26 August 2016
Does evangelicalism have a bright future?
Our research into evangelicalism shows only 59 per cent believe evangelicalism has a bright future in the UK. This means just under half of evangelicals aren't sure what's to come for the movement. So idea asked Gavin Calver, the Alliance's director of mission, if things were quite as gloomy as some of those answering our survey believe.
I'm often asked what I think about the future of evangelical Christianity in the UK. Is it facing impending doom? Is it outdated? Can there possibly be a bright future? Being a natural optimist, I need to fight off the desire to just paint a better picture and instead engage with some of the reality. This land has seemingly been in Christian decline for too long. In June 2015, Christianity magazine published some research from the Pew Research Center claiming that at the going rate of decline that by the year 2050 Christianity will lose its place as the majority religion in Britain*. Clearly things are not universally going well and we need to see real change. The stats don't look great, the picture isn't perfect, but God has not given up on the UK.
If you read through Church history it's been far worse than this and the Lord has done amazing things here in the past. So why not now? It seems that much of evangelicalism is living with a 'negative script' – we need to drop this and see a brighter future. The media often kick against evangelicals, but it's not their perception we should be most attentive too. My experience since joining the team at Alliance more than a year ago has been very different to what is often seen as normal. I've seen many come to personal faith in Jesus, have been hugely encouraged by incredible models of church unity locally and have been delighted to meet many Christians my age who are keen to identify as evangelical. The experiences I've been having are not isolated either. I was recently having a coffee with a fellow evangelist who said that he'd seen more fruit in his ministry in the last year than the previous decade combined. Clearly God is on the move!
The term 'evangelical' may sometimes require redeeming, but it's far from redundant. We are people of the evangel – the good news; who hold firmly to the Bible, believe the death and resurrection of Jesus are the most important events in human history, consider conversion to be central and want to be active in shaping our land. It's not like we just stand back and wait for the world to become something else, we're involved in shaping the future and have a contribution to make about the kind of nation we live in. The American theologian, Leonard Sweet, puts it this way: "The future is not something we enter. The future is something we create." We evangelicals need to take responsibility for helping shape a future with a healthy church as part of it.
Many people's experiences are not as positive as mine, but I have great hope for the future and wholeheartedly believe that in my lifetime we will see an incredible move of God in the UK. Things have to turn around, hope hasn't died, and times will change. The only option other than seeing this move of God would be to die believing it's coming the next day! We need to choose to be people of hope, to say to the Lord that all we are is His, to pray fervently for change and to do all we can to encourage others that when it comes to evangelical Christianity we have a greater future than we've had a past. The best is yet to come!
Returning to the present, it's vital that we hold firm to our convictions and share the love of Christ in an increasingly secularised landscape. In the face of this one line from the famous hymn Great is thy faithfulness comes to mind. What we need as we build a better future is "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow". Strength to see above our reality and imagine what could be in our family, workplace, sports team, community, church and nation. Strength to keep going in the face of challenge and to keep pursuing Christ and his agenda. This needs to marry bright hope for tomorrow; a hope that can't be extinguished and inspires us to change things.
We need to keep seeing things in the right perspective. This world says "tell your God how big your problems are. The Lord says tell your problems how big your God is."** He's bigger than anything; the doubters, antagonists, sceptics, intellectuals; the list is endless, because He's bigger than anything. We need to grow a confidence in this great big God and what He could do going forward. There are reasons for encouragement all around us. The Church is doing so much good within society. The growth of numerous mission initiatives is having a profound impact and we should never underestimate this. For this mission to be effective it must involve both lifestyle and proclamation. Word and deed must go together. Jesus may have told us that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," (Matthew 25:40), but he also specifically instructed that we should "go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation," (Mark 16:15). Deeds and words give a context to one another, but one alone can never be good enough.
We can't expect people to come to faith by osmosis, sometimes we need to make the invitation. We need to pray for the self-assurance to step out knowing that whatever the outcome the Lord is with us. We are doing loads of amazing things but are we giving people an opportunity to meet Jesus? Let's be people who give the invitation regularly. There will be many sociological benefits along the way, but our chief goal above all else must remain the fulfilment of the Great Commission.
We are all involved and it can never just be the role of the evangelist to lead people to Jesus. All Christians should have non-Christian friends. So who can you share with, and show Jesus to? Let's all be in relationships with others where we are seeking to lead them towards Jesus. I wholeheartedly believe that the best days for the UK evangelical Church are yet to come, but for this to be true we all need to be involved. Step out of your comfort zone, pray fervently, get involved and believe the Lord will move and together we can create a better future.
*1 Christianity Magazine, Premier Christianity, London, June 2015
**2A. Emiaghe, Seven Women, One God (Bloomington, AuthorHouse, 2010) .41