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Christians are talking about transformation. What we mean is the power of the Good News to change lives and the power of those changed lives to transform society. Really? How can we talk that way when church attendance is in decline across the English speaking Western World?
There are good reasons for our high expectations.
In a recent blog I quoted my friend Asher Intrater, from Israel, who said, “The destiny of a nation is to be seen in its redeemed minority.” That is a good, Biblical truth but is hard for many people to believe. Most of what is written or broadcast in the mainstream media today is written from a non-faith perspective—and it takes faith to believe that a small minority group can influence the destiny of a nation. The secular perspective is fed to us from all directions and often dominates people of faith too. However, there is also evidence of the faith perspective from more than just Biblically recorded history.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the nation of my citizenship by my choice, having been born in Colorado with citizenship in the USA. This nation, the UK, has experienced one of the most dramatic and well-documented transformations in recorded history. It would probably be best known by association with John Wesley and The Clapham Group with William Wilberforce. There were other well-known figures who provided essential leadership (George Whitefield, John Newton, Hannah Moore and Henry Thornton, to name a few), but it was the tireless evangelism and discipling of John Wesley and the determined political leadership of Wilberforce that led to the abolition of slavery and the general transformation of society as they pursued their motto, “Making Goodness Fashionable”.
The result of this social revolution began towards the middle of the 18th Century with open-air preachers whose audiences were mostly the poor and marginalized. It took two generations of evangelism before there was enough momentum to be felt in all of society. But from the beginning, Wesley in particular, saw that the Gospel had the power to change education, medicine and health, business, families—all of life. He wrote about all those subjects.
Historians note that the Gospel driven transformation led directly to global influence from Britain. It also produced education for all, improved conditions for workers, freedom for all adults to vote and many other benefits, most of them “firsts” in the world.
The other nation which could challenge the UK for the right to say they were leading the movement towards the “good life” for all was the USA, which had its own Great Awakening. (It is interesting to note that George Whitefield crossed the Atlantic and preached to more people in the United States than he had in Britain. See If You Can Keep It, by Eric Metaxis, for a thrilling account of the impact Whitefield’s preaching made on American communities.)
As we read these great stories we tend to imagine that the majority of people become deeply committed Christians, then opposition faded away and “the good life” emerged. But that simply did not happen. Here are some facts: (I am indebted to Dr. Martin Robinson and Herbert Schlossberg for their research.)
. The established church was in steep decline. Many churches were on their last leg. One bishop found that a parish in a highly industrial area, near Chester, had over 40,000 people but not one person attended church.
. The total percentage of the population attending churches other than the declining established church was less than 2.5%.
. Richard Hill was the first evangelical elected to Parliament and when he quoted the Bible in a speech he was greeted “with prolonged roars of laughter”.
. After nearly 50 years of evangelical preaching by Wesley and his “circuit riders” even Wilberforce, who was in the early stages of his career, wrote: “Religion is on the decline amongst us and it continues to decline to this day.”
. It would appear that no more than 5% of the population became committed followers of Jesus during the decades when Wesley was preaching. 65 years after Wesley first started preaching, another 20% became sympathetic enough to attend churches around the country.
This is not consistent with our usual imagined picture of what transformation looks like. But it does track well with Asher Intrater’s statement;
“The destiny of a nation is to be seen in its redeemed minority.”
My wife and I came to the UK nearly 50 years ago. At the time, the Charismatic Movement was creating a huge stir and controversy. In the first few months, we attended an astonishing and very large meeting at Westminster Central Hall in the heart of London. There we saw leaders from many different denominations and organisations worshipping with abandonment on the platform. The packed crowd were also from virtually every denominational or confessional background. We had never seen anything like it. A few months later, over 30,000 Christians filled Trafalgar Square for the Nationwide Festival of Light to pray for the nation and proclaim Biblical values.
