When crudely bundled together into one patch-work organism, the UK church is in numerical decline. An article by Giles Fraser informed me today that within Anglicanism alone there are just shy of 16000 church communities, many with congregational numbers that just scrape into double figures. Add to that the countless other tributaries of this river-running-dry and I would imagine we are well over 40000 individual communities of faith.
In Bath we have, I would estimate, around 40 churches in a town of 90000 people. The largest church has around 250 people, the average church much fewer again. Across the last decade, Bath, like most places, has seen church engagement decline.
The last 30 years have seen the fastest decline in Christian engagement in history and has ironically been coupled with the most rapid and creative change in Church culture in history.
As church engagement has declined Christian music, art, literature and television have exploded. As church attendance has dwindled Christian festivals have become increasingly numerous and increasingly big budget. If I chose to, I could attend a Christian leadership conference every week of 2015, we have invested heavily in strong leadership for years now. As we have seen church attendance numbers contract, we have seen church buildings become increasingly well equipped for high impact stage productions.
In 30 years we have spent billions of on this stuff. Billions on albums, festivals, buildings and books none of which are bad but all of which have been central to the rhythms of modern Christianity in the last 3 decades, and I think it is time to pause and ask ourselves why we are still doing it.
Something about this Christian culture that plays to the drumbeat of these things isn’t working. The church corporate exists to be a worshipping community sold out to God’s mission in the world. We, the building-block-people in this temple of the Holy Spirit are the hands and feet of this mission in our everyday lives. With our friends, families and colleagues we are the voice of God bringing His life to every moment, but I’m not sure my Christianity reflects that reality even 10% of what it should.
I think of the hours-running-to-months that I’ve spent embedded in the Christian world; the numerous week-long conferences or nose deep in a book that repackages something I’ve heard before. I think of the world around me that I could have invested those hours in. I think of the sermons I’ve preached about worship being a ‘lifestyle of mission not just a song’ and then am instantly reminded of the innumerable hours I’ve spent singing with like minded people. I consider the message I believe in my head that we should be engaged with our communities but then have led Christian communities that fill their members time with so much church activity that there is nothing left to give to anything else.
And the money. The money. The money I’ve poured into resources and albums and festivals. The money I’ve frittered on entertaining my Spiritual life when Jesus is starving and poor all around me. The money I’ve given to modernise buildings to make my worship more comfortable when a poor soul is sleeping rough in the bushes across the street.
So here I am, at the start of a new ministry role, leading a church community into the next phase of its life together and what things creep into my mind constantly as I dream of what is next? That we should modernise our building, we should invest in our music, we should spruce up our technology and beef up our marketing strategies. This is the accepted wisdom that I have absorbed from somewhere but it is like having a hole in your roof and rather than calling a roofer choosing to change your carpets every few months. The problem is not in the floor.
Someone said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity and sometimes I think the church in the UK has come dangerously close to that. This isn’t working. Sure, you can point to large churches that have grown since it got a better worship band but look at the other churches in its area or 2 minutes engaging with national statistics will show that anomalies do little to impact the issue.
This isn’t working and we have to stop.
I don’t think we will ever find what does work as we pour all of our energy and resource into something that doesn’t. As a church leader I don’t know how anyone can find the energy and time to dream of the next thing when this current thing is so relentless. We have to stop, we cannot go on like this if we are going to survive and the reality is that stopping is going to hurt.
Stopping will hurt because we love this thing we’ve built. We love the music and the comfortable buildings and the festivals. We love it all. I love it all. For many, the summer Jesusfest is the highlight of their year. For others, Sunday mornings style and content is the best moment of their week.
Again, none of this bad, and all of us do these things with genuine God following hearts but despite our integrity it still isn’t working for the majority of non-Christians and an increasing number of believers.
We are happy in this Christian world but in the cold light of day is it really the world-changing movement that Jesus told us it would be? Is it really the ‘only organisation that exists for its non-members’ anymore? If we are honest does our activity reflect our heart to see people come to know Jesus? Does our time and financial investment reflect that desire to see our communities changed? I am not sure our national activity and investment do reflect that in general, and we have to change that.
If I’m wrong about your church then great, I am genuinely delighted about that. But for us in Bath and in many other Christian communities there must be more, and I am passionate about finding it but don’t know what it looks like yet. What I do know is that I just can’t go on like this; we can’t go on like this we have to change course.