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Declining church attendance and Christian belief

Last week I caught up with an article in The Guardian, from a few weeks back, regarding declining church attendance in the Church of England. This decline is, I suspect, true of other expressions of “traditional” forms of Christianity in England, all of which is but one manifestation of an increasing drift toward belonging to no religion, having no religious affiliation. Some surveys of the latter show the majority of the population, whilst still holding to some form of Christian beliefs, are not part of any community expression of those beliefs, suggesting (at best) an attenuation of a connection between belief, behaviour, and belonging. Among the younger generation the number is as high as 70%. And none of these are one-off indicators; all are part of at least a decade-long change in religious belief and affiliation.

There will be some expressions of Christianity—or at least some congregations, here and there—that can claim some “growth” in recent years. But if my anecdotal evidence is any indication, that growth is usually due to the migration of people already holding Christian conviction and practice—a migration from one church to another, or migration from one country (where they grew up or became Christian) to another. In other words, these growth numbers are not, by and large, “conversions” of folks into a Christian faith they never held (or even a faith they once held and abandoned). And even if it were the case that these were full conversions into (or back into) Christian conviction and community, the numbers and percentages are in no way keeping up with the rate of movement in the other direction.

Things are not as stark in the US, but the trends seem quite similar, so far as I can tell. Whereas we might be no more than a generation away from being thoroughly post-Christian in England, perhaps we are two generations away from that in the US.

In light of these figures and trends, those within existing churches can’t help but consider what changes might be made to reverse the tide. And here the dominant currents tend to be ones of changes in style and culture—toward more “contemporary” forms of worship, conversational modes of preaching and evangelism, relational forms of community. These are, on the whole, definitely worth trying—they have intrinsic merit—though the cynic might point out that the mass exodus from church has coincided with precisely such experiments over the last decades.

In any case, it leaves me wondering whether something more fundamental is needed. To begin, I suspect we need to more fully grapple with how pervasive cultural assumptions about such things as identity, community, ecology and spirituality have changed.

For example, it is increasingly likely, in our current cultural environment, that identity (of any sort) is seen as fluid (not fixed), corresponding with a community that is experienced as networked (not localizable), and both of these impact what it might mean to be Christian and belong to a church. Alongside these changes are growing consideration that the other-than-human world can be imagined as something—someone?—more than mere inert material for extraction, and an increasingly presumed awareness that other religions or spiritualities can accompany good life and citizenship.

As with all cultural changes, these shifts are a mix of wheat and chaff, to be sifted and discerned. But they cannot be ignored; we can’t pretend them away. And each affects how we imagine and conceptualize such things as piety (our relationship with God), peoplehood (our understanding of “church”), and prophecy (how we engage with other communities).

Once—if—we do acknowledge and accept these cultural shifts, we can then consider adopting a spiritually positive posture toward them. By this I mean a posture that assumes the Spirit of God is doing something good, and right, and beautiful in these changes, there for us to notice and name, and then engage and enjoy. Yes, there will be critique and qualification (as always), but this will arise within a more open and expansive, rather than resistant and constrictive intellectual, emotional, and communal posture.

Within that positive posture, then, we will need to begin experimenting in three areas of Christian faith: with new forms of Christian belonging; with fresh articulations of Christian belief; with alternative embodiments of Christian behaviour.

I’m really interested in what you, my friends and readers, might make of any of this. But it’s my sense that, within existing churches, there is some degree of engagement on the first (belonging), a bit less on the third (behaving), and not very much on the second (believing).

In any case, here at Jesus-Shalom we will be engaged in all three.

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Terry Wood
Terry Wood
4 months ago

I am keen to give some thought to your last couple of paragraphs about the three areas of Christian Faith. I think we could have a very useful discussion about the order of the three “B”s that Churches today manifest – Belief, Behaviour and Belonging. Which of these is the starting point (the foundation of any particular church) and how do the other two stack on top of that. Actually – you could have six different models here and I wonder how many of those six we could map to actual churches we know?

My own theory is that traditional Evangelical churches have historically had “Belief” as the foundation with the other two pretty close together – we “behave” or are told how we should behave based on the common belief, and belonging then gets linked to the set of people that believe the same thing. But this model can so quickly become a very closed group and churches get into silos and wider integration is difficult.

And to continue my theory (others please challenge!), I think we have seen a change in the UK in recent years where belonging and behaviour have become more foundational, although I am not sure what comes first! I think this is exciting but it can be very unsettling for those that want to know the rules or can’t handle differing beliefs. But I like the fuzzy edges that can result from this more open approach. And I think this also challenges the building analogy of your next post too. If everything is more fuzzy then what are the blueprints, where are the walls and who is in the building and who is outside? More to ponder I think.

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