Church growth and decline

 

Churches with a conservative view of Scripture who treat the Bible as the Word of God grow faster than those with a liberal view, according to a new report. The report, “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy,” was based on five years of research amongst churchmembers and clergy in Ontario.

 

It discovered that only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches. I’m tempted to ask what planet those clergy from declining churches are living on. But it is more serious than that. I would not like to be them on the Day of Judgment.

 

The report also discovered that:

  • 93% of clergy and 83% of churchmembers in growing churches believed in the bodily resurrection of Christ compared with only 56% of clergy and 67% of worshippers in declining churches.
  • 71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches.

 

However, it is not true that all conservative churches are growing. If they don’t have a strong corporate prayer life, an openness to and experience of the Holy Spirit’s power and a practical commitment to evangelism they won’t grow.

 

There are, of course, other factors. A UK report entitled “Going Deeper: Church attendance statistics and clergy deployment” published in January 2016 states: “An increase in clergy is associated with the likelihood of growth in attendance, while a decrease in clergy is associated, on average, to a decline in attendance.” However, at present rates the number of stipendiary clergy will decline from 7,400 in 2016 to 6,300 in 2035 (it was 8,300 in 2012). 25% of clergy are over 60.

 

There has been an 11% decrease in attendance in the Church of England over the past decade with an average decline of just over 1% a year. 100,000 worshippers have been lost in that period. J John recently pointed out that in 7 out of the 43 dioceses 40% of worshippers are over 70. He added that attendance is declining in 37% of parishes but is growing in 10%.

 

The church and homosexual practice

 

It is important to keep the issue of homosexual practice in proportion. In October 2016 The UK Office for National Statistics published its official figures that only 1.7 per cent of the UK population are lesbian, gay or bisexual.

 

Obviously, every individual and every minority is important. But we need to relate this very small percentage against the enormous effect it is having on society and on the church. This effect is out of all proportion to the numerical size of the problem.

 

So why is it happening? Although there are important non-sexual evils in society, it is clear that there are spiritual forces using sexual sin – heterosexual and homosexual (including promiscuity, adultery, easy divorce, etc) to undermine the family which is the fundamental unit of society. Enormous damage is being done to individuals, including children (quite apart from child abuse) and that has and will have huge negative effects on society.

 

Professor Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, wrote about rapid cultural change. She said: “American culture has become more individualistic and more focused on the self and on equality.  For society to become more focused on self is very damaging. She added that from 1973 to 1990, the percentage of adults who approved of same-sex relationships rose from 11% to 13%. But in the last 25 years, the figure has risen to almost half of all adults.

 

Damage is also being done to the church and there is discrimination against individual Christians. One example is the case of Barry Trayhorn who was chaplain at Littlehey prison. He was disciplined for quoting 1 Cor 6 which condemns various sins including homosexual practice in a sermon. He explained that he wanted to assure the inmates – many of whom have committed horrific sex abuse crimes – that God could bring forgiveness. The prison authorities said he had broken equality laws by quoting a ‘homophobic’ passage.

 

In recent times the following events have happened which show an increasing acceptance of homosexual practice by the church:

  • The vicar of St. Peter’s, Brighton, an evangelical church planted by Holy Trinity, Brompton said he was very supportive of a gay pride march. He added that many of his churchmembers would take part. They had a lot of LGBT people in the congregation and were very supportive of them.
  • The Anglican Church in Canada approved of gay marriage and the Diocese of Toronto elected an “openly gay, partnered bishop.”
  • The evangelical Bishop of Liverpool said the insistence that homosexuals must be celibate to practise their faith should be dropped and that he had “learned to respect the experiences of people who want to celebrate and express their sexuality, and be within the church.”
  • GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future Conference) published a list of clergy who have entered into same-sex marriages and remained in office. One of those clergy, a member of General Synod commented on the recent ‘conversations’ between synod members who have different views on homosexual practice. He said: “I came away with the strong sense that Synod is ready for change … what I experienced and heard was a recognition that the current stance of the Church is untenable.”

