The Church’s biggest crisis?

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?

Categories: Church, Theology

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26 replies

  1. The church’s biggest crisis, I think, is superbly summed up by Gandhi:

    I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians: they are so unlike him.

    That’s the problem all of us who call ourselves Christians are up against: our lives are so unlike the life of the one we claim to follow; the people around us can see that and they quite rightly call the church out as a haven for hypocrites.

    Consider, for instance, the ongoing misogyny and homophobia within the Church of England — vehemently denied by most of those in leadership positions, of course, but lived out in practice as women are denied positions in the episcopate and gay people are denied the right to marry, all neatly packaged and presented as so-called “theological reservations”.

    I am not ashamed of the Gospel, nor am I ashamed of my faith — but all too often I find myself ashamed of the church to which I belong and I cannot commend it to those on the outside. You’re right: it’s not about numbers on the inside; but it surely is about the numbers on the outside, the numbers pushed into the margins and shunted aside by the very people who should be welcoming them — because they are not numbers, they are people; and there are too many times when I see more of Jesus sitting on the wall outside the church than I do in the pews on the inside…

    • Thanks Phil. As Christians we don’t often help ourselves. I think what you’re talking about is a mindset that we don’t see that often. The Church is as much for those outside as within. We’re not going to agree on everything and we shouldn’t expect to but if those differences become more important than the core of the Gospel an the label of ‘hypocrite’ is too big then we’re doing something wrong.

      Sometimes it needs those on the outside to point out what’s been missed or ignored by those on the inside.

      • Thanks Gillan; and two things for the record: I am aware of my own shortcomings; and I do not count you amongst the misogynists and homophobes. On the contrary, you continually make a clear effort here to reach out to, understand and engage with those with whom you disagree. I do not deny that some have genuine theological reservations about the role of women and the legitimacy of gay relationships within the church: the problem, alas, is how those reservations are all too often expressed and lived out.

        • Thanks again Phil. I’m very glad that not everyone who comments on here agrees with everything I say. I appreciate it that we can disagree on some things and still give each other plenty of respect. I do think that we agree on most things and that is probably more important!

    • What is the context for that Gandhi quote? Did he like the Christ who said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”? Or did he simply like the man called Jesus?

      • Isn’t context implicit in the quote, Joe? Gandhi, I believe, was comparing the behaviour of Christ with the behaviour of those who call themselves his followers.

        What did Jesus himself say about those who call him, “Lord, Lord…” but do not live accordingly?

        • Gandhi didn’t *believe* in Christ so it’s not clear he did actually like the Christ “who is ready to judge the living and the dead”.

          It is absurd to list opposition to gay marriage and the ordination of women bishops as examples of homophobia and misogyny. Of course, Christians can be homophobic and misogynist but challenging real examples of prejudice isn’t made any easier by antagonising people with false accusations.

        • “By their fruits shall you know them.” That’s says it all, I think, and I’ll not abuse Gillan’s hospitality by arguing the toss with you further, Joe. Pax.

        • If it sad it all, the fruit of the Spirit would not listed alongside the acts of the flesh – which include “sexual immorality”.

  2. I completely agree. It’s definitely not all about numbers; in fact I find it very irritating when the first question you are asked about any service/event/ministry you run is the number of people who came. I think that there are far too many ‘baby believers’ in our churches who haven’t been mentored, discipled, supported, stretched and encouraged to go deeper in their faith and to take risks for Jesus. My prayer is for church leaders who can truly shepherd spiritually immature believers and help them grow up for God.

  3. We cannot be guided solely by church numbers, i have spoken with two people this week ,one who became a christian two years ago reads his bible daily, does mission,loves Jesus but never goes to church. Another carries a mini ”church” in his van playing Worship and teaching CD’S reads his bible daily, evangelizes on building sites yet rarely attends church. As a relatively new Christian i have found the church welcoming and friendly with a great deal of good work going on within the local community. Doing good works though is easier than evangelism where you may be required to explain your faith to which people may become hostile. Justin Welby is right to emphasize the importance of evangelism, we do not do it enough simply because it is the hardest thing to do, taking us out of our comfort zone. Emmas point is true in that Christians do not feel equipped or confident enough. An attitude that is sniffy toward apologetics though is not helpful, we need to be able to argue a case coherently as well as tell our own story, serve the community and show love and grace. I agree far better we have smaller numbers being good disciples than churches full of people who just tick the C of E box. Leadership is the key so it is good that Justin Welby has pinpointed it so some strategy may emerge but there is a growing awareness of its importance at grass roots level. Breeding confidence will only come with discussion and mutual support. Encouraging those who have a heart to do it. Maybe some kind of course to equip Christians for this kind of work would help. ”The questions that Christians hope no one will ask. (with answers)

    • Graham, if you want a course on evangelism, try

    • My issue with apologetics is that it is too often seen as an academic exercise and that if you get your answers sorted, you can argue someone into Heaven, which is rarely the case. Apologetics does need learned people to work on it it, but unless it’s adapted (without being dumbed down) into a form that most people can make sense of and deal with then it’s stays as a preserve of the elite which is clearly wrong.

