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

 

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