On the other hand, the Church of England Evangelical Council stated:  “The blessing of same-sex relationships would be a de facto change of Church of England doctrine.” Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden and a member of the CEEC, said “The House of Bishops are still engaged in conversations about the nature and shape of pastoral provision in this area. Many evangelical Anglicans would agree with the analysis and the concerns expressed in the CEEC document that any move towards further liberalisation would bring to a head the divisions in the Church of England and might well cause a split. My role – and that of my colleagues in the House is to do all that I can to prevent a split and to hold people in the Church of England – though that will not be easy, given what is at stake.”

 

 

How should we respond to all this?

 

We should welcome gay people to church

We should welcome all sinners – heterosexual or homosexual – to come along to church to hear the gospel and to experience the reality of the presence of God. In fact, we can only welcome sinners to church because they are the only people available! We’re all sinners. But the New Testament says that those who persist in serious sin should not be regarded as members. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul gives the example of a person in an illegitimate sexual relationship. (We should note, though, that he also says those persist in greed, idolatry, slander, a drunkenness or swindling should not be regarded as members 1 Cor 5:11).

 

Andrew Brown, a secular journalist, points out a serious inconsistency in the Church of England: “In effect, there is one standard for the laity – which is to conform to the liberal norms of society – and a double standard for the clergy who are supposed to be celibate, even when they live with same sex partners, if not heterosexually married. It is perfectly in order for clergy and even bishops to be civilly partnered.”

 

However the Church of England (like other churches) is making fundamental mistakes in its approach to the homosexual issue. It has not yet changed its basic position that homosexual practice is incompatible with the teaching of Scripture but it is gradually weakening its position in the following ways:

 

We want to be seen as nice

It is trying too hard to be seen as kind and relevant to society. It needs to re-read James stark warning “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” In following Christ and his word we have to be willing to be unpopular and deemed irrelevant and outdated. Whereas we should take trends and opinions in society seriously we should not allow them to dictate what we believe and preach. We should try to communicate as effectively as possible with our secular society but we should stick to our guns on what we believe.

 

We apologise too much

Of course we need to avoid any negativity towards homosexuals as people. We should love our homosexual neighbour as much as our heterosexual neighbour. But loving our neighbour doesn’t mean we have to love their behaviour.  Clearly there have been Christians who despise homosexuals as people – and that is wrong. It is true that there could have been comments and discussions in the church which have been unloving towards homosexuals as people. But the church has now become obsessive about apologising to them. Time after time we have church leaders apologising. It wasn’t helpful that the Archbishop of Canterbury said he was “constantly consumed with horror” at the way the Church treated gay people and that he lay awake thinking about the issue. In their naivety church leaders don’t realise how this excessive apologising comes over to society. It gives the impression we are uncertain of our basic position and we are apologising for it. By all means apologise, but don’t keep on doing it.

 

We give the impression that the moral issue is simply a matter of opinion

I have been involved in a great deal of dialogue with homosexuals and it helps develop inter-personal understanding. But the Church of England General Synod may not be aware of the impression it has given to society by its recent “conversations.” The impression is that both opinions are equally legitimate – those who approve homosexual practice and those who don’t. The further impression given is that, in a true Church of England way, we’ll eventually decide that both sides have won and both shall have prizes. The message that should be conveyed is that, whereas discussion is valuable, the official position of the church, as decided by a 98% majority of the General Synod in 1987, is that, like fornication and adultery “that homosexual genital acts … are … to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion” and those who disagree are mistaken. Also the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops agreed “This conference, in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.”

 

We think we might be able to bless sin

We are considering the possibility of blessing gay relationships. If such relationships are not sexually active there is no problem. But if they are sexually active we should not bless them. The weakness in the position that we can bless sexually active homosexual relationships is that God will have no part in it – and he is the one being asked to provide the blessing.

 

So we contribute to the moral decline in society which is doing enormous harm to adults and children. May God forgive us.

 

Conclusion

The church needs to return to the clear teaching of Scripture in the power of the Spirit and we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to bring revival in the church and society

 

So, yet another report of the dramatic decline of Christianity in the UK has emerged in May 2016. It was based on British Social Attitude surveys from the last 30 years and showed that in 2014 48.5% of the population claim they have no religion (compared with 25% in 2011). On the other hand 43.5% claimed to be Christians. Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University, said that 40% of people raised as Anglicans have abandoned their faith. Another report by ScotCen Social Research said that 52% of Scottish people claimed to have no religion compared with 40% in 1999.