Over the decades since, hundreds of new churches have been established and untold thousands are meeting in small groups at work, in their homes and in schools to pray, study the Bible and reach out to others. In many, perhaps most, towns there is a degree of unity between the churches that has been unknown in previous generations. (That is certainly the case in the town where I live! Several of the local churches have just begun a jointly sponsored Alpha Course, which is one of the most successful evangelistic outreaches of modern times and began here in the UK.)
I could go on for pages with encouraging news about what Christians are doing in this country. For example, without their social action to the poor and marginalized our social services would collapse. No other group comes close to what churches and individual Christians do to alleviate suffering and provide opportunities to those who lack them. But I won’t go on.
There is another major factor that gives me hope. The post-modern experiment in moral relativism is heading for a train wreck. What we might call “progressive liberalism” is seen to be more disastrous as each year passes. (It is hard to find a term that describes the many manifestations of post-modern philosophy, but to my mind progressive liberalism is closest.) It began with the attractive idea that morals are not absolute, but evolving. At the beginning, over a century ago, only a few leading intellectuals dared to believe that “truth” is defined by social evolution rather than being self-evident and unchanging.
“What is true for you is not necessarily true for me.”
In the course of my life-time that view came to be held by most academics and then by those whom they taught in our universities. Now it is widely held. “What is true for you is not necessarily true for me.” When that idea has been established it provides an irresistible invitation for influential people to manipulate public opinion to take society where they think it should go.
To my mind, that social dynamic is best illustrated by the change in attitude to same-sex marriage. Marriage had, for centuries, been a word that applied to a deep and serious commitment between a man and a woman, or in some cultures between a man and more than woman or even a woman and more than one man. But it had never described a relationship between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. But influential people decided that should change. Ten years ago there was little chance any such move could succeed, but a media and entertainment campaign kicked off and we began to see positive images and stories about same-sex relationships more and more.
When progressive liberals (in more than one political party) felt that public opinion had been sufficiently moulded, they introduced legislation to make same-sex marriage legal. Something that seemed outrageously impossible to our parents became enshrined in law and anyone who disagrees must now be very careful about what they say or do.
There are many examples of how this concept of evolving values has impacted us. But the overall picture is one of increasing stress, dysfunctional families, attachment problems in children, eating disorders, self-harm, depression, more and more fraud, rising crime rates, lawsuits between neighbours—and the list could go on and on.
how does this bleak outlook give me hope?
So, how does this bleak outlook give me hope? I think we could be like the citizens of the Roman Empire, or like 17th century Britain. People become desperate for change. Early Church Fathers give us some insight into the power of the gospel. Justin Martyr, in his effort to describe the difference the gospel made to some Roman citizens wrote:
[The demons] struggle to have you as their slaves and servants, and…they get hold of all who do not struggle to their utmost for their own salvation – as we do who, after being persuaded by the Word, renounced them and now follow the only unbegotten God through his Son. Those who once rejoiced in fornication now delight in self-control alone; those who made use of magic arts have dedicated themselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who once took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs, now after the manifestation of Christ live together and pray for our enemies and try to persuade those who unjustly hate us, so that they, living according to the fair commands of Christ, may share with us the good hope of receiving the same things… The teachings of Christ were short and concise, for he was no philosopher, but his word was the power of God. Justin, 1 Apology 14 (Rome, circa 150)
Elsewhere he describes the strongholds of Roman culture as fourfold: Magic arts, or the occult; greed; sexual adventure; and tribal hatred, or racism. When these perverted values bear their inevitable fruit, people—at least some of them—wake up and hunger for a better way. When that happened in Rome, increasing numbers became believers until the entire empire embrace Christian value. (To some extent, though that is another subject.)
So, yes, I am encouraged! Social Christianity has largely died out in Europe and those who gather in the name of Christ now generally do so because of genuine commitment to follow Jesus. Those believers are praying more, working more and believing more for transformation than ever before. At the same time, more and more people are looking desperately for a better way.