The results of the 2011 census were released this week for England and Wales, they revealed that 59.3% of the population claim Christianity as their religion. Although this has decreased since 2001 when it was 71.7%, it still represents a clear majority. The next largest religion was Muslims at 4.8% (up from 3.0% in 2001), representing a huge gap between the first and second most prominent religions. The number of people saying they have no religion has increased from 14.8% to 25.2% during the last 10 years. Clearly the nations’ beliefs are changing and the causes, implications and (Christian) response remain the subject of much discussion. Some have concluded that the data represents a pluralisation, more than a secularisation of the nation. It is also important not to look at the data in isolation and to differentiate between people’s behaviour, their sense of belonging, as well as their beliefs.
Whatever the reason for the change, in this post I want to suggest a model to understand the shift that has taken place and propose a model for re-engagement.
In broad terms, the UK in the mid 20th century was a country with the following characteristics:
- Largely biblical foundations even if not everyone went to church
- Generally accepted moral standards and ethics
- These standards were largely uniform across society
- They were strengthened by a strong nuclear family bond and community structures
- Both private and public messages were largely pointing in the same (predominantly biblical) direction, thus, mutually reinforcing each other
- The minister, surrounded by his church, were at the centre of the community
When we turn to 2012, the picture is completely different:
- The church is largely ignored and the minister is often perceived as irrelevant
A disengaged society continues to push the church further away (especially in the media and political spheres)
- Apart from a few exceptions, our voice in the public square has effectively been removed and whatever contact remains often becomes confrontational
- The policies and laws are changing to reflect modern secular and pluralistic beliefs
- The church struggles to engage and either focuses internally (and becomes a ghetto) or overcompensates and loses distinctiveness
- Church members struggle to live in two opposing worlds, resulting in them sometimes compromising their beliefs, or separating their private beliefs and public lives
- Nevertheless, at the grassroots some individuals and churches are re-engaging the community – whether that be in the urban or rural environment and/or within the family, workplace & church
Within this new societal order there is a line of engagement where Christianity and culture contact each other and interact – positively or negatively. As Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian society, we may ask ourselves the question “Are we persecuted?” No, not directly. But if we ask “Are we marginalised?” Yes! Definitely. The easy response is to resort to unthinking jibes and insults that only act to reinforce the polar extremes.
The urgent question of the day is “How should we approach our increasingly anti-Christian culture?” Do we see our role (as the church and individuals) to be mainly against what is bad in culture? Is there anything we can affirm? How do we gain an opportunity to have our voice heard if we do want to affirm something? Do church leaders have a different role within society to their congregations? (I’ll specifically explore this in my next post).
So the question is: How will we respond? Is there anything those of us who spend 90% of our time amongst non-Christians in the workplace can do to influence our culture? As Bill Graham once said: “I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through the believers in the workplace”.
A Model for Re-engagement
Against this backdrop, Christians are responding in a number of ways to re-engage with those on the edges of their family, community, work and church circles. For some this is natural and easy, for others it is harder, and new mechanisms are sometimes needed to enable relationships to be built. For those in the business community the pressure to conform can be very high and the opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation are often few and far between. I believe the challenge to equip believers with a deep theology of work; teach them how to be exemplary employees; and know how to share their faith in the marketplace has largely been neglected by our churches. Nevertheless, some new structures have emerged and there are some examples of best practice in creating new organisational structures to allow gospel conversations to flourish. They are generally following a pattern of:
Affirm >> Connect >> Challenge
- Celebrate the good things in creation & culture (affirm the good, contribute to arts, professions, community life)
- Seek the good of society & culture (contribute something tangible)
- Build others up in areas of shared interest
- Be good at what we do – excellence in our professions
- Establish connections within culture (find our contact points)
- Being purposefully & intentionally holistic in our serving – both helping and heralding
- Loving and serving people holistically – word and action, not seeing them as a spiritual project or notching up conversions. Can we do both / and rather than either / or when it comes to word and action?
- Not limiting our engagement to the purely spiritual arena – we will never engage with them by throwing verses over the chasm or through the silos.
- Aim is to take the church to the people
- Where can we affirm culture and where must we challenge our culture?
- How do we hold these both in tension?
- Have we figured out our theology and response in areas we are challenging or do we react?
The goal is a rediscovery of a holistic faith, sometimes this will lead to new structures / models of church and para-church organisations in order to re-engage our society. The challenge we face is to create a generation of aware, engaged, holistic disciples in the workplace.
Some questions to consider:
- Do you find this model helpful? Do you agree that this is the shift that has happened, or at least that it describes where we are heading?
- What examples of good cultural engagement have you seen or been part of?
- Where would you place yourself on the model?
- If you spend most of your time within the circle of society, do you feel you are equipped to thrive in this environment? How could your church help you in the challenges and opportunities you face?
- If you spend most of your time within the circle of church, what steps can you take to begin to connect with those around you, outside of the church? What changes might you need to make in order to affirm the culture around you? How can you better understand the challenges faced by those in your church within the society circle?
Let me know what you think…