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The number of people identifying as having 'no religion' is rising. But James Mildred argues there are good reasons to be optimistic
Today the media are reporting on yet another doomsday report that suggests Christianity is in decline.
Researchers at the St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham analysed data collected through the British Social Attitudes surveys over the last three decades. It found that in 2014, 48.5% of those asked said they had no religion, compared to 25% that fell into the 'none' category in the 2011 census.
Those who did define themselves as Christian – from a variety of denominations – made up 43.8% of the population. The report said churches in general were struggling to retain people brought up as Christians.
For a while now, we have known that the number of Christians in this country is decreasing. Our largest churches today might have hundreds. That may seem big, but a few centuries ago, even though the UK population was considerably smaller, some churches could expect thousands. And none of them even had a band(!).
It is obvious today that church-going culture has all but disappeared. A lot of the people who now go along to church on a regular basis are the ‘hard core’ who actually believe in Christianity.
Remembering the promises
I refuse to become depressed by those prophets of doom who argue this report is further evidence of a terminal decline of Christianity in the UK. It is not.
As a Christian when I see these reports, I remember the promises of God’s Word. He told Abraham, that mighty man of faith all the way back in Genesis 15 that if he looked up at the stars, he would see in their number a picture of how numerous his descendants would be. From reading the New Testament we understand the true descendants of Abraham are all true Christians (Galatians 3:29).
The great head of the Church, Jesus Christ, said his church would go on growing and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
The sun is not setting on Christianity in the UK
There is also a mighty promise in Malachi 1:11 – '"My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations," says the Lord Almighty.'
The Church might be struggling numerically in the UK, but it is growing elsewhere. The astonishing growth of the church in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America is testament to the awesome power of the gospel. It shows the good news transcends ethnic and racial boundaries. The tent flaps have been flung open (Isaiah 54) and the gospel light is being taken around the globe.
Evidence of blessing
Even if the church is struggling here, there are always grounds for some optimism. There are some churches that are growing. There is evidence of some blessing. Not perhaps on the scale of historical revivals. But even in this challenging day, we must resist the doom and gloom. And there is no good reason why we should not also be praying for God to revive his work just like he did when preachers like George Whitfield would preach to thousands in the countryside and in churches and many, many people were converted.
Of course, we must not become all starry eyed and romantic about Christianity in the UK. There is a huge problem. Many churches are struggling and not growing. The trajectory of our nation in recent times can hardly be said to be especially God honouring. This should be the cause of prayerful submission to God and a willingness to scan our hearts and ask why the Lord has withdrawn mightier blessings from his church here.
But we must also not give into despair. The sun is not setting on Christianity in the UK. The promises of God’s Word are enough to banish the deepest, darkest of our fears. The true Church will survive. The purposes of God will stand. And Christ will have the glory.
James Mildred is the Press Officer for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) and writes in a personal capacity.
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.