We recently had our once-a-decade census here in the UK. Every time it clocks around there is a Christian discourse about the religion question.
We expect, you see, that the census will show us that the number of Christians in the country has decreased—we’ll find out in Spring 2022, but I don’t think anyone is on tenterhooks. As a nation with an established church, that our head of state is the supreme governor of, we have some right to claim to be a ‘Christian country’, whether that has much operative meaning or impact on our day to day is a fair question. The influence is certainly decreasing.
There’s always a discourse about whether it’s a bad thing that the number of Christians is decreasing. It’s usually pretty one-sided too. Most people argue that it’s fundamentally a good thing that the reported number of Christians declines, because it’s more honest.
These people weren’t really Christians anyway, just holding onto a vestigial memory of cultural Christianity that is fading in its relevance as its central place in our national life has crumbled.
That’s the narrative anyway. I suspect its largely true, and for a given understanding of what the census is showing it’s more honest.
We always seem quite happy about it though.
I’d like to suggest it’s a bad thing, for two reasons:
There are less Christians in the country
Perhaps the census effects are measuring the wake of Christendom long past, and the number of Christians sharply declined a long time ago. I suspect that’s true. Even so, it would be better for people to live a life that looked Christian, without having their hearts changed by the gospel, than to live a life that looked pagan, without having their hearts changed by the gospel.
Do we honestly believe that the Christian life is the way of flourishing? If we do, then even nodding in that direction would be better for people than not. It would be a fundamentally less destructive way of living.
We don’t think this way because we’ve swallowed the lie that the only important thing is ‘where you go when you die’, as though living a life that flourishes is a thing of no import. Is it enough that someone lives Christianly without knowing Christ? Of course not, but it’s not nothing either.
Governments of populaces who are warm towards Christianity are also more likely to legislate in ways which don’t outright offend us as well. They might even legislate in ways which are for people’s flourishing.
I used to think—and argue—that because the way of Jesus cannot be followed without the Spirit, expecting those who don’t follow him to obey the Bible’s moral commands was brutally unfair. I would now argue that it’s still better for people to have their lives pointed in the direction of flourishing that to give themselves over to whatever they will because they might fail. My old argument was akin to not giving a child rules because they might break them.
Perhaps that analogy is a little paternalistic, and for the sake of clarity, I am in no way suggesting that legislating to create Old Testament Israel is a good idea. I am suggesting that people who live like Christians because everyone else does create a better society for themselves and their children.
Having less Christians, or people who behave like Christians, is a bad thing.
Evangelism is harder, not easier
We like the idea of the honesty of people knowing they aren’t Christians because we think it makes it more likely that they will start following Jesus.
The thing is, nominalism isn’t the great barrier we made it out to be. Someone who is already kindly disposed to the church is easier to win with the gospel. Evangelism in a society where you don’t have to fight to be heard is easier.
People who are acknowledging that they aren’t Christians aren’t suddenly going to want to become them.
Now, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist when it comes to salvation, God calls whom he wills. Our techniques aren’t what make people meet Jesus, and meeting Jesus is what makes them follow him. Yet, we need to hear the gospel to meet him (Romans 10).
Let’s stop crowing happily about the signs of the death of our nation. Let’s lament them, and then get on with the hard work of building healthy churches that grow people who follow Jesus with full-throated devotion, love their cities and think about the future.
Or, from another angle, Christendom gets a bad rap. It was infinitely better than the mess that’s followed it.
No return is possible, and God rarely does the same thing again anyway. One day, perhaps many centuries off, I suspect there will be another Christendom, maybe even a Protestant one. It won’t happen in our lifetimes, but knowing the times and seasons is what we’re supposed to be doing. That’s wisdom.
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