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Lessons from Lenin for the Church of England on its attendance statistics: Part 1 of 2

Lessons from Lenin for the Church of England on its attendance statistics: Part 1 of 2


October 31, 2017

The Church of England has released its yearly survey of attendance and other measures of participation. The figures are above. I have drawn heavily on David Keen's blog, also above, which provides an excellent analysis of the trends. As he notes, the good news is that the Church of England provides a detailed analysis of the attendance figures. Any "business" that doesn't analyse its figures will (deservedly) collapse. Now the church of England isn't a "business", but if it doesn't open its eyes and look at whats happening and take corrective action, then the same fate awaits. A plane headed straight for the ground needs to pull up. (I use quite a lot of business analogies below: church is not a business and this can be overdone but there are some obvious parallels to business - "if the cap fits wear it". )

And there's good biblical authority for understanding what's actually happening - Matthew 16 "The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then left them and went away.

So if we look at the numbers, the fact they are available is the good news, the rest is bad news, verging on places on the catastrophic. The pace of decline of the Church of England, which has been occurring since at least 1945, is actually accelerating. You can see a longer term analysis provided by David here http://davidkeen.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/attendance%20stats

Sadly the rate of decline in children attending is even faster than for the church as a whole. In some dioceses as noted by David the figures are so bad as to take your breath away. In fact, you even wonder if they can be accurate -- can any diocese lose 50% of its children in five years? Even though that diocese is atypical (thank you Shaun) the figures for some others are also dire. Analysis of research provided by Linda Woodhead and others shows that this picture is pretty consistent -- that the Church of England is melting like snow on a warm day. Although I quite often disagree with Linda Woodhead's conclusions on what is to be done, her main point is "look at the figures" - I find it staggering as she points out that churches don't do more data analysis, or in many cases even look at or obtain the data.

If we look in more detail, only two dioceses show any growth, and the stand out exception over the long term is London which stands in stark contrast to Southwark. For those of you not into Anglican diocesan boundaries, "London" diocese is north of the Thames and Southwark is south. This is interesting because you have two dioceses with pretty similar demographics. Not identical -- "Sarf" London is more blue collar than leafy Hampstead but then you have Clapham in the South and Tottenham in the North. But the two are close enough to allow analysis.

Without this contrast, one might assume this growth in London was because of immigration (though how many Polish and Nigerian people attend the CofE is an interesting question -- much more likely to be say Catholic and RCCG respectively) or because the church was better at reaching wealthy people than poor people. Which it is but thats the subject for another blog. Others have written on London diocese but to me striking is that while north of the river church planting has been embraced and supported, south of the River, Richard Coekin, in my view probably the UK's leading church planter through Co-Mission, has been shunned and ostracised. So in Southwark growth is outside the CoFE while in the London dioceses its within. Thats Southwark's loss. My point is that the London diocese has embraced church planting of all types (not just evangelicals) while Southwark and frankly most other dioceses shun it or at best are not exactly helpful. I know that from lots of Anglican churches who come to me for help on planting. In business terms this is like a business in 1990 deciding it doesn't allow customers to access it through the internet. If you shut down the main source of growth -- and I am convinced church planting is key to growth -- then dont be surprised if your business dies.

So does the picture look rosy for evangelicals within the CofE and in non Anglican churches? Data is not available and it would be fascinating to be allowed to see it. Why doesn't the CofE publish data for different types of church? thats how we could learn. Liberals argue that the reason is the church is unfriendly to LGBT people. Evangelicals argue its the reverse - because the church is unfaithful to God's word on this and other issues. Very well - lets have some data and a trial. Lets have a defined period of time and look at say 50 or 100 liberal Anglican churches and 50 or 100 evangelical ones and see what happens.

Without this you can only surmise, but my guess is the picture is better but not massively so. Firstly within the church of England, my assumption is that conservative evangelicals are somewhere between flat and slightly up. I dont have data but from being involved in various churches, including my own, St Nicholas Sevenoaks, I think thats a reasonable assumption. If anyone has more data I'd love to see it. It would be by the way an obvious thing to gather, as all the data exists at the church level and I wonder why nobody has done it? And from discussions with John Stevens and others at FIEC (the largest grouping of evangelical free churches) I believe a similar pattern is occurring in FIEC churches -- that overall the picture is of modest growth, but certainly not collapse. So no room for complacency or evangelical triumphalism (perish the thought!). Nobody is seeing revival.

Why is this happening?

This is a vast subject, outside the scope of one blog to cover in any detail. The short answer I believe is:-

1. In the past it was socially normal to count yourself as "CofE"even if you had no religious beliefs or very fuzzy ones which amounted to nothing much more than a belief in being "nice" maybe some kind of vague Deism. As materialistic-atheism has grown (and it's a creation of the Tories as much as the Left) this kind of belief has become unfashionable. I dont necessarily see this as a universally bad thing -- while maybe having a large fringe helped spread the good word, it led an awful lot of people to think they were Christians who were not. To be clear I am not talking about evangelicalism as the definition of Christian - I am talking about believing that Jesus Christ is God

Linda Woodhead has written very helpfully about the rise of the "nones" and this is where we are heading - that most people believe in nothing. Linda shows that most people are not "Dawkinsite" atheists but tick the box "none of the above". I recommend everyone looks at her research, its extremely useful.