      • I reckon Way of the master is written for people like you Gillan! (& Graham!) It certainly is NOT about arguing people into heaven, but shows people they are sinners in need of a saviour, by simple means, using the 10 commandments to show anyone of any background that they have broken all 10,i.e, “Have you ever lied/stolen/lusted?” so cannot get to heaven by themselves on their own merits. Certainly not the preserve of the elite! I really recommend looking at the film on their website called “Hell’s best kept secret”, and the videos of people sharing the gospel message.

        I absolutely agree you cannot argue anyone into heaven, you can only tell people they are sinners in need of a saviour, and pray God opens their eyes and hearts to be convicted of sin, to repent and trust in Christ’s substitutionary death to save them. After all, “it is by grace that we are saved” (Eph 2:8-9), and Jesus says “no-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (Jn 6:44). I think if we remember God is sovereign, and saves whom he chooses, that takes the pressure off us when explaining the gospel to others, all we have to do is explain why Christ had to die; it is God’s job to cause people to be born-again, to give them a new heart. Of course “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom 10:14)
        (I do not claim to be an expert, nor do I have much opportunity to spread the gospel, but I have gained confidence in explaining my faith to others through WOTM, and personally know an evangelist who uses this method.)

  4. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    Biggest crisis? I think not ! Nor that ‘Christianity is facing a catastrophic collapse in Britain’, as one editor sensationally posits. I agree in the main with Gillan, especially that the traditional church has failed in its duties and that encountering Jesus is key. This must be personally experienced and practised outside church walls. Yet how many have that personal, continual relationship? How many encounter God in church today? How many ministers allow His weighty glory to come into ‘their’ meeting? Ie, does God attend church?

    Thankfully, our Lord’s rectifying the lack of anointed leaders who regularly meet and hear Him, and who can thus teach and disciple ‘hard-core believers’ in doing so too. (Last week I met one such 30 years-old who’d visited the underground Chinese church. They have to worship in silence yet their deafening praise arose before God’s throne!) So it’s not only an intellectual issue as Gillan explains, but also and more essentially one of moving into revelatory and prophetical insight as well as accessing heaven direct.

    Imho, the remedy is for church to be remodelled upon the pristine New Testament Church where the presence of Jesus was the sole authority, and Holy Spirit the sole power base for all ministerial and missionary activity. Then, the designation ‘Christian’ would revert to its original meaning of ‘Little Christ’, or ‘Anointed one’: those functioning with the very same power and authority as did their Lord and Saviour. Then, will real revival to which Gillan refers – and others foretell – begin. And it will. Father is already making the Bride a suitable spouse for His Son…

    • We absolutely can’t ignore the work of the Holy Spirit. I probably should have talked about that too. I’ve alluded to it in my Pentecost post. If we try and do things in our own strength without welcoming the Holy Spirit and relying on His power, then we’ll always struggle and we’ll miss out on so much that God has promised us. Come Holy Spirit!

  5. My experience as a Reader is that people actually don’t ‘know’ what they believe: happy among other Christians, as you rightly say, willing to read a Bible,offer prayers, but …ask people what they believe, and it is apparent they do not *know* Despite reciting the Creed, or listening to some very good sermons, even despite singing hymns [an under-rated form of theological information]. I think this is why people do not go out and have conversations with their neighbours: even when it comes to Back to Church Sunday, people would rather not have that if it means risking a conversation about faith.
    Maybe your University’s 5 minute ‘module of faith’ should be part of your next posting? At the least it might be a useful springboard for the uncertain.

    • It begs the question: Are people TRUELY converted if they a) don’t know what they believe, b) can’t explain it to others?
      If someone knows they are a sinner who has received Christ’s forgiveness, surely they can explain that to others? “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.(1 Peter 3:15) And just 3 verses on is the perfect concise explanation of the gospel: “Christ died for sins once for all,the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Pet 3:18)

      • Indeed it does! but often we are talking about people who are brought up as Christians, not converted: and their familiarity with eg church-going does not mean they are comfortable with talking about their faith. There are plenty of opportunities to discover, but people have to want to… that is part at least of the difficulty. Being comfortable with what you do, doesn’t make anyone question what you believe. I don’t know the answer! Opportunities are offered…

      • Depends what you mean by “converted” — I have a cousin with Down’s Syndrome, quite severe, he believes in Jesus, but he could never explain his faith to anyone else. Then there’s me: born & brought up in a Christian home — Jesus has always been there; to speak of conversion in my case is meaningless…

  6. The trouble is – all the people IN the church – think they are IN. All the people outside the church feel that they are OUT. Until the sinners on the inside acknowledge that there is nobody worthy of heaven. And that Jesus died for everyone – whether in or out – then you will never find the outsiders searching for Jesus in your churches. I am sorry but this is the real truth. Stop telling people that there are hurdles to jump over to get in – and tell them how much they are already loved. There is no form to fill in or a special prayer to be said. Thats nonsense – only believed by the good people ‘inside’. Jesus’ arms are wide, wide open. Much wider than the churches. Convince people of this and you might see people searching for this man.

    • I agree with much of what you have said, but I think that you over simplify things. There are plenty of people in the church who do not have a ‘them and us mentality’. I don’t really recognise the church that you describe. Certainly some churches aren’t very good at being welcoming, but I don’t know any Christians who think they have got it all sorted and are better than anyone else as a result.

  7. Gillan, et al – am surprised how this topic and your comments have stirred me. So you may be interested to consider Welsh pastor Richard Taylor on ‘The Unstoppable Church’, as here


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