This is the first of a five-part series on how the Church can regain its relevance. Links to parts 2-5 will be included here as they are published.
From its spread to Rome, throughout Europe, and into North America, the advancement of Christianity into the Western world has been the scarlet thread tying age to age since Jesus’ ascension. Even the nomenclature used to identify particular years has – until recently – served as witness to the impact left by that simple Jewish carpenter who dared claim Divinity.
Since that time, we have seen an extended period during which The Church – and by this we mean the body of openly-identifying believers – has been the dominant group in Western civilization.
But that time may be headed for an abrupt halt. In fact, there is ample evidence to argue that the last mostly-Christian generation in the developed Western world is currently walking the earth.
As reported by The Christian Post,
“The Church of England, which remains Britain’s largest Christian denomination, has seen a dramatic drop in attendance over the past few decades, with attendance figures just over 750,000 in 2015 for Sunday service, which is less than half the numbers of the late 1960s.”
The story draws much of its reference material from the new book The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen, by Abby Day. It also goes on to quote a report from the Gatestone Institute that shows that
“… since 2001, as many as 500 churches in London alone have closed down, while the number of Muslims has grown by almost a million.”
And though the rise in the Muslim population on the western side of the Atlantic is less dramatic, sharply falling church attendance numbers are also being seen in the US.
As the Pew Institute pointed out in its recent report The Future of World Religions, The United States is seeing a surge in the number of people who identify as not having any religion whatsoever.
“It seems clear to me that secularization is taking hold in the United States,” said David Voas, a social sciences professor who contributed to the Pew study. “Less religious younger people are replacing more religious older people in the population.”
In fact, a significant number of people who grew up Christian are identifying as unaffiliated in the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and many other highly developed areas around the world. And though the trend is also true of Judaism and Buddhism, Pew contributor Conrad Hackett points out it is not true of all religions.
Pew noticed “very little report of anybody in [Muslim-majority] countries saying they have changed their religious identity … there seems to be much less movement in and out of Islam than is the case for Christianity.”
In fact, when combined with the fact that the birth rate among Muslim women (3.1) is higher than that for Christian women (2.7), the movement away from the Christian faith is expected to result in a huge expansion of Islam during the 2000s.
Pew estimates that the effect of these facts and others will be that 40% of the world’s Christians will live in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050. While that’s good news compared to where Christianity is in Africa today, the swift decline of interest in the faith in more developed parts of the world is terribly disconcerting.
We are seeing the church become largely irrelevant in the lives of its children and grandchildren. The obvious questions are, why is it happening, and what can we do about it?
The simple explanation would be to point to Scripture. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, the Apostle warns of what will happen “in the last days”.
“For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” – 2Timothy 3:2-4, KJV
But these descriptions have been true of men in other times than just ours over the past two millennia – though some may argue not to the same extent. While it would be a very short jump to simply ascribe the current movement away from the faith to living in those last days, it is a very dangerous position and potentially self-fulfilling prophecy to do so. Why?
Because we could be wrong.
There is ample evidence in Scripture that the Apostles believed Jesus would return in their lifetimes. One of the most convincing is found in the first of John’s three letters.
“Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” – 1John 2:18 KJV
So, if the Apostles believed Jesus could return in their lifetimes – and other saints have thought the same for 2,000 years – it is understandable that we too might think His appearance to be nigh. But the truth is that we have no idea when Jesus will return, any more than the Apostles did. Jesus himself even said as much.
“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” Matthew 24:36 KJV
So not only could we be wrong about Jesus returning in the very near future, but allowing that belief to leave us jaded and cynical about the decline in the faith would actually run contrary to what Jesus said we should be doing.
In Part 2, we’ll discuss why the church is becoming irrelevant.