Scarcely a month goes by without the media running a story that the church in the UK is dying. For example, British newspaper, The Telegraph, recently reported that “more than half of the population has no faith and the share of the population who say they are Church of England Christians has fallen to just 15%—the lowest ever recorded.” So is Christianity in a death spiral and can secularists look forward to a godless Utopia? Well, as ever, things aren’t that straightforward.
When I moved back to the UK from Canada a year ago, I quickly noticed that in the six years I’d been away, lots of green shoots of church growth had popped up. I kept meeting church leaders whose churches were growing—and in unusual places: inner city Liverpool, the stockbroker belt just outside the M25, or among Iranian immigrants. These are often the kind of places that are missed by surveys that focus just on the Church of England.
I’m not alone in noticing this: a friend of mine, Sean Oliver-Dee, wrote a whole book about this. Called God’s Unwelcome Recovery, it tells the story not just of how God is at work in all kinds of places, but why the media isn’t interested in reporting this. Sometimes I wonder if Christians need a wakeup call too—it’s sometimes easier to sit around in small huddles, telling ourselves horror stories of how bad things are, rather than getting out there and doing something—sharing Christ and serving our communities. When Christians do that, God seems to have a habit of showing up.
We also need to lift our eyes beyond the borders of this sceptred isle and look at how God is at work globally, because there are tremendously exciting things happening. In China, the church is approaching 100 million, and China is on track to become the world’s most populous Christian country. (This in country where, just 50 years ago, we thought Christianity was over due to Mao’s Cultural Revolution). In Africa, there are over 400 million Christians, a number projected to rise by 633 million by 2025. To put that growth in perspective, there were just 9 million in 1900. Or on a smaller scale, look at Iran—where the church now numbers over a million—just one of many Middle Eastern countries where tens thousands of Muslims have come to Christ in recent years.
God is at work around the world—and that global growth is blessing the western world, too, as many immigrants to countries like the UK bring a vibrant Christian faith with them. Many of the largest churches in cities like London are now immigrant churches—and there’s a beautiful sign of God’s long-term provision in the way that those immigrant churches are now helping to re-evangelise the nation that evangelised them through the missionary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
But that global growth of the Church also reminds me of something else. In his book, Whose Religion is Christianity?, African theologian Lamin Sanneh points out that Christianity is the only major religion whose cultural centre keeps shifting. Islam, for example, began and has remained an Arabic religion—Muslims read the Qur’an in Arabic, and pray in Arabic facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Or consider Buddhism—despite many postmodern westerners trying out Buddhism-lite, true Buddhism has remained an Asian faith. Atheism, which functions for many as a faux religion, is largely a Western construction and has remained so.
But Christianity, by contrast, looks very different. It began in the Middle East and rapidly spread outwards across the Roman Empire. So rapidly, in fact, that within 300 years, it had gone from a small persecuted sect to the religion of over 50% of people in the Roman Empire. It spread eastwards into India (where the Mar Thoma Christians of Kerala trace their heritage back to St. Thomas), along North Africa, and upwards into Europe. With the Pilgrim Fathers it travelled across the Atlantic and became an American faith but now is growing so rapidly in China, Africa and South America, that the centre of twenty-first century Christianity is the southern hemisphere. You can’t pin the gospel down to a culture.
But at the same time, Christianity is the only religion that takes culture seriously. Atheism doesn’t know what to do with culture—because ultimately the only thing that matters is survival and reproduction. Religions like Islam are monocultures, imposing an Arabic culture wherever it has conquered. But Christianity? Read Revelation 7:9-11 and you can’t help but get excited about that great multitude in heaven, praising God in every language and from every culture. Every culture has something worth celebrating and God loves culture because God invented it. But every culture also needs redeeming, because every culture is fallen. And that’s why in Christianity, God showed how much he loved us by stepping into culture, in the person of Jesus, that through his atoning death and resurrection power, every tribe and tongue—from Afghanistan to Britain, from Yemen to Zimbabwe might come to know him.
Watch a video version of this in the SHORT/ANSWERS series