This article builds on the last (see my previous blog) as it’s worth sitting on this topic and allowing it to resonate at a deeper level. It is a timely point, as well, as we in the UK are going to be in for a big shock when the results of the last national census are published. What many of us have known for a while will finally be acknowledged that we are living in a post-Christian society. The percentage of those who identify as Christians have dropped to between 40 – 50%, possibly lower. Christians will try to understand it theologically, and rightly so. There will be many-a-discussion on how we can regain the initiative, a conversation that is happening more and more, but I wonder if perhaps we are missing part of the picture.
The Church is a movement of people and, as such, is subject to how people move and have their being like any other movement of people. In a general sense, people groups are subject to rational study, giving rise to observations that seem to point to a pattern which we Christians can use in formulating our own response to the continued evaporation of the Christian Church in the west.
Allow me to make a case that there are four ingredients that will absolutely need to be part of the picture for Christians to turn things around. These ingredients are as follows: difference, cost, families, and evangelism. Let us consider how and why each one is important and understand the meaning of each of them. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have touched on all of these themes before. However – I want to put them in one basket and shine a spot line on them.
DIFFERENCE: This is actually a technical term used amongst students of religion. It can also be referred to as ‘hard’ religions v ‘soft’ or religions of ‘difference’ v religions of ‘humanity.’ What is meant by the term ‘religion of difference’ is religious expressions that define themselves, and their values and emphases; those things that make them different to those around them, especially other religious groups. Orthodox Jews, Salafist Muslims, Amish, Protestants in Northern Ireland – all of these religious groups would fall into the category of being a religion of difference. They are not into the smooching ‘let’s emphasise all that makes us the same’ – like the failing ‘religions of humanity’ or ‘soft religions.’
However, dear reader, what do you notice about my little list? Go read it again! Are these shrinking or growing groups? Christians (as a whole) need to rediscover how to be a religious identity that is distinct from the world around us – and not like the others. I want to stress that I am not calling for some knee-jerk reactionary response, or some ridiculous gimmick, e.g. dressing in bright orange just so we can look different. (Besides, the Sikhs have pretty much cornered the orange religious dress scene anyway, and they were there first).
What I am saying is that we Christians must form a different pattern of life from the world around us! We have all the ingredients and resources we could ever need to tap into over the 2000 years of the Jesus movement. We just need to tap into and bury ourselves in it. We could begin to dress like Christians (simple and modest), live according to a clear understanding of virtue ethics, believe the doctrines of the Christian faith and assert them, form Benedictine societies across the continent, organise the rhythm of our lives according to the Christian calendar, eat certain foods and abstain from others at certain times of the year, and determine what and when we celebrate and how we do it! Our beliefs already make us distinct, however, does our lifestyle? Do we really pray, fast, give alms, perform self-examination, evangelise, live in community, study the faith, practice hospitality, and integrate these practices regularly into our lives? These are the kinds of things that make us different! That is how you become different; by looking, sounding, working, and behaving differently to those around you. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel; just rediscover it! This was one of the reasons the early Church buried its dead and did not cremate them!
Why does being different help with growth? Simply because it builds communal solidarity and identity. It requires an emotional, psychological, and physical investment in the new identity. A person won’t give this up easily when invested greatly, unlike our a ‘butter milk Christianity’ prevalent in the English-speaking world of ‘come to church and make friends.’ People can and do give this up at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, a common different identity reinforces itself with the ‘them and us’ mindset. It allows one to feel that they belong to something that is not shared by all, but by some. The sense of belonging to a group, a community with identity, is itself a fruit of being different. Belonging is not something that people like to give up. When one considers groups like the Orthodox Jews or the Amish or Salafi Muslims, the sense of being different is such that the ‘other’ (who ever they are) feels and looks different to the familiar and the natural conservatism that most of us have for the familiar kicks in; meaning we bind to our own distinctive group. This is one of the reasons why GOD gave the laws to ancient Israel; to make them different. Despite the breaking down of the wall separating Jew and Gentile, the early Church was different to ancient Roman culture. We need to find ways to be different authentically as Christians. These differences need to be popularised not in a form per se to the wider Church, but as an example for other Christians to do the same or similar so that an identity of the people of GOD will re-emerge.