 

A YouGov report in March 2016 said that only 41% of British people who claim to be Christians say they definitely believe in a Creator and 18% said they didn’t. Also 44% of British “Christians” believe in heaven but only 27% believe in Hell. In 2015 YouGov found that only 55% of people claiming to be Christian believe in God.

 

One thing is clear from these figures. Many British people claiming to be Christian are not really Christians. Part of what is happening is that fewer British people are claiming to be Christian when they aren’t. Many people who were not involved in the church superficially regarded themselves as “C of E” but that rather irrelevant practice is now dying out. This is hardly a decline in Christianity but more a facing up to reality.

 

A recent editorial in The Guardian stated: “This decline in self-identification probably has very little to do with belief. The people in the pews have always been heretics with only the vaguest notion of what official doctrines are, and still less of an allegiance to them. The difference is now that they are outside the pews, even if they still hold the same vague convictions about a life spirit or a benevolent purpose to the universe.” There is some truth in that.

 

In its Statistics for Mission 2014 the Research and Statistics Department of the Archbishops’ Council reported that in 2014, the worshipping community of the Church of England was 1.1 million people, of whom 20% were aged under 18 and 29% over 70.  It also said: “Most measures of attendance show a similar trend: a steady decline of 10-15% over the past decade, although adult weekly attendance is down by 7% since 2004. However, I would urge caution when considering trends. Some questions, such as the usual Sunday attendance, have been asked in almost the same way for many years. Others have changed, to reflect changes in church activity or the evolving interests of those using the data; these changes potentially make it difficult to compare figures from year to year.”

 

In his recently published book “The Invisible Church” Dr Steve Aisthorpe, a mission development worker for the Church of Scotland, writes: “Changes in wider society and in the practices of Christian people mean attendance at Sunday morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith. There is decline in Christian faith in Britain, but it is considerably smaller than previously assumed.”

 

It was interesting to read in the same Guardian editorial comments about the effects of the serious decline of Christianity in the UK: “Such an enormous change is bound to have implications for the rest of us. A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it. Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics.”

 

It is important to keep a sense of perspective on the decline of church attendance in the UK etc. Canon Giles Fraser wrote recently in response to the recent statistics: “In 1900 … there were 8 million Christians in Africa. Now there are 335 million. And the growth rate continues to accelerate. God wasn’t dead. God was reborn. Indeed, far from being the century in which religion went away, … the 20th century was numerically the most successful century since Christ was crucified … By 2010, there were 2.2 billion Christians in the world …, 31% … of the world population … The secularisation hypothesis is a European myth, a piece of myopic parochialism that shows how narrow our worldview continues to be.”  He adds that projections from the Pew Research Center show that by 2050 the number of Christians will have grown to near 2.9 billion.

 

Fraser puts the decline in church membership down largely to Western individualism “we in the west are less and less a society of joiners. And religion begins not with the metaphysics but with the taking part – belonging preceding believing. Which is why the communitarian spirit of religion is declining in places where liberal individualism thrives.”[1]

 

The Church and Sexual Behaviour

 

Speaking on sexual morality is by no means the most important subject on the church’s agenda. But it has become an issue which will do more damage to the church than most others, not least because it is so important in society. The main damage is caused by the church compromising biblical teaching. However, on the other hand, in so far as the church reaffirms biblical sexual morality, it will make itself unpopular in society and create barriers to its witness.

 

The above-mentioned Guardian editorial commented on the report that there are now more irreligious people than Christians in England: “Over the last 50 years ‘religion’ has come to stand for the opposite of freedom and fairness. This is partly an outcome of the sexual revolution and of the long and ultimately futile resistance to it mounted by mainstream denominations. ‘The religious’ now appear to young people as obscurantist bigots whose main purpose is to police sexuality, especially female sexuality, in the service of incomprehensible doctrines. Institutional resistance to the rights of women and of gay people was an exceptionally stupid strategy for institutions that depends on the labour of both. But the Church of England was so much a part of the old imperial state that life in post-imperial Britain was never going to be easy.”

 

We Christians have to take that comment seriously. That is how many people see us. The devil has used the liberalisation of sexual behaviour to marginalise the church. Should we therefore keep quiet about sexual immorality or even give way to modern liberal views? Not at all, although it should not be the most important subject the church addresses.

