Christianity in Europe: Preparing for the storm

There was a fascinating story covered by Christian Today and The Guardian yesterday, the latter with the headline
'Christianity as default is gone': the rise of a non-Christian Europe'.

It gave details of a survey of religious belief among 16 to 29-year-olds across Europe which was conducted on behalf of the Catholic Church. The headline figure is that in 12 countries, including the UK, a majority of young people identify as having no religion. 

One of the things that the survey points out is that countries which are close together can have very different levels of religious affiliation. Poland is the country with the highest number of young people identifying as having a religion, while its neighbour to the South, the Czech Republic, has the lowest. What is also true is that there are vast differences within countries. There is a belt around London where church attendance is far higher than the British national average, whereas in places like Yorkshire it is far lower. The report itself doesn't go into this level of detail, but it is something that we need to take far more seriously than we currently do.

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The figures that the report gives for the UK are as follows: 'In the UK, only seven per cent of young adults identify as Anglican, fewer than the 10 per cent who categorise themselves as Catholic. Young Muslims, at six per cent, are on the brink of overtaking those who consider themselves part of the country's established church.'

So what are we to make of this? First, at the risk of sounding a pessimist, I think we need to start being a bit more honest about the state of things in the UK. I constantly read about amazing church planting activities, of hundreds of people making 'decisions for the Lord' and so on, but the statistics continue their remorseless creep towards a less religious Britain. Making disciples of Jesus in the UK takes far longer and is much harder than we want to believe. Our evangelism and discipleship activities need to be geared for the long haul, not for quick success.

There are two things I'd like to highlight from this. First, we need seriously to engage with views of historian of missions Andrew Walls on the serial expansion of Christianity. Mission scholars and agencies have made a point of getting to grips with what Walls says, but the implications of his writing are just as important for the church in the UK – yet he is hardly mentioned.

What happened in each case was decay in the heartland that appeared to be at the centre of the faith. At the same time, through the missionary effort, Christianity moved to or beyond the periphery, and established a new centre. When the Jerusalem church was scattered to the winds, Hellenistic Christianity arose as a result of the mission to the gentiles. When Hellenistic society collapsed, the faith was seized by the barbarians of northern and western Europe. By the time Christianity was receding in Europe, the churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America were coming into their own. The movement of Christianity is one of serial, not progressive, expansion.

Related to this, if the church in the UK is to thrive beyond the next couple of decades, it will almost certainly be through the impact of Christians from other countries. Many of the growing churches in British towns and cities are filled with believers from Africa – but they have little impact on the British population. Equally, those traditional churches who are seeing a good number of converts are reporting that the majority of them are Iranian, Kurdish or Chinese. We will have to be prepared to learn from these first and second generations from around the globe if we are to see the church in the UK thrive.

One correlation of the decrease in religious belief among young people is that the cosy acceptance of religion by the British state will begin to fade. In 2007, I posted this quote from the Sunday Times: 'Nearly half the British think that religion is harmful, according to a poll carried out by YouGov. Yet more than half also believe in God "or something". The YouGov poll commissioned by John Humphrys, the broadcaster and writer, found that 42 per cent of the 2,200 people taking part considered religion had a harmful effect.'

Things are not getting any better and as the number of people with a negative view of religion increases, so the climate for churches and other religious organisations will grow more difficult. Here are a couple of predictions:

1. Currently, it is possible for an organisation to call itself a charity if it has 'the promotion of religion' as one of its objectives. I predict that the next time that charity law is revisited (almost certainly in the next decade), that provision will be removed. Christian charities will have to work far harder to show that they are performing public good if they want to continue receiving gift-aid. It is also quite likely that any organisation that wants to call itself a charity will have to show that it lines up with a government equality agenda that many churches and agencies feel unable to accept. I think it is incumbent on the boards of Christian charities to start running some spreadsheets to work out how they could cope without the financial benefits that come from charitable status.

Ironically, the only thing that I can see that might help Christian charities is that the government may be wary of offending Islamic organisations and so may still leave a place for conservative religious belief.

2. I mentioned the equalities agenda in the last paragraph. That will come more sharply into focus in the years to come. The opt-outs that currently exist for churches that do not want to carry out gay or trans weddings will end within a few years. They will either be tested to destruction in the courts, or an incoming government will overturn them. Sooner, rather than later, I think churches should get out of the business of conducting marriages. By all means, hold celebration services for the weddings of church members and regular attenders, but leave the legal stuff to the state. This is the norm in many countries of the world and if conservative churches in the UK don't want to find themselves pushed into corners that they don't want to live in, they will have to take this step.

I realise that a lot of people will read this and feel that I'm being pessimistic or alarmist. I really don't think I am; I believe that I'm being realistic and trying to learn the lesson of history. I believe that the future for the church around the world is incredibly bright – but I'm less convinced about the situation for the church in Europe. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't pray for the church here and continue to reach out to people with the gospel, but it does mean that we need to think about a future in which things are very different from the way they are now.

Eddie Arthur is director of strategic initiatives for Global Connections, a network of UK agencies, churches, colleges and support services that seeks to serve, equip and develop churches in their mission.

This article first appeared on the Kouyanet website and is used with permission.

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