2.It is hard to understand what the Church of England actually believes. Look at the recent interview of Justin Welby by Alastair Campbell in which the Archbishop couldn't answer the simple and hardly unexpected question, "Is gay sex a sin"? As Paul says "If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?" There is a spiritual battle occurring but from the ranks of bishops comes (there are exceptions but mainly this seems to me anyway to be the case) silence. The main priority seems to be trying to avoid upsetting anyone. Sounds to me a bit like the church in Laodicea.

3. If the Church of England has taken significant corrective action based on this data, which has been available for many years, then its news to me. Some things in fairness like "Reform and Renewal" have occurred but so far the impact has been small. Maybe over time they will have more impact? The single most important thing the church could do is to embrace church planting. I see sadly though little sign of this happening, mainly because the main people church planting (but not the only ones) are evangelicals. HTB in fairness has some (but far from all dioceses) supporting it, conservative evangelicals are generally stymied. Church buildings that are shut or rarely used are blocked from being used for new plants because they (maybe 50 years ago) "had an Anglo Catholic tradition". This is the definition of insanity. Again London is a well known exception.

4. Evangelism. Few resources are put into this. If you have a business with no sales and marketing function it will die. The Church of England is maintaining its "Machinery" -- its buildings -- as best it can but as far as I can tell spends relatively little on reaching those who don't believe. In the case of liberals, this is because often they think there is nothing unique about the Christian faith. If a sales person turns up at your company and implies that their product is good but others are pretty much the same then why should I buy? But I am also not convinced that we evangelicals prioritize evangelism as we should. We tend to prioritize expository preaching which is vital for building up Christians but what about the 98% of the population who never darken the doors of the church? Are our pastors and vicars willing to leave the safety of their studies and commentaries and sally out into the rest of the world and engage in front line evangelism?

So, in the words of VI Lenin "What is to be done?". This is the key question. The trend is blindingly obvious but "what is to be done"?

I still have a copy of this pamphlet, which I acquired along with others when bibles were forcibly "exchanged" at the border of the USSR when my father with my mother and sisters and I in tow were trying to take bibles behind the Iron Curtain. It was written in 1901 when the communists were at a low ebb. Interestingly, Lenin says that revolution will not happen by itself but that the Bolsheviks (which means majority because of the division of revolutionary parties shortly after this: his opponents were Mensheviks which means minority) need to understand whats happening in wider society and act on it. Its not enough just to wait. You have to do something. Lenin's radicalism split the revolutionary parties and for many years Lenin was ostracised by his fellow Marxists. However, in the long run he was right. In the next 16 years Tsarist Russia collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and Lenin and his comrades were there to pick up the pieces. They had the courage of their convictions to stand for what they thought was right. They particularly benefited from being the only political group that was consistently opposed to the First World War

Now, I am not arguing at all that the church should attempt a "coup d'etat" and unlike Lenin we are called not to murder our opponents or starve them to death, or place them into Gulag archipelagos. We should love our enemies and bless them who curse us. But I am saying that when things look desperate that is precisely the point where we need to be very clear about our message. In the not too distant future the current atheistic-materialistic consensus will begin to buckle under the weight of its own contradictions. You can see some sign of that in the breakdown of the nuclear family. As this begins to disintegrate under the combined attacks from the left and right (the latter is perhaps less obvious but if money and the market is all there is then what place for conventional families?) the cost of papering over the cracks becomes bigger and bigger as the cracks widen and grow. As Lenin could see that Tsarist Russia was going to collapse he positioned himself and his party to pick up the pieces. They did this by taking action and having a clear and consistent message (unlike sorry to say the Church of England)

This is all the more so as unlike Lenin and his followers who ended up murdering millions of innocent people we are on the side of the angels. We are on the Lord's side and have supernatural help. Lenin, despite some of the evils of Tsarist society which he was right to attack, was on the other side.

More than that as Peter said to Jesus "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life"

So my summary of "what is to be done" is as follows:

Most important: prayer. Humanly speaking our country is like a plane heading straight into the ground. We should be shouting "pull up" The plane will only pull up with divine intervention.

A clear and unwavering conviction and message that eternal life is only found in Jesus Christ. If this means very reluctantly breaking fellowship with the rest of the Church of England (though not Anglicans in many other countries), because it wont allow this message to be shared, then very sadly that is what we must do. We must put the word of God ahead of our culture and being "nice"

An investment in and a prioritisation of evangelism

A focus on church planting. Within the CofE we should be allowing church planting wherever.

A focus on children and young people. OCCA for example does a splendid job here with their Reboot programme.


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