When Archbishop Fisher went home on the night of the Queen’s Coronation in 1952 he made a momentous entry in his diary. 'Today,' he declared, 'Great Britain has come close to the Kingdom of Heaven'. What was even more remarkable was that the newspapers agreed with him the following day.
It was all a very long time ago. Today’s Britain would struggle with the notion. True enough, over 70% of the population have identified themselves as ‘Christian’. The reality is that church membership continues to decline. In 1990 just over 5 million people attended church. The projection is that some 3.4 million will do so in 2010. Every year we close more churches than we open.
For all of us across the Christian community, these are not comforting figures. If you’re a Methodist they are particularly daunting. Almost half of all closures in recent years have been Methodist churches.
And all of this is taking place within a culture more spiritually sensitive and liberal than anything we have known for centuries. Two decades ago few of us would imagine that religion, faith and values would have become integral to social, community and political discourse. It’s as though our culture is taunting us to take advantage of its current mood-swing.
Reasons for Hope
But it’s not all bad news! For what fascinates me as I meander across the denominational divides are the signs of hope which exists despite the dull statistics with which we are confronted. And it is hope – not just naïve optimism. Here’s why I remain upbeat in the face of the attendance downturn.
First, churches are still doing a phenomenal job in the community. We have re-discovered a mandate to care. Over 40% of churches across the UK are involved in non-proselytising acts of kindness every week. Indiscriminate caring is on the agenda of church missions.
And secondly, the good news is that in the vast majority of cases I can point to these acts of kindness stand cheek by jowl with a clear message about Jesus and his ability to change lives.
Thirdly, I am also fascinated to see that many of these great models of Christian missions are emerging from historic churches. It’s the story of Alpha, Christianity Explored, Soul Survivor, and Share Jesus International – to name but a few. It all goes to show there’s life in the old girls yet!
And fourthly, I still visit many churches where it has become necessary to have more than two congregations on a Sunday and where the budgets are growing and the leadership team is being extended. The danger here is that these new ‘mega churches’ are becoming devotional depots for Christians who are happy to escape smaller and more demanding churches in order to lead more anonymous and less demanding lives. This is a real danger. But it also signals that the potential for growing congregations is not a thing of the past.
But I am also encouraged by yet another factor. It is that much of the energy for growth and development is coming from the evangelical church. To quote Peter Brierley, 'The post 2010 church is likely to become more rather than less evangelical'.
The issue here is not evangelicalism as a superior Christian caste. Far from it. Some of the Christians who irritate me most happen to be evangelical. The point is that over the last two decades the distinctive values and theological distinctive of evangelicalism are proving to be rather durable.
This is not now an attempt to venerate the big ‘E’. ‘Evangelical’ serves us best as an adjective. And whilst it is far from perfect there seems to be something quite enduring about Christians who regard the Bible as an inspired and authoritative document; who regard Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the way to God; who claim personal transformation because of Jesus’ cross and who are finally committed to sharing this through word and deeds.
This kind of faith has within it the capacity to outrun its own inherent weakness and to reach beyond itself to touch the world.
A movement for change
In 2000 the Evangelical Alliance began to talk of its mission as a movement for change. It all sounded very new but in reality it was a call back to our roots. We reminded ourselves that our unity was and always will be foundational to our calling. Representing a million people across over 3,000 local churches, 700 societies and 30 denominations we will always be conscious of the biblical mandate to unite (John 17). We knew too that we were privileged to be representing an evangelical voice across the UK. But it just didn’t seem enough. For whilst the nature of the church is to be united, the mission of the church is to see lives and communities discipled for Christ (Matt 28:18-20).
A movement for change was therefore another way of saying that the Evangelical Alliance has a ministry which reaches across denominational boundaries to embrace and provoke its members to become agents for change. And we do this irrespective of where our churches stand on the continuum of decline or growth! We are all agents of change and transformation.
And our agenda in this ministry is to make Christ credible to the 21st century, to reinstate evangelicalism as good news and to be a movement for social transformation.
A credible Christ is not necessarily a relevant Christ. He will speak from the perspective of a real person.
