A recent front-page story in The Baptist Times is, though we say it ourselves, exceptionally interesting. Most Christians in the United Kingdom – 65 percent – think attendance in their own churches will rise over the next 20 years, either dramatically or somewhat. Seventeen percent think it will stay about the same while only 3 percent think it will decrease dramatically.
This is very encouraging. The recent economic crisis – and we aren’t out of the woods on that one yet, either – has shown how important confidence is as a factor in recovery. Confidence means that people will take risks, invest, plan and build.
Without it, the economy stagnates.
What our survey shows is that Christians generally are confident in the future of their churches. This doesn’t correlate exactly with our confidence in the gospel: we may be very confident in Christ, but not that God has plans to increase the numbers of our particular congregation. This is a right and proper reservation; we shouldn’t expect to co-opt the Almighty as a sort of spiritual recruiting sergeant.
Nevertheless, on a purely human level, as opposed to a refined theological one, this confidence is significant. Jeremiah was given the faith to buy his field when it looked as though there was no future (Jeremiah 32:6-44), but most of us need a little more encouragement.
If we believe that our churches will grow, we won’t regard money, time and talents spent on them as wasted. We’ll teach children, disciple young people and pastor older ones. We will release men and women into ministry and mission. We will work to change the world because we believe that even if we don’t seem to be making a difference ourselves, those who come after us will.
And so this confidence in the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because we believe, the spiritual economy becomes stronger, and lives are changed by the power of the gospel.
On the other hand, when the same respondents were asked about the church in the U.K. as a whole, by surprisingly consistent margins they expressed far less confidence. Fewer than half thought numbers would increase, a quarter thought they would decrease somewhat, and 7 percent thought they would decrease dramatically.
The reasons for this are not far to seek. Religion generally is mocked (Christianity) or demonized (Islam) in the secular media. Atheists get the air time. It isn’t cool to be Christian. Lines on graphs chart the decline of churchgoing over the last few decades, reaching the zero point before too long.
There are serious issues here which shouldn’t be ignored, but the point is that taken altogether these factors create a sense that Christianity in the West is dying out. Christians come under this baleful influence like everyone else.
But our actual experience of faith and churchgoing tells us something quite different. Our churches, with all their faults, are welcoming and attractive places, where one may grow wise in this world and prepare for the next. Our people are flawed, but have an attractive openness and kind hearts. Of course our own churches will grow. Why would they not?
If that confidence were translated into a belief that God had plans for all churches in our country, what might not be achieved?
How would it be if, recognized as honored partners by the state, Christian ministries were allowed to participate fully in caring for the vulnerable?
How would it be if Christian leaders found the nerve to proclaim public truth, not from a narrow sectarian base but as stakeholders in society and on the grounds that our prescriptions are good for everyone, not just believers?
And how would it be if the church were to relinquish its claims to power and privilege, to bury its denominational hatchets and return to the principle of not doing apart what can be done together, and offer itself to the nation as a genuine servant?
It just takes a little confidence.
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.