A lot of words will be spoken and written over this Easter weekend in the UK. Words of hope and new life, resurrection and new beginnings. The churches will be (relatively) full – yet even with that the numbers will not be massive. Just fewer than 1.3 million attended an Easter Anglican service in 2013, down from 1.4 million in 2012. Although other churches may bring that number up to 10% of the population, just over six million, the atheist humanists who are gloating over the death of the church appear to have a point.
In 2014 the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 58.3% of those brought up in a religion never attend services. Overall only 5% of the population regularly attends church. Whilst there are many encouraging exceptions overall the general demographic for the church in the UK is not looking good. And what is even more discouraging is the way that so many within the Church are in denial....whether its liberals who refuse to recognize that Christendom has gone, or evangelicals who tell us that revival is just around the corner, it seems that very few are facing up to the elephant in the room.
The primary reasons for the decline in the Church are not militant atheism, or secularism, or the rise of Islam, or materialism or humanist philosophy. The primary reason for the decline of the church is the church. Indeed the primary reasons for the rise of these other philosophies and faiths are the church.
The minister was asked "Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?" "With grace I replied, no, no, no, no...that's ghastly theology...you don't want to go there."
Paul says "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture" (1 Corinthians 15:3). And yet what Paul calls 'of first importance' some clergy call 'ghastly theology'. I wonder how many people attending church this Easter will hear similar anti-Easter messages? The Church is dying because it is committing suicide by turning away from the Word of life.
2) The UK Church is in decline because it is confused about the Cross. How many Easter sermons will tell us the story of the pathetic Christ who was not doing anything on the Cross? There was no sacrifice, no self-giving, no atonement – just victimhood. This kind of 'cross' is not the cross that is the power of God for salvation...it's a weak, pathetic, parody of the Christian Gospel which is good news for no-one – except preachers who get paid to spout this nonsense.
3) The UK Church is in decline because it is confused about Evangelism. Evangelism is telling the good news. But if you don't know what that good news is, or worse tell people that the good news is really bad news, then you have nothing to say. The good news is that Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification. That therefore there is forgiveness, renewal, hope, the fruit and gifts of the Spirit, heaven etc. Without that 'good news' we have no evangel. To say the least the Church in the UK is sending a confused message.
4) The UK church is in decline because it is confused about Love. Of course everyone is into love. Who could be against love? But what do we mean by love? The Bible says that God is love...it does not say that love is God. Is there a difference? Yes. And not to get that difference results in terrible confusion. When we say 'love is God' it all depends on what we mean by love. In reality what we usually mean is some kind of human construct, given meaning according to the current fashion and whims of our culture. We thus end up making both a love and a god in our own image. Which in our current sin-filled and confused world is about as useful as a wet paper bag. On the other hand if we accept God's self-revelation as love, then we have incredible good news. "This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Of course our culture does not like talk of 'sin', although it invents enough sins of its own, but sadly even the church seems to have forgotten what sin is. We think it is 'love' to excuse sin and to let people continue in sin. We have forgotten the Love that took sin so seriously that He died for it. We have forgotten that it is the work of the Spirit to convict of sin, righteousness and the judgement to come.
5) The Church in the UK is in decline because it is confused about Christ. Of course everyone is 'into' Jesus. And every professing Christian claims to follow Christ – as indeed do many other people. But which Christ? Is it really the case that we each follow our own personal Jesus? Have we lost sight of the glorious Christ of the Bible? Is our Jesus just to be placed on the mantelpiece alongside all the other idols and philosophies of this world?
It if you want to win a battle then the best thing to do is confuse your enemy. The devil has had a field day in the UK Church. We are far too often confused about the Bible, the Cross, God, Christ and Evangelism. The Lord's people feel battered and bruised and because of the poison within we are often unable to stand up to the battering winds of secularism, Islam, materialism and despair. We are like Cromwell in Hilary Mantel's wonderful Wolf Hall: "I once had every hope," he says. "The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it's just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one's solitary soul like a flame under a glass. The spectacles of pain and disgrace I see around me, the ignorance, the unthinking vice, the poverty and the lack of hope, and oh, the rain – the rain that falls on England and rots the grain, puts out the light in a man's eye and the light of learning too."
We once had hope, but we have been corrupted. We have shrunk inside. We see the sin, and the mist that has fallen seems to have put out the light. And yet....Easter is about resurrection. Surely the solution is blindingly obvious? As we return to the foot of the Cross, to the Word of Christ, to the Love that drew salvations plan, we will be filled with the Spirit, renewed and revived, and in the confidence of the Gospel go out and tell the people living in darkness, that we really do have Good News for them. We will no longer be trying to maintain a dying institution, or creating our own culturally relevant, suitably privatized, irrelevant religion. Instead we will, together with all the saints, be part of that glorious bride of Christ, which the gates of Hell will never prevail against!
Happy Easter. Christ is Risen. And so will His Church.