I recently had the privilege of conducting my first wedding as a Pastor, and this was made doubly special by the fact it was my own sister’s wedding. It is strange to think that I have the distinction of being able to claim that I’ve married my own sister.
In the sermon at the wedding, I took a lead from Dr Timothy Keller’s masterpiece ‘The Meaning of Marriage’, and set out to present an orthodox Christian view of marriage, in a relatable and engaging manner, to a congregation of mixed beliefs and worldviews.
The feedback to this attempt was decisively mixed. On the one hand, I had many encouraging comments afterwards, with one guest telling me how that was not the take he was expecting from a ‘modern’ style Church (with all the lights and video screens etc.), and how refreshing he found the sermon. On the other hand, the reception was a little icier from others, with a member of our team being told by another guest how they thought we should have catered for all beliefs, implying the wedding was overly Christian in its presentation (I do wonder whether they meant this to also apply to Atheist, Muslim or Buddhist weddings, with equal mentions of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Dawkins in all).
It is true that Britain is no longer a predominantly Christian nation in an active, current sense. We may be in our history, in our cultural foundations, in our political set-up, with Bishops still sitting in the House of Lords, but yet we are regarded as one of the most secular countries on Earth. A recent article in the Economist noted how we have become a ‘Sceptic Isle’, with the paper noting that ‘Britain is unusually irreligious, and becoming more so.’ Weekly Church attendance has dropped below the 1 million mark for the first time in January. And of the UK nations, Wales has the lowest Church attendance of the four.
And so, in this climate, what is the way forward for the UK Church? Maybe, we should take the advice of the latter wedding guest, forget about the distinctively Christian aspects of our thinking and neutralise the more exclusive claims of Christian theology - basically, tone it all down a bit. Modernise it, adapt it. Assimilate. Let the Church be a community club or a guardian of British heritage and tradition. Maybe give some vague, non-offensive moral teaching if necessary, but with no aim to save us or anything like that, just something nice to help us live more successful lives.
This is not a new impulse. Professor Alistair McGrath notes in ‘Heresy’, how Christianity has existed in various cultures and social contexts, and from Christianity’s first few centuries there has always been those voices who’ve argued that ‘certain aspects of the Christian faith... are an apologetic liability. Why not jettison them? Or assimilate them to contemporary cultural norms?’
So what should we do as a Church? Maybe we should get rid of those beliefs that are a liability. From traditional Christian teaching on sexuality, to the belief in the physical Resurrection of Jesus, to the notion of miracles; maybe they all need to go, as a matter of survival.
Yet, in their landmark book, ‘God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World’, John Micklethwait (Economist Editor) and Adrian Wooldridge (Economist Washington Bureau Chief) open with a scene in an illegal Chinese House Church, part of a movement experiencing explosive growth.
Within this intriguing glimpse of a world not much considered by the average Westerner, they note how the Theology of the participants was unmistakably of the conservative and orthodox Christian variety. The authors remark that for neo-atheists, what is particularly upsetting, is not only the fact that religious belief is growing on a global scale, but that, ‘‘the wrong sorts’ of religion are flourishing.’
And believe it or not, this is also proving true in the secular West. A recent five year study, Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy, was recently highlighted in the Guardian newspaper, and it came to some fascinating conclusions.
The lead researcher, David Haskell noted, ‘If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner,’. The study also noted how faster growth was found in Churches that combined conservative orthodox theology, with innovative methods and styles of worship; especially in comparison to those Churches holding liberal theology, but retaining traditional methods and styles of worship.
The study noted how:
71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches.
46% of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26% from declining churches.
93% of clergy and 83% of worshippers from growing churches agreed with the statement ‘Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb’. This compared with 67% of worshippers and 56% of clergy from declining churches.
100% of clergy and 90% of worshippers agreed that ‘God performs miracles in answer to prayers’, compared with 80% of worshippers and 44% of clergy from declining churches.
Having a conservative theological outlook also compels Churches to seek growth, and to seek the conversion of others to the faith.
Only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was ‘very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians’, compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches.
David Haskell notes the obvious implication here – ‘This desire to reach others also makes conservative Protestants willing to implement innovative measures including changes to the style and content of their worship services.’
I noted in a recent Sunday sermon, how the current prevailing cultural view in the West echoes the claims of the 90’s Star Trek baddies, the Borg, as it tells the Church, ‘Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.’
Yet, these recent studies reflect what has been my experience as a young millennial, who is also a Christian and a Pastor, that what truly draws people, what those who are searching are truly hungry for, is the real, authentic, orthodox Gospel message, and nothing else will do.
While it holds on to the truth of the Gospel found in the Risen Jesus, the Church will ultimately prevail, as it always has, in every society and in every time period since its birth.
There is still great power in the proclamation, that God loves humanity, and that through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, God Himself has broken into history; bringing forgiveness of sins, new life and purpose, as well as the hope for our restoration in the future renewal of Heaven and Earth.
As the Apostle Paul put it to the Church in Corinth, ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’
The Greek word for ‘stumbling-block’ here is ‘skandalon.’ The message of the Gospel always has been, and always will be, of a scandalous nature to many.
Yet a hundred years from now, yet alone a thousand years from now, the wisdom of our age, our culture’s beliefs, will have changed all over again.
But the message we preach, the Word of God, will forever endure.