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The flight from faith

The British Social Attitudes Study has found that 53% of Britons have no religious faith and amongst those in the 18-24 age group three quarters say that. What are the consequences of that and how is the Christian community responding?

The UK has among the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe. 45% of teenagers studying for their GSCEs are not living with both parents. This is not because their parents are divorcing but because they never married. 19% of all couples are cohabiting but 50% of those relationships break down. However much today’s teenagers might dream of a happy marriage, at least half of them will never marry. Family breakdown costs taxpayers more than £47billion per year but the Government has no constructive policies to prevent family breakdown.

That is but one example of the increasing secularisation of British culture and society. Christian influence in education, health and the social services has declined. Secularist pressure to scrap religious education has led many schools to stop taking RE seriously.  Christian teaching on sexuality has been swept aside and behaviour condemned in the Bible is now openly practiced and Christian witness dismissed as bigotry.

So what is the Christian community doing to challenge these trends? Evangelism is obviously part of the answer but there is also an urgent need to try to constructively influence public policy. To merely say that is to invite ridicule even amongst many Christians but unless we recognise the harm that secularism is doing to individuals, families and society, more and more lives will be damaged and broken.

The first obstacle is to think that faith is a purely private matter. As the letter of James (2:14-20) makes plain, faith without deeds is useless. To make no response to the consequences of secularisation is to be complicit in the damage it is doing to our neighbours whom Jesus calls us to love. Of course that is a tough call for individuals acting alone but acting as the body of Christ would be a different matter.

The risk in campaigning as churches is what Nick Spencer has called the ‘theocratic temptation”, trying to impose our Christian beliefs on those who do not share them. That would be to behave like the so called Islamic state and other extremist groups.

The alternative is demonstrated by those who operate food banks, to care for needy people in a practical way without preaching at them. They are not the only example. Tearfund, Christian Action on Poverty, Arocha, Livability, the Relationships Foundation and Christian Solidarity Worldwide are all trying to influence public policy by operating their own initiatives that express Christian values in action. Is it really beyond the capacity of local churches to identify and respond to a particular unmet need in their local communities and then to call on local or central government to rethink their policies to address these needs?

A pietistic response might be that this is not the business of the Church but pietism is not saving Britain from the damage done by secularisation. Are so few people taking the Christian faith seriously because they cannot see the difference it can make in their local community? Yes we are called to preach the Gospel but those people can’t hear because we don’t have their attention. Expressing our faith in relevant social action and even in appropriate political campaigning might persuade them to take our faith seriously. This would be a partner to, not an alternative to evangelism but “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26) William Wilberforce understood that, as did Lord Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Butler and Octavia Hill and between them they had a major influence on public policy. It is time for us to follow their examples.

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