The militant atheists around us who have a point to make gleefully tell us that the church is dying. The cheerleaders for Christian decline make their bold proclamations on the grounds that statistically speaking the western Church is falling off a cliff. True enough.
Perhaps the church in the West is declining statistically, but that does not necessarily mean it is dying. Especially not if you consider being a Christian is more a matter of living for Christ rather than ticking a box marked ‘Christian’ on a census form.
A more accurate assessment of our situation might be that the church today is in transition, and transition is not the same as dying.
We are facing a cultural shift which is bringing about greater clarity in defining who is a Christian, and that in many ways is a good thing. The numbers are declining if you look at those who self-identify as Christian. That has to be acknowledged as a simple fact. This does not mean that the church is facing a disaster. The faithful are not throwing in the towel and leaving the church in droves, the secularism of the western establishment is not making vast inroads amongst believers no matter how loudly the new atheists may proclaim it. Dawkins and his chums convince very few other than those who are persuaded already, their impact amongst Christians is minimal, if that.
What is happening is that in many cases, people who once called themselves Christians are simply no longer doing so. There no longer exists the simple equation of being British or American or Canadian or anything else with being a Christian. The church definition of Christian and the world’s definition are very different. Those who once considered themselves Christians by heritage no longer self-identify in the same way, they are more comfortable being free of a label which never truly reflected their religious stance, so far so honest. This is not a disaster for the church no matter how often the new atheists may trumpet it so.
The church is not dying, what is happening is that it is being more carefully defined, which we should welcome.
As Christians increasingly find themselves pushed to the margins of society people are beginning to count the cost. Whether in a TV studio or a public bar, taking a stance on any issue as a Christian is an open invitation to having one’s views dismissed without consideration. Instead of being identified with the mainstream, biblical Christianity (not the squishy progressive kind) is increasingly considered to be polarising or even intolerant. Progressive Christianity is merely considered irrelevant.
As this tendency increases we will see the numbers of those self-identifying as Christian decreasing. As this happens we will see continuing decline of traditional church influence in society; more worryingly there will be a continuing decline of Christian influence in society. Here in Britain we have already lost the culture war, what is left are a few guerrilla groups waging an intermittent struggle.
This is no cause for despair. Christianity may well be losing its top-down social, political and cultural influence. Jesus, however, spoke of His followers making an impact in a very different manner from the one whose passing so many church members mourn. Jesus taught that God’s kingdom progresses in a subversive manner, the yeast infiltrates, it penetrates and changes all around it. This is what we see the early church in the book of Acts putting into practice.
The times ahead will be difficult, there will be ever clearer distinctions drawn between a believing world view and the unbelieving view of the world; between Christianity and the numerous forms of unbelief around us.
It is time for Christians to stop mourning the loss of numbers. It is time to regroup and develop new subversive tactics, becoming active agents of change in the progress of God’s Kingdom.
We do not move forward by fighting only last ditch stands against the infidelity of the world as our culture warriors do, although that is often necessary. We do not fight the good fight of faith by baptising the views of the world with a slightly Christian veneer as progressives do. The proper response is God’s people living faithful Spirit filled lives deliberately moving into the mission fields all around us as agents of change, or gospel transformation.