There is no doubt that contemporary Britain is an increasingly secular and post-Christian country. Despite our strong Christian heritage – including the Reformation, Great Awakenings and Revivals that shaped our national culture and identity for several centuries – many churches are in steep decline and only a small percentage of the population identify as Christians in any meaningful way. Christians have been pushed to the margins of public life, politics and policymaking, with liberal progressive values dominant and the assumption that a neutral public square requires the exclusion of all faith-claims.
What is secularism?
Secularism is a complex phenomenon with multiple dimensions. First it describes empirically the growing irrelevance of religious faith to the majority of our population. Second it describes the deliberate exclusion of religion from public decision making, which is to be based only on allegedly neutral reason. Finally, it describes the wider philosophical and cultural context which renders belief in God, and especially the Christian faith, implausible. Each of these aspects of secularism provides a different challenge for evangelical Christians: the first threatening our sense of identity, the second our perception of success and the third our evangelistic effectiveness. Secularism tempts us to lose confidence in God and the gospel.
A growing church
It is easy to be discouraged by this reality, or to deny it. However, there are good reasons for encouragement and hope. While many churches are in steep decline, evangelical Christianity is slowly growing. It is largely churches that have abandoned the biblical gospel that are dying.
It is true that some evangelical churches are declining because they have failed to engage with their community and contextualise the gospel appropriately, but this is a consequence of their failure to appreciate what true faithfulness means. We are not called to preserve a past culture in the church but to proclaim the never-changing gospel to an ever-changing culture. Some other churches struggle because they are in small communities in which it is no longer viable to maintain a church, but we need to recognise how our demographic context affects our ministry.
We can take encouragement that the gospel is bearing great fruit around the world, in ways that would astound our forebears who prayed and sent missionaries. In our own country there are considerable numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and international students who are coming to know Christ – including large numbers of Iranians.
I have served as FIEC (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches) National Director for the past 10 years, and over that time it has been hugely encouraging to see many new churches planted, and others growing. More churches have needed to acquire bigger premises, or to start second services or begin a new congregation on another site. There has been a growing realisation of the importance of revitalising smaller churches, and of prioritising gospel ministry in areas of urban deprivation. The growth we have experienced is being replicated among other groups that have kept faithful to the gospel and refused to capitulate to the fads of the culture.
I do not mourn the decline of much institutional Christianity and the superficial folk religion that accompanied it, because it did not faithfully witness to Christ. It was an obstacle to the gospel and left many people with a false and negative perception of the Christian faith.
A purified church
As our culture has become spiritually darker the pressures have refined the church, so that much that remains is more clearly evangelical. We are smaller but purer in our doctrine and witness. Church members are more committed as social church-going diminishes. The darkness is greater, but this enables the light to shine more brightly.
There is a much sharper distinction between the lives of Christians than the rest of the population. Evangelical believers stand out for their hope and love in the midst of a society marked by despair and confusion. Young people are more open to the gospel because they are almost entirely ignorant about it, and do not carry the weight of prejudice against it inculcated in older generations by their bad experience of formal institutional religion. Non-Christians are attracted by the sense of genuine community, family and acceptance found in many evangelical churches, which is radically different to the lonely isolation of our individualistic society.
A heavenly-minded church
The secular situation we face should not cause us to lose heart, but to come back to the Bible. We are much more like the earliest Christians, experiencing ‘exile-at-home’. We were wrong to think that we could find our home in a Christianised culture on earth. Our true home is in heaven and we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus and live for him. The power of our witness stems not from our political influence in society, but in our very distinctiveness and heavenly-mindedness. We need to find our identity in Christ, and rather than mourning what has been lost grasp the many new opportunities to proclaim him and share his love with the lost.
We need to remember that the situation we face has been normal for most Christians for most of history. We need to listen to the message of New Testament letters such as 1 Peter, which urge us to rejoice in the living hope of the resurrection, live good lives among the pagans, suffer for the sake of Christ and tell others the reason for the hope that we have. Elliott Clark’s recent book Evangelism as Exiles: Life On Mission As Strangers In Our Own Land is an excellent guide to meeting the challenges of these times.
An emboldened church
Perhaps the greatest challenge is the way in which secularism undermines the plausibility of Christian faith for many people, as it is despised by the intellectual and media elites and made to seem unnecessary, irrelevant and intolerant. We need to become better equipped at articulating and defending our faith, as well as bold to make the most of every opportunity. Dan Strange’s new book Plugged In helps us to do apologetics in everyday life, showing people that the gospel fulfils their deepest needs and aspirations. We need to recover the compelling apologetic power of the loving Christian community, which is so clearly identified by Rosaria Butterfield in her books, including The Gospel Comes With A House Key. As a former feminist and lesbian, she can testify to the crucial role this played in her own conversion.
A praying church
Above all we need to keep praying. The challenges of secularism are not first and foremost intellectual, cultural or political, but spiritual. However, Jesus is far greater than the challenges we face. He is ruling at the right hand of God. We need to pray that he will keep us faithful to his gospel, give us boldness in proclaiming it, courage in suffering for it and that he might have mercy and save many lost people into his coming kingdom. We need faith that secularism will not have the last word, and will not triumph, because his victory is already assured.