Ipsos MORI had carried out a survey the week after the 2011 census for his humbly named Richard Dawkins Foundation to find out what people really meant when they described themselves as ‘Christian’ in the census. Obviously miffed that so many people (72%) had put their religion down as Christian in the previous 2001 census, he appeared to be preparing to confront the 2011 figures when they came out using his own data to rip them apart. As it turned out the census number dropped to 54% with 25% describing themselves as ‘non-believers’. Dawkins pronounced this shift as an “Exhilaratingly high figure”.
Coincidentally, 54% of those in Dawkins own survey also identified themselves as Christians. At over half of the population, this would appear to be a significantly high figure, but some of the other percentages clearly would have made Professor Dawkins’ day. The results found that of those calling themselves Christians, 40% defined it as ‘I try to be a good person’, 26% chose ‘It’s how I was brought up’ and only 16% selected the statement ‘I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour’. 49% had not attended a church service in the previous 12 months. Also more worryingly, 49% did not think is Jesus the Son of God and bizarrely 6% did not believe in God at all. Dawkins must have been jumping for joy when he read these numbers.
This sort of outcome, whilst disheartening, is not totally surprising. Most of us will know people who call themselves ‘Christian’ who have an extraordinarily wide range of beliefs and views on spirituality. ‘Christian’ can mean a whole range of things in a day and age when most people’s genuine understanding of the Bible and Christian teaching is often non-existent or limited at best. This week one of my friends who gave their life to Jesus just a few years ago was telling me how they were convinced that they were a Christian until they starting going to church. It wasn’t long before they realised they had been way off the mark.
Part of the difficulty with the presentation of Dawkins’ findings, as you would expect, is that it has picked out the bits that make genuine believers who are fully committed to their faith appear as an insignificant fringe group. It’s not easy to trust someone who is so blatantly biased on this matter to give the whole picture.
This week, however, the Church Times has published data from a new survey carried out for the respected Westminster Faith Debates, which approach issues of religion and faith in society in a much more academic way. The director, Professor Linda Woodhead, commissioned a large YouGov survey interviewing almost 4,500 people (twice the size of Dawkins’) about faith issues and personal beliefs. The article in the Church Times, which disappointingly is behind a pay wall, focuses on those from the survey who call themselves Anglicans looking at similar areas to Dawkins’ survey. Fortunately the ever impressive and reliable British Religion in Numbers website has provided a summary.
The Findings divide Anglicans into four categories. Sadly, the results don’t make any better reading than Dawkins’:
- Godfearing Churchgoers (5% of Anglicans) – These are Anglicans who attend church, are very certain in their belief in God, and who say that God is the main source of authority in their lives. They are also likely to score highly on other indicators of religiosity (such as prayer and Bible-reading) and to hold conservative views on many issues of personal morality, particularly sexuality (setting them apart with Baptists and Muslims rather than fellow Anglicans).
- Mainstream Churchgoers (12% of Anglicans) – These have more in common with Non-Churchgoing Believers than with the Godfearers. Apart from their churchgoing, they differ in being a little more religious than Non-Churchgoing Believers on a number of measures and a little more morally conservative.
- Non-Churchgoing Believers (50% of Anglicans) – These share a good many of the attributes of Mainstream Churchgoers, notwithstanding that they do not attend church. They all believe in God (although some prefer the word Spirit), and significant numbers practise religious or spiritual activities regularly. ‘These “nominals” are more than Anglican in name only: they believe, practise, and identify with Anglicanism.’
- Non-Churchgoing Doubters (33% of Anglicans) – These Anglicans are also more than merely nominal. Only 15% are outright atheists, most being agnostic or unsure about God, and more than one-fifth claim to practise some religious or spiritual activity in private. They are the most morally permissive of the four groups.
So, out of those who call themselves Anglican, only 17% go to church and of those who do, less than a third take their faith seriously. With almost as many Anglicans claiming they don’t believe in God as go to church, that’s far, far from being anything to celebrate. It’s no surprise therefore that the Church of England still has an image of being vague and fluffy and unsure of what it believes. ‘Anglican’ through these interpretations can mean pretty much anything you want it to – to the point of almost losing all meaning. Professor Woodhead’s conclusion from this research is that the Church of England needs to engage more fully with non-churchgoing Anglicans, rather than concentrating on the ‘Godfearing Churchgoers’. Woodhead is concerned that the Church is in danger of becoming too clerical and congregationally-based, and of abandoning its sense of being a lay institution governed by monarch and Parliament, and responsible to the people.
Professor Woodhead is right to draw attention to the Church’s role beyond its congregations. Jesus commanded his followers to be missional and to get out into the world and share the Good News with everyone. Reaching out to those who identify themselves with the Christian faith is as good a place to start as any. Beyond that point though, I start to get worried. Yes, the Church of England is the established church and that brings certain responsibilities, but if any church starts to take its eyes off Jesus and puts anything else on equal standing or even above him, it is in deep trouble. Rather than being inclusive to the point of embracing anyone no matter what they might believe, the Church of England, or any other church for that matter, will do better pointing out that being a Christian is much, much more than just believing there could be a god or having some family connection with a church. You can’t leave salvation out of the equation even if it’s not politically correct.
