I spend much too much of my time reading pretty depressing stories about the state of Christianity in England. So much so that the latest findings from pollsters tend to wash over me without evoking a reaction. So when a few weeks ago I heard a headline from an Evangelical Alliance/C of E research report that four out of ten Britons (more among the under 30s) believe Jesus was a fictitious rather than a historical character, I shrugged, thought “that makes sense”, and turned to good articles which reflected on the cause and effect of this statistic.
One obvious reason: RE teaching in many schools no longer instructs young people about the main beliefs of Christianity and other religions, but has been allowed to morph into Philosophy and Ethics – its possible with some exam boards to get an A* in GCSE RE without ever opening the Bible, as long as you can write good essays on nuclear weapons and wind farms. So it’s not surprising that many young people who have no contact with any church know nothing about Jesus.
Another reason: institutional fear of privileging Christianity over other faiths and none. When I was a vicar, I was effectively “no-platformed” by a state primary school in our parish where I had led assemblies for two years – I was never told why, but I heard rumours that there were complaints from a couple of staff members that the youth worker or I had been telling Bible stories, and even leading a prayer and a song. We don’t have any laws against that here – this isn’t France or the USA – but I accepted that school heads have the right to decide the content of assemblies. We know that there has been a progressive exclusion of Christ in public life, beginning with education. So the statistic of the EA/CofE report didn’t surprise me.
I was also not surprised by the revelation that some people don’t like Christians telling them about their faith. Throughout the 1980s, when I was a Christian at school and university, there was never a time when telling people about Christ resulted in general applause and encores – rather the opposite. Jokes and banter abounded – some of it quite nasty – for example about Christian Union types and how to avoid them. The majority of people weren’t interested in Christ then so I wasn’t surprised to see that today 59 per cent don’t want to hear about Christian faith and only 19 per cent do. I’m guessing that’s about the same as it was 30 years ago. However I need to say that, wonderfully, I have seen people come to faith at that time and since, both those who were originally indifferent or hostile as well as those who were searching and ready when the message first came to them.
The narratives about sharing of faith have remained pretty constant as well. Those of us on the ground have generally found evangelism pretty hard – but ready to be encouraged by the success of Alpha, Christianity Explored, sermons, personal conversations and other methods which have proved fruitful over the years. But there have always been those who have never tired of telling us that we are doing and saying it wrong. That if we are winsome, friendly, welcoming, makers of good fresh coffee, compassionate towards the poor and the sex-trafficked, we will win people to God without even needing to talk much about him. Again, this is nothing new, although this kind of thinking gained ground with the popularity of revisionist “evangelicals” in the late 90s and early 2000s.
So the EA/CofE research report is very useful, and helps concentrate the mind, prayer and strategic thinking about mission. But the trends it outlines are not startling. What is shocking is the reported response of the Church of England hierarchy. John Bingham of the Telegraph says:
“The Church of England is set to signal to members that speaking openly about their faith could do more harm than good when it comes to spreading Christianity.”
I’m hoping that this suggestion of silence as the best form of witness, (“Trappist evangelism” perhaps?) Is a bit of mischievous journalistic licence from Bingham. But what is clear from Bingham’s report is the fact that the main spokesman for the C of E’s response to the report is not a Bishop (although Mike Hill is mentioned), but William Fittall, the Secretary to General Synod and the Archbishop’s Council, a senior civil servant. Now I’ve got nothing against this man, who I’m sure has done a very good job in his field of responsibility, and is also a committed churchgoer. But it baffles me why he has been put forward as a spokesman on evangelism, and why he is addressing churchgoers, including clergy and laity who have prayed and wrestled and thought about evangelism, and done it for decades, as if he is an expert with some new insight. His analysis of the problem is reported as follows: shouting at people in the street is counter-productive, and shows a general lack of reflection among Christians about how to connect with non-churchgoers. Well, many will feel that this is not the best possible analysis and response to a report that says church numbers are declining and increasing numbers of people don’t know about Jesus. Surely the C of E can do better?
Of course, there are some churches whose leaders have decided that God-talk is a turn off, who think churchgoers should rather share their doubts about Christianity and enthusiasm for flower festivals with non-believers. But thankfully there are many churches which are already committed to a multi-faceted approach to mission, which includes regular preaching from the Bible on Sundays and midweek activities outside church: courses and discussion groups, pastoral visiting where Christ is mentioned and prayers are said, one-to-one studies, the lending of books, school assemblies where the principal allows Bible stories, such as in this excellent programme .
According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, our job is to let people know about Christ accurately and without manipulation: it is God who opens blind eyes. According to Jesus, the sower sows the Word. There may be a lot of heartbreakingly stony ground, but where there is good soil the plant grows and bears fruit. Yes, the farmer needs to become adept at the best techniques, but without the seed, the message about Christ crucified and risen, there is no harvest. The statistic about ignorance of Christ should not be a warning for us to shut up and be nicer, but a motivator to make sure that more people know about Him. The stats say nearly 20 per cent are pleased to hear the message – that’s a lot of people if we can get the message out.
Undergirding this, of course, is prayer, worship and the witness of Christian lives, where faith is shown in times of joy and adversity.