A recent editorial in the Guardian newspaper (1), not known for its Christian sympathies, cited research suggesting that Britain is both post Christian and post secular. That is hardly surprising news to Christians but it is fascinating that a very secular newspaper is acknowledging the reality of a completely different landscape. The Guardian notes that the younger the cohort the fewer the atheists. The author goes on to comment:
“Perhaps the atheist Philip Larkin got to the nub of it 70 years ago, when communal Christian worship still flourished. In his poem Church Going, Larkin wrote that such places have an aura because they satisfy in us “A hunger … to be more serious”. Congregations may have since thinned out, but spiritual hunger is part of the human condition. It will find other outlets and means of expression in the years to come.”
This new context has significant implications for the life of the church and its mission.
The late 19th and early 20th century witnessed a remarkable “high tide” for the growth of Christianity in the western world. New congregations were still being established in significant numbers, particularly following the shifts in population and the determination of smaller denominations to grow their numbers and influence.
That growth often looked like evangelistic efforts of one kind or another. Those efforts could be tent crusades, missions in music halls or other places of popular entertainment, street preaching, door to door visitation, or work amongst children and young people. The general background of belief in God, the acceptance that Christianity was a “good thing”, that the Bible was reliable and that communities were strengthened by the presence of a church, meant that evangelistic efforts were usually well received. A positive reception often meant the establishing of a local church which in turn developed warm and close relationships with their immediate community. Happy days! Evangelism led to church planting which led to community engagement or what we might call holistic mission. Evangelism – Planting – Community Connection.
We all know that times have changed. The lack of a generally positive attitude towards the Christian message means that evangelism of that older kind does not produce positive results. It is not that we are less effective in our communication, though that might be true in some cases. It is far more that our context has changed. Our society is post Christian and the relationship of the church to its context has dramatically shifted.
Curiously the post secular nature of western societies means that there is a new openness to the Christian message but not to the familiar format of evangelism, leading to church planting, leading to community engagement. Our starting point needs to begin with community engagement. Successful connection with a given neighbourhood can lead to the creation of a worshipping community and so a church plant. The presence of that new congregation can then lead to the kinds of conversation that produces evangelistic fruit.
In short, the post Christian and post secular context suggests that we need to begin with mission in our neighbourhood which can lead to church planting and so the evangelistic challenge and response. Community Connection – Planting – Evangelism.
The highly contextualised nature of this kind of mission ensures that there is no “future shape” or predicated patterns for Christian life and witness.
The need is not for future format but present sensitivity.
Ironically our very desire to predict the future, to see the trends and plan for tomorrow, can desensitise us to the very forms of mission that actually will see the resurgence of life in and for the Christian community. The post secular populations of the west are not looking for new forms of church. Rather, their spiritual hunger drives them towards God wherever he may be found.
Martin Robinson April 2021 Engage West Midlands