The church in the West is sick but soldiering on.
But for how long? We can pretend all we like that our creative courses exploring the faith, our fresh expressions of church, or our hearty summer festivals are making a significant difference and impacting the nations, but the best of it is too little too late and much of it is just shuffling seats. For all our prayer labyrinths, candles, pebbles and wigwams, I am not aware of a wave of church renewal. Changing wallpaper in a house with rising damp isn't much of a solution. We generate more heat than light. For all our enthusiasms, why so few true conversions? I'm not talking about those who breeze in, join our church for a while and then move on. I'm talking radical conversion to Christ that issues in infectious and radical transformation. Statistics aren't always reliable in compilation or interpretation, yet the most optimistic statistics lead to the most pessimistic conclusions.
The aggressive tide of secularism has eroded much of what former church generations have built. Since the 1960s the number of people in the UK who declare themselves as having no religion has grown from 3 per cent to almost 50 per cent of the population. Recently, Professor Linda Woodhead stated that the Church of England and Methodist Church are 'in a state of collapse'. Every town has its former church buildings, once pulsating with Christian vitality but now turned into carpet warehouses or cocktail bars, studio flats or yoga centers. How did we lose such ground?
Charisms without Character bring Chaos
John Wimber, after seeing several of his close friends and colleagues in ministry crash and burn over moral issues said, "I have seen for years where some people who experience the grace and charisma of God deceive themselves that they don't have to work on their character because God is self-evidently with them and working through them. Gifts are given to the Church because of our generous God, but gifts without character can do much damage. Therefore I've learned to look for people with character rather than people with gifting."
In recent years I have watched painfully as several friends, all church leaders and ministers, all 'charismatic', all supposedly 'Spirit filled', all 'tongues speaking', all 'evangelical' in doctrine, have traded their wives, to have affairs. One admitted to me "it's all about the sex". It seems easily done and done all too easily. And the world sees and hears it all and she looks at the church, sees a mirror image of herself with a religious veneer, and a claim to moral superiority and divine agency, and generally dismisses our invitation to explore Christianity. The perceived credibility gap between what we profess to represent and what we live out is a key factor I think in the failure of our mission. The man is the message. Too little about the Christian makes the non-Christian think being a Christian is worthwhile. The Catholic priest, writer and spiritual director, Brennan Manning, is often credited with saying, "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. This is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."
There is too little of God and his Gospel about us Christians. We are to most people as relevant as a gargoyle on a church roof cornice – an amusing, archaic statue that might once have served a purpose, but now it is just a quaint relic on an old building.
Return to the Deep
So what's to be done? In 1952 Oxford Don and Christian apologist CS Lewis wrote to the Times calling for a 'Deep Church' – a rediscovery and return to the historic foundations laid by Christ and the Apostles, rather than the somewhat superficial religion he observed was characteristic of much modern Christianity. Two generations on, we still need to heed this prophetic call and return to the deep things of God.
We cannot soothe ourselves in misty-eyed nostalgia of former golden eras of revival and evangelical advance neither can we sit in self pity like Job scraping our wounds in the rubble of what once was, battening down the hatches and hanging on in there awaiting Jesus to rapture out the few elect that remain. There's work to be done; we need to return to first principles. We need to remember who we are and who God is. We need to put the Lord back at the centre. We need to learn to pray again, and witness to the cross and resurrection, and love one another and imitate Christ and drink deeply of the life giving, life transforming Spirit. It is time for Christians to believe and behave Christian again.
Simon Ponsonby is pastor of theology at St Aldate's Oxford. His book Different: Living the Holy Life is out today and published by Hodder and Stoughton.