The Vicar writes...
Why are some churches growing while others seem to be dying?
In the developing world the Christian community is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially in parts of Africa and the global south. Millions of people are coming to faith in Christ. Churches are usually packed every Sunday. Congregations are young and are witnessing within their communities with confidence and joy.
All this is in sharp contrast to the Church in many parts of the more affluent west. Here congregations are, on the whole, ageing and shrinking in number. Confidence appears to be waning, especially when it comes to sharing the faith in an increasingly indifferent society. Nigeria's twenty one million active Anglicans contrasts very sharply indeed with England's one million. But why should this be so? There are a number of possible explanations.
The Churches in the developing world are relatively young and unencumbered by centuries of history and tradition. The Gospel has always had a special appeal to the poor and to those who aspire to an education. But perhaps the most significant contrast is that the growing churches tend to be much more conservative in their faith and life than their more liberally minded western counterparts. So, how should we reflect on this?
Christians have always responded to the Gospel in a variety of ways. Some are blessed with an unquestioning faith. Others struggle to make sense of it all. St Paul, probably our greatest evangelist, knew all too well that the message he was proclaiming was a 'stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles', but he proclaimed it nonetheless as the 'power of God'. The Bible has always been deeply challenging and counter cultural. What was the experience of the first disciples is the same for us today; there are believers, seekers, doubters, thinkers, conservatives and radicals. All make up the Body of Christ that is the Church.
It's probably true to say that many churches in the west, and Anglicanism in particular, have pursued a more liberal agenda to faith and morality in recent decades. Our teaching has become 'shades of grey' rather than a more uncompromising 'black and white'. Many have welcomed this more open-minded approach.
But the problem facing any liberal Church is this - if you reduce the Christmas and Easter stories to metaphor; if God is just 'man writ large'; if what the Bible has to say about life is dismissed in favour of modern thinking, then our faith and way of living are diminished and our worship can become empty ritual. Recent studies have revealed that a growing number of people in the west are leaving the Church because they no longer see any point in it. One social commentator in America has concluded that the liberal churches there are 'dying of embarrassment'.
In the late nineteenth century advances in science led to a much talked about 'crisis of faith'. Many Christians struggled to come to terms with Darwinism and emerging ideologies. What helped to renew the Church was a movement that came to be called 'Neo Orthodoxy'. It was led by some of the greatest Christian thinkers of the time and responded to the challenges of a changing world in an honest and relevant way whilst remaining true to orthodox faith. History might well be telling us that what we need today is a similar new orthodoxy!
The challenges facing the Church in the west are many - secularism, multi culturalism and consumerism. All the evidence seems to suggest that no amount of missions, strategies or initiatives will reverse the decline of recent decades. What, I believe, will save the Church here is a renewed faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel and the way of Christian living revealed in the holy scriptures and delivered to us by the saints.