The declining proportion of the population who identify themselves as ‘Christian’ along with church attendance is in the news yet again today and the numbers don’t look great. When the Church of England’s latest attendance figures were published earlier this month, there was a similar story with the usual spin and analysis (including my own) that attempted to determine just how bad or good they were depending on who was looking at them and what message was trying to be promoted. Secularists and atheists in particular love to talk about how the Church is becoming increasingly irrelevant and how it is inevitable that before too long the Church will shrink to the point of extinction.
Sometimes it appears that churches are a bit too focused on numbers as a measurement of success as well. The trap of measuring success by how many people do or don’t come through the doors is an easy one to fall into. It’s very disheartening when you hear some people bemoaning the fact that less people come to church without seriously considering why that might be and blaming society for falling away from God rather than considering whether the fault might lie as much with the way the Church has failed in its duties. Initiatives such as Back-to-Church Sunday are attempting to address some of this, but even if you can persuade people to come through the doors, they’ll only come back if they like what they see once they’re inside.
To be honest I’m not too worried about church numbers in themselves. I’d much rather see a smaller Church that is full of believers fully committed to God than a bloated one where people just attend out of habit. Throughout the Bible as you look at the history of the Jewish nation it is common for the majority of the population to have turned their back on God. Those passionately living according to God’s laws were mostly small in number. It was only when religious revival hit that the number of people seeking God dramatically increased.
Jesus talks about the harvest being plentiful, but the workers being few. Thing haven’t changed much over the centuries. Small numbers don’t necessarily indicate that the Church is doing badly, but at the same time they can be a good indicator of how effective the Church is being in its primary job of worship, discipleship and mission. Worrying about numbers if your foundations are shaky is a waste of time. When the foundations are solid then the house will be strong. Jesus goes on about this in the parable of the wise and foolish builders.
At the start of this parable Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” It’s encountering Jesus as well as putting his words into practice that is key to the future of the Church and the strength of an individual’s faith. And this is where I believe there is a crisis in the Church. Based on my experiences and observations along with speaking to many other Christians, there is a problem, not so much with believing in Jesus, but rather knowing the genuine Jesus of the Bible and having a sufficient grasp of his teachings to apply them to real life and to be able to understand and express our faith confidently
I’m not alone in this view. Justin Welby talking at this week’s Church of England diocesan church growth strategies’ conference said that,
“Evangelism has to be a priority” and the CofE at present has a bit of work to do on this. Is it on the agendas of our meetings, synods, etc.? It must also be seen as normal for everyone “this is emphatically not a clergy thing, this is a Christian thing.”
“Dealing with the really hard issues, solidly, is absolutely fundamental.” Churches need to help people with apologetics, dealing with the tough questions, and being able to explain their faith.”
The Evangelical Alliance is currently in the middle of an initiative entitled Confidence in the Gospel. It started with a year-long consultation with churches to see how they approach mission. Here they describe what their findings:
‘After a wide-ranging consultation over the last 12 months speaking to leaders and thinkers from across the UK, we have discovered that although mission is clearly at the heart of what many churches are doing, talking about our faith as Christians is proving increasingly difficult.
‘It has been exciting to find so many churches with a passion for reaching their community. In fact it is getting harder to find a church that is just running Sunday services and house groups. Mission is clearly high on the agenda of most churches as we see many plugging into national initiatives like Foodbank, Street Pastors, and Christians Against Poverty as well as providing bespoke services for their communities. But despite the increased amount of community engagement, there is also an apparent decrease in our confidence and competence to verbally explain the good news.’
This all comes down to apologetics, which is not apologising for your faith, but rather knowing what and why you believe and being able to argue the case for it. Paul says in Ephesians that if we are mature in our faith we ‘will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.’
It’s a tough and dirty world out there. Christians who are only comfortable when they are surrounded by other Christians in a holy huddle are never going to be valuable advocates for the Gospel. When friends ask questions about the Christian faith or issues come up in the media on subjects such as euthanasia, are we able to give coherent answers? Do we know how to tie the Bible to our everyday living?
Because our society has become increasingly illiterate when it comes to matters of faith and religion, if Christians aren’t able to clearly articulate their beliefs there is almost no chance that people will hear the truth about Jesus. One issue is that theology is a scary word. Studying the Bible is not seen to be easy by many and often left to ministers and priests to interpret and explain it. Apologetics is even worse; definitely best left to academics with huge brains. What chance has an ordinary person got?
I first began to understand what apologetics was when I went to university. At the Christian Union we were taught how to present the Gospel in six easy steps in under five minutes, which should be enough to get anyone to realise they are sinful and need to repent. We also learnt about how evolution and science didn’t hold all the answers and how to answer questions such as, ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ This was not a total waste of time by any means, but it mostly wasn’t contextual. Since then I’ve never been in a position where I’ve felt it right to present the Gospel in six easy steps to anyone, but I have had conversations about why I go to church or what difference does it make being a Christian? Academic answers rarely are the most appropriate in these circumstances. Giving answers that relate to real life experiences are much more effective.
The only story we know of Jesus’ childhood is about him learning and debating the scriptures. He knew that this was important, but what he did better than anyone else as he carried out his ministry was to bring them to life and allow everyday people such as uneducated fishermen to make sense of them. That’s why courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored are so important. They enable those seeking answers to begin to have a biblical grounding in what it means to be a Christian. We have to remember though, that just because you’ve done an Alpha course or your church has put one on, that that is all that needs to be done. It’s not. Discipleship is an ongoing thing. There are some great courses available such as those from the OCCA (Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics) for those who have got the time, but for every church, there is the question of what can be done to encourage everyone no matter what age or background to develop a confidence of faith and belief that can be applied to every aspect of life.
Those who are secure in their faith are much more likely to be happy to talk about it and not be afraid to tackle the difficult questions that life provides. Church communities that believe in themselves and God and aren’t ashamed to be agents of the Gospel are inevitably more attractive. When this happens, the numbers will tend to look after themselves.
These are challenging times to be a Christian. The Church needs people who are not ashamed of what they believe, who aren’t fearful of the attacks and pressures that will come along and who don’t need to respond defensively or aggressively, but with empathy and understanding. It’s a big issue that requires a big response, but it’s certainly one that can’t be ignored. If there is a crisis in maturity of faith and confidence then are we acknowledging it and what should the response be?