As a small digression, the moment you open up the idea of ‘discipline’ for ‘evangelism’ in a discussion with Christians, there is always that one confused soul who thinks you’re talking about ‘works for salvation’ and wants to accuse you of heresy. If that is you, dear; if you thought that – calm down and go and read the top sentence of the previous paragraph again, and read it until you can believe that is what we are talking about. So, pushing on…
COST: By this, I mean the cost of giving up one’s identity and faith. Consider the Amish – To abandon one’s Amish way of life can mean being shunned by their community. It is made more difficult considering they stop school at a young age and are accustomed to a very different lifestyle than what they experience during the Rumbspringa (when they are made to experience the ‘English’ or modern kind of life, often met with culture shock). One can lose their whole community and family if they choose not to return to the Amish way of life.
Consider the Muslims – They have apostasy laws which include the loss of family and community, as well, if they leave Islam. Consequently, many Muslims who consider leaving keep it private. If they do bring public attention to it, even to their family, they could face repercussions! The years pass on, and many return to some state of belief at a later stage in their lives.
There is of course the personal cost as well; to abandon all you have known, invested your time and resources into, and believed in. To give it all up seems to be a heavy blow. It’s like chucking so many memories in the bin. The author of this article can testify that the thought of wasting all the years, energy, resources, and losses that have been spent in the years before on my walk in faith are one of the psychological resources I use to spur me on. Families of course can exact a cost on one another if someone leaves the faith, and this emotional weight can and does mean many think twice before switching.
A cheap faith that costs you nothing can easily be disposed of. We Christians must find ways of cultivating a cost in our faith, in our lives, and of our families and communities. The progressive and liberal sentiment that would withdraw from this should be subject to criticism. Is it simply an ‘easy come easy go’ faith, Christian? Do we really value the souls of our children, friends, and community if we have a light-touch approach to such things? Now, the issue here is that we are talking about apostatizing the faith, not simply changing churches. In our fractured and divided community, if one fellowship holds a firm line because someone wants to change fellowships, there are plenty of other fellowships that will gladly take in another member into their club church, and condemn the former. So, please do not read this as a way to try and stop someone from leaving your Christian fellowship for another one. I would also say, do not be quick to judge if you meet an apostate who tells a sad story of rejection.
Perhaps consider that you should identify more with those giving the cost of abandoning Christ than the one grumbling about paying it. Thankfully, this is practically unworkable as a means of preventing church switching in our myriad of church fellowships. However, the cost can be exacted by friends and family to those who abandon Christ. I would argue they should, in order to give pause to those thinking about jumping ship and to demonstrate that you take the issue of salvation seriously. It is important you walk out your own faith or such costs you seek to apply will show you to be a hypocrite! I am not liberal – and I am not seeking to think like one – I am seeking to think like a Christian. The reality is, though, this is a difficult and hard idea to pan out – so let me use the analogy of a family: Certain truths exist in social relationships like families, that if broken by way of high fidelity or abuse, for example, result in exclusion from the group. Well, this is also true within the Church. To deny Christ outright is to break the covenant that binds us!
FAMILIES: I want to be clear here… I mean child-producing families by a man and a woman are essential to a growing religious community. The Amish community, the Muslim community, and the Orthodox Jewish community create and sustain families through the full myriad of social interactions. Families with children are rewarded and esteemed. Family break-up is a point of social scorn and shame. The creation of families is actively pursued as an agenda point of the communities’ life. The Amish do this through their youth groups which are purposefully designed to encourage the blossoming of relationships. Muslim parents or the mosque actively seek to create couples for their young. What is the rest of the body of Christ doing by comparison? We have adopted a failed romance model of family creation from Hollywood sprinkled with a few Christian rules – which invariably couples and singles break. This issue is too big to be tackled by any but the largest congregations on their own, and so a much wider approach of Christians from all denominations in a city or region needs to be employed. However, we Christians need to become as deliberate about creating families as any of the groups mentioned above. That can only work if we lower our denominational walls and allow some cross-pollination. To those of you who can not let go of your sectarianism, you can still take this principle and apply it within your own denomination. Albeit, you will have to work regionally, perhaps nationally (unless you adopt the Benedict option), to make it work.