Part of the reason church numbers have declined so much is that people have realised that going to church for no reason beyond habit or tradition is a boring and unfulfilling exercise. If you look at the churches that are growing in the UK, you’ll find that they are full of ‘Godfearing Churchgoers’ and those serious about finding out more, both of whom have little interest in woolly niceties. They are much more interested in having a life-changing encounter with the living God. Leaving people to think that being a Christian or an Anglican isn’t anything worth taking seriously does both the church and those it should be engaging with a huge disservice. Jesus Regularly emphasised that following him was a big commitment and that being a hanger-on wasn’t a credible option.
If the Church of England doesn’t want to fade into extinction as Richard Dawkins dearly hopes it will, then it has to make it clear that its role is not a social club to keep ancient traditions going nor a national institution to do the religious stuff on behalf of everyone else to make them feel better. The church is, whether it acknowledges it or not, the body of Christ on Earth. Anything beyond that is dressing. Would upsetting a few people by telling them that they’re not actually Christians after all be such a bad thing if it means the Church is able to rebuild its identity and get the Good News of Jesus out more effectively? Non-Churchgoers might start to appreciate what they’re missing and Richard Dawkins might finally realise that the Church most definitely isn’t a lame duck waiting to be put out of its misery.
Categories: Church, Faith in society, Theology
I tend to think that Richard Dawkins is doing us a favor by exposing the different levels of belief. He is just speaking truth in this respect. Christian apologists have done a very good job in challenging many viewpoints in ”The God delusion” exposing his theological ignorance. Refuting blatant untruths and winning an argument though is only part of the solution.The threat of extinction as a church plus the misrepresentation of our faith, and the broken nature of some areas of our society should be enough to inspire us to greater efforts to mission and evangelism. I am reading a book called ”consumer detox” at the moment and many folk would agree with its sentiments, how damaging consumerism can be particularly the manipulative ways of advertising but people do not see God as a solution to this and many other problems. I am very interested in seeking ways to turn that around and demonstrate how God transforms lives and communities for the better. The Westminster faith debates did a very good job in showing how faith groups enhance community. One area it highlighted was the problem of religious illiteracy both in the corridors of power and in society as a whole and the hostility to it shown by a liberal elite. Getting out there and engaging with people is now vital. Its hard to do mission when we perceive that society may be hostile to us. It can be uncomfortable at times when faced with a question we cannot easily answer. Perhaps though when we do go out though its not quite as bad as we imagine. If we do not engage in a positive way the census figure will be nearer 30% next time. As an aside i think the No religion section in the census should be split into Atheist and Agnostic
A church that is full of ‘Godfearing Churchgoers’ is also a place of habit and tradition. When I first started looking for a church to join it was easy to find ones where I felt comfortable with the teaching. It was all the other conversations, the small talk between sermons, which were not as “inclusive” as I would have liked.
Giles Fraser recently grumbled about HTB being a posh dating agency and he does have a point. HTB is not alone in catering to a particular social demographic – because everyone shops around now. Even godfearing churchgoers self-segregate according to class, race, age etc.
Lively churches are lively in a particular way. The non-churchgoing believers may be staying away not because of a lack of woolly niceties but because the woolly niceties (found in every social context) are expressed in an unfulfilling way (from their perspective).
Most churches are full of habit and tradition in one form or another. It can be a good and a bad thing. I provides security and familiarity, but the danger is that it becomes too important and blinds us to new things that God may be doing or the faults inherent in the tradition. A wise church community doesn’t allow itself to become too comfortable.
The question to ask is why non-church going believers stay away from church. If they feel no need to go to church, then they’re missing something in their understanding. If they feel that they will not be made welcome in a church or have tried and struggled to fit in, then the problem lies with such a church.
The description given is that they believe something, but it could be pretty much anything. You wouldn’t class many as Christians in the literal sense.
HTB’s evangelism strategy is to create spaces for particular demographics and age-groups. Personally, I hate being pigeon-holed and much prefer going to my local church where there’s lots of different people and ages. In a big city, though, they’ve found that this works to get people engaged in church, which can only be a good thing. The fact is, this is the way people live now – only tending to mix with people like themselves and you’ve got to meet people where they are. Some people even get married and start a family through the ‘dating agency’ and bring their children to church.
Though I do think you lose a lot of the richness a church can offer when you don’t learn from an old granny or from someone who works in a very different job from you or comes from a very different ethnic background.
I didn’t mean to criticise HTB. All churches face the same challenge – or trying to build up a real community in an age of radical consumerism. Even in small towns people will drive an hour to worship with people like themselves. I’m guilty of doing the same thing. The Anglican parish church model no longer works. When people choose to make it work, it is really just another variation of the consumerist model.
Yes, I really struggle with consumer church as well (but, like everybody else, I do it), Some more sanguine personalities see it as an opportunity, but I still cringe when people talk about ‘selling the Gospel’. It just doesn’t seem to me that Jesus was much of a salesman – in fact, he had a habit of saying things that put people off – like pointing out how costly it was all going to be. I think that’s probably at the bottom of what set our good friend GF off on his hyperbolic, badly expressed, unhelpful rant. But, the fact is, I don’t have another plan for how we can engage our culture so I don’t feel that I can be the purest standing at the sidelines and criticising.
The other side of the consumer church problem is that most people I meet are jaded. Yes they keep on buying the stuff because ‘If you’re going to be miserable, better to be miserable with lots of stuff’ but they’re very suspicious when people start trying to sell religion to them – they’ve been scammed too many times before to fall for an after-life insurance scheme. Maybe I just hang out with a particularly cynical bunch of people!