 

The snare of seeking popularity

 

All too many Christians think we are meant to be popular and that this is the way to win people to faith. But Jesus said: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22). He adds: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). He goes on: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21). So, being hated and rejected is meant to be an on-going experience of committed Christians (although we should not, of course, fan such hatred by insensitive or unwise words and actions). We do not belong to the world, says Jesus, because he has chosen us out of the world. Therefore the world hates us.

 

Jesus also says this rejection and hatred will be a sign of the End Times: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:9-13).

 

Obviously, we shouldn’t go out of our way to be unpopular or do unnecessary or wrong things which cause people to reject us. We should (prayerfully) choose our battles. However, we are not to compromise on important matters, in order to try to win unbelievers. Even if we succeeded in being popular with unbelievers we would find they still regarded us as irrelevant.

 

Yet the church is doing this. The Church of Scotland has just decided that local churches can appoint a Minister who is a partner in same sex marriage. That, of course, is completely contrary to God’s Word. But the context is that Church of Scotland Ministers are not allowed to take same sex weddings. This adds ludicrous hypocrisy to the situation.

 

The Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, the Very Rev John Chalmers said the church was not changing the theological definition of marriage (which, of course, says same sex marriage is wrong) but allowing congregations to opt out if they want a minister who is in a same sex marriage. In other words, he is saying we are still calling sin sin but we are officially allowing congregations to sin if they want to! This makes the church a laughing stock.

 

In April 2016 archbishops of most of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion met in Zambia for the Anglican Consultative Council. Only Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda were unrepresented. The Archbishop of Canterbury had to use all his diplomatic skills because the ACC was facing the possibility of a major split over the US Episcopal Church approving same sex marriage. He said that the Episcopal Church had changed the “basic understanding of doctrine, ahead of the rest of the Communion and without consultation.” Again this statement can give the impression that eventually the whole of the Anglican Communion will eventually accept same sex marriage – the current problem being that the Episcopal Church hadn’t waited for all the others to catch up and agree with them.

 

In the end a major split was avoided by the Episcopal Church only being allowed a limited role in the ACC for the next three years. The Archbishop said: “We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so. We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion.” The agreement stated: “It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

 

It is reported that eight of the 38 provinces are open to accepting same-sex unions: the US, Canada, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, South India, South Africa and Brazil.

 

Misleading compassion

 

It is wrong to reject homosexuals as people and if we have done so we need to apologise. The church has been doing this or rather over-doing it. I fully support an apology where necessary but not such repeated apology that it gives the impression the church has unofficially changed its mind on homosexual behaviour. The latest unhelpful example is from the Church in Wales. It apologised unreservedly for the church’s prejudice towards gay and lesbian people. Fine. But then the Archbishop of Wales adds: “We are not ready, as a church, to take the step of authorising same sex marriage.” This comment conveys to society “We won’t get away with authorising same sex marriage at the moment but just wait and we will.” Other churches have conveyed the same message and society clearly believes the majority of the church privately accepts not only homosexual behaviour but also same sex marriage, but will take some time to find the courage to say so.  This is hugely damaging to both the church and society. The church must accept serious responsibility for encouraging the radical liberalisation of sexual morality in society. And we will answer to God for it.

 

Little wonder that a January 2016 YouGov poll found that 45% of those claiming to be Church of England approve of same sex marriage and only 37% believe it is wrong. Three years earlier the figures were 38% and 47% respectively. 56% of the general public favour same sex marriage and 27% oppose it.

 

The church has to decide which of two signs of the End Times it will be: an obedient church hated by many in society or a compromising church which is departing from the faith or deceiving people by false teaching (Matt 24:9-13).

 

[1] Giles Fraser, The world is getting more religious, because the poor go for God, The Guardian 26 May 2016.

 

I haven’t normally agreed with Peter Tatchell, the pro-homosexual campaigner, over the years since we appeared together in various TV discussions. But credit where credit is due. Peter has recently written in The Guardian that he has changed his mind about the prosecution of the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan for a gay customer. He commented: “Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion … on reflection the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision.”

He asked: “Should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions.”

He concluded: “In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.”

I agree. The law is an ass for making this decision. But will the legal ‘experts’ and their political colleagues correct it? I’m not holding my breath.