Why are families important? Simple! Most people who practice a faith – were born into a family that practiced that same faith. We should value large families and do what we can to support them to work well and grow. That means actually rallying to our families and around them. I say this as a single man; not as a married man with kids, though I would love to be married myself. Consider the fact that what has largely ensured the continued growth of the Christian faith in recent years is both the birth rate of African Christians and the explosive growth of Christianity in large parts of the world; which brings me to my final point! Take the Amish for instance – who are outstripping all other American demographics in terms of population growth – when not factoring in immigration. Consider the Muslims in the UK who are having more children than the wider non-Muslim population, or compare the growth of Orthodox Jews to Liberal Jews. Families are more important to Church growth than conversion. I am not wrong here… go and check it out for yourself if you doubt my argument.
EVANGELISM: Yes, it is important that we do evangelise! People do become Christian if you evangelise; I can testify to this. Yet, sadly there are many Churches that do not really do any evangelism. Whilst it’s a smaller contributor to Church growth than child-producing Christian families – it is a contributor with a cumulative effect, especially if those converts form Christian families. Every Christian needs to be involved in some way doing evangelism, even if it is just supporting the upkeep of other evangelists. We need to declutter evangelism in our minds. To be clear, we are not talking about social work – but the winning of souls to the Christian worldview. If I could wave a magic wand, every fellowship would allow those whom GOD is calling to evangelism to form teams and networks, organise evangelistic activities, or be supporting an actual evangelist. Asian sub-continental Islam is fiercely missionary minded – and they are making converts – there is no reason why Christians can not do the same.
I think it is self-explanatory why evangelism is important to growth, so I won’t go into the why; but rather spend a paragraph on how and how not to do it. Christians need to be cautious about the ‘preaching in the street’ modal of evangelism. The vast majority of times it is done badly, and for every convert it makes, it probably distances hundreds from the faith. We need to continue to preach – yes – and in the street – yes – but more conversationally. So, drop your megaphone, get a table, provide some decent literature, and start having conversations. Engage with people where they are; in their thinking and circumstances. These conversations may be the first contact that leads to meaningful relationships in which you offer lots of pastoral support and form a real friendship. The odd pointed apologetic or polemic discussion could be dropped. God willing, your church is mature enough that visitors are made to feel welcome and wanted in a none contrived way. This is called ‘love bombing’ and the mosques do it really well. Hopefully, the guest will see people who have a real sense of belonging, identity, and brotherhood and a clear way to join. I know some Orthodox Churches that have received upwards of 60 new members in six months! How does your church compare?
All of these effects and realities are magnified and strengthened within a ‘Benedict Option’ modal of Church; where Christians live in consolidated geographical communities. In addition to all of the above, these communities would have a significant impact on the local economy, politics, culture, and society; dissolving competing ideologies they surround. It is also far easier to do all the above when you are consolidated geographically. You cease to feel like an outsider, though you are ‘different’ to the rest of society because the mini-society you are involved in is like you. You draw strength from that to remain ‘different’. It becomes easier to exact a cost if the apostate knows all of his friends and family know he has left the faith; and that this community is where he hopes to find work and a family. It is easier to create families, as the pool of people you are looking to meet is all around you. It becomes easier to evangelise your borders because the distance you travel is short, your reinforcements and resources are nearby, and the community you want to invite people to join is the next estate over from where they are living already. Since you have dominated the political, economic, and culture of the local area, you are the group to get in with. Therefore, the cost-benefit increases to joining you, and the cost-loss increases for leaving.
We Christians have been bemused by failing enlightenment and its nation-state, It’s time we focussed on what helps the Church grow and succeed, and I offer these four ingredients to us all.