Beyond our pulpits, evangelicals are often poor ambassadors of the Incarnation. People have not heard that Christ really was a person – just like them. If Christ is to be credible we must have a message about Christ which makes him a person who truly identifies with the struggles and concerns of our day.
This means therefore that a movement for change will do everything in its power to inform and equip itself to know the Jesus of the Bible in order to present him boldly in our communities. And this movement will embrace its mission to offer Christ as a living person who transforms lives. But it will also see a growth in many more local churches growing in confidence as it presents Christ with confidence.
But we also have a huge responsibility to reposition ‘evangelical’ both within as well as beyond the Christian church. ‘Evangelical’ has become a synonym for bigotry and intolerance. Evangelicals often think that our prophetic task compels us to be obnoxious to other people. We are quick to condemn. Some sections of our Conservative press can be stridently polemic and occasionally pharisaic. Evangelicalism can be arrogantly proud assuming it has nothing to learn from anyone else. We suppose that being right with God means that we are right about everything else. We lack humility and a sense of pilgrimage. And to compound all of this, we have convinced ourselves that the more we are called bigots the closer we are to the truth.
Many of us rushed to the defence when the Home Secretary lumped us together with Islamic extremism some months ago. We were duty bound to do so. But the fact that he misrepresented us in that way is not the issue. What really matters is why an informed Home Secretary with a Methodist background should identify the word ‘evangelical’ with extremism. And the answer is that in the popular consciousness, that is where we belong. American fundamentalism (to which the Home Secretary was alluding) is perceived as a mainstay for right wing Christian behaviour which has physically abused people outside abortion clinics. It often claims to be ‘evangelical’ and it informs public opinion about us. No wonder there has been a move to dump the label.
The sub-thirty faith has a great deal to offer everyone else. But it is here too that the tendency to dump the evangelical label is most vibrant. There is acute embarrassment here over our stance on a range of moral issues. They are understandably nervous about the ugly and myopic politics of evangelicalism. They are likely to be enthusiastic about social action and are less concerned about whether or not truth can be found in the Bible. My hope is that they will not reject the biblical convictions and values of evangelical faith.
This movement for change will not venerate or parade the evangelical label. But it will commit itself to rehabilitate its meaning amongst us and in the wider society. For the forgotten heritage of evangelical involvement in the world marks us off as people who have fundamental beliefs, but who are nonetheless, fundamentally pro-community. It will also devote its energies to demonstrate that acts of kindness in numerous unmentioned local churches and in high profile events such as Soul in the City are entirely consistent with that heritage.
Evangelical witness must also be concerned about social transformation. The emerging agenda for a movement for change will encourage local churches to release their members into the whole of life as dynamic agents for change. We will present our culture with an on-going challenge about the values by which its makes moral choices. Over the next five years it aims to gather and consolidate a network of agencies and churches to influence the key pillars of influence in society such as education, business, the arts, public life and politics as well as the press and media.
Charles Finney’s vision for the church summed this up rather well: 'Now the great business of the church is to reform the world – to put away every kind of sin… The Christian church was designed to make aggressive movements in every direction – to lift up her voice and put forth her energies against iniquities in high and low places – to reform individuals, communities and governments'.
A special appeal
A vision of this magnitude is open for everyone. It has scope to strengthen, encourage and challenge evangelicals in all denominations because it resonates with evangelicals who have a desire for mission in our contemporary culture. Evangelical Methodists are much more than a belligerent minority holding out on a moral agenda within Methodism. They are members of a larger family who have shaped orthodox Christian faith that has touched and changed many lives in the past two centuries. Their evangelical heritage is a powerful reminder of this.
A transformational movement is Methodist at its core. It springs from a ‘heart strangely warmed’ and works itself out in a passion for change which has been fully realised since the time of Wesley and the 19th century reforms which flowed from his ministry.
I hope that a movement for change will rehabilitate what it means to be an evangelical. Working together it may also have the potential to influence what it means to be a Methodist.
Rev Joel Edwards is General Director of the Evangelical Alliance UK and a minister of the New Testament Church of God.
Headline Winter 2004/5 pp 15-17.