2024 is going to be messy – more crises, more elections and ongoing wars. There will also be incredible opportunities to speak truth and hope into some of the most controversial issues of our day. But will we as the UK church be distracted by division and bury our head in the sand? Or will we see the opportunity offered by the difficult questions of our day to extend wisdom, hospitality, and offer a hopeful way forward?

Elections: dividing lines over identity politics and wars

Elections here and in the US will cast their shadow over the year. In America, a number of states have already attempted to ban Donald Trump from the ballot paper making a Supreme Court hearing highly likely. While the former president seems to thrive on court cases and the ensuing free publicity, the Democrats must decide if they can or want to run an alternative to the ageing sitting president. No matter what we might wish, American elections impact us all and this is likely to be a toxic campaign and a very tight race.

Then we have our own election – probably in November, but the prime minister may go for May to avoid clashing with the US presidential election or he could cling on until January 2025. Regardless of the date, a change of government looks almost certain. 

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Elections are all about dividing lines and accentuating difference, so expect the culture wars to ramp up on both sides of the Atlantic. Immigration and identity politics will be central here. The Rwanda policy isn’t favoured by the courts but is more popular in the opinion polls. Rapid mass migration is an international challenge and none of the parties are offering realistic solutions. But of course, elections aren’t about realistic solutions, they’re about rhetoric. So, expect plenty of that on all sides.

Identity politics and trans rights’ are also likely to feature prominently. Many on the left see this as the new civil rights issue, while many on the right see resistance as a vote-winner. However, people like JK Rowling or MP Rosie Duffield remind us that this isn’t a classic left/​right issue, and it in fact divides all the main parties and their supporters. While the tide is turning on this issue, there won’t be a simple pendulum swing back. Expect more extreme ideology and more robust resistance.

There will be plenty more election issues – taxation, the NHS, inflation and environmental commitments to name just a few. And across the UK, Northern Ireland remains without a government, Wales awaits a new first minister and Scotland is likely to see a significant shift from the SNP to Labour. 

While we fight the culture wars, real wars will continue in Ukraine and Gaza. Israel may end its military campaign soon, but both conflicts are likely to continue throughout 2024 as are many others, with new wars also likely. And in our hyper-connected world, full of disinformation, truth and trust will continue to be casualties as cultural and military wars rage on social and mainstream media. 

"2024 is going to be messy – more crises, more elections and ongoing wars. There will also be incredible opportunities to speak truth and hope into some of the most controversial issues of our day."

Abuse scandals: the church must do better

The church of course is not immune from challenges. Sadly, abuse scandals are likely to continue to emerge. Hopefully, not new incidents, but old issues rising to the surface. We have to acknowledge that the church did not always have sufficient clarity on wrong behaviour nor the structures in place to deal with it when it occurs. We need to clean house, and God has already begun doing this. We must respond with accountability, transparency and rigorous safeguarding practices — these are critical. But we also need to be careful not to over-react. Good leaders and organisations with integrity need to be supported, as churches must be able to name wrongdoing from all quarters and disciple their communities. Finding wise and just approaches is essential for all of us. 

The death of secularism?

We can’t escape the bleakness of the picture in front of us; our culture is in real trouble. It has largely rejected Christianity, while trying to cling to the bits it likes – community projects, human rights, charity and of course carol services. But now it is experiencing a full-blown meaning crisis – is there anything more to life than this? Atheism is dead, if it ever was alive. The rising number of nones’ (those ticking no religion’ on the census) have realised that being a none’ isn’t much fun. Secularism is dying on its feet, gasping on the last fumes of cultural Christianity. 

But having painted the bleak picture, we must also recognise the opportunities as we notice what Justin Brierley has called the surprising rebirth of belief in God. As New Atheism has grown old, public intellectuals are looking afresh at Christianity. Jordan Peterson may be a marmite character, but he has helped many to look afresh at the biblical story. Historian Tom Holland has made the historical case for Christianity’s world-changing influence. Louise Perry is a feminist questioning the benefits of the sexual revolution and is increasingly open to Christianity’s positive role in championing women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim and now a former atheist, recently declared that she has converted to Christianity – in part because it safeguards human life, freedom and dignity with its sacred order and its claim that we are all made in the image of God. 

But it’s not just these high-profile examples. The Talking Jesus research, which we partnered in, found that one in three of our non-Christian friends are open to talking more about Jesus. The stats and stories all tell us the same thing — people are increasingly open to the spiritual. Life without the transcendent is actually rather dull, boring and depressing. If this is all there is, we really are in trouble. The alternative stories have been found wanting. Atheism is empty. Individualism is lonely and puts unbearable pressure on each of us to be the answer to every question. And so, people are open to something else – sometimes anything else. 

"Our culture is experiencing a crisis of confidence — the emperor’s new clothes have been found wanting. ​Will we recognise this moment for wisdom, compassion and confidence in a kingdom that cannot be shaken?"

Opportunities for the church to open its doors – not bury its head in the sand

Now, I’m not claiming that people are banging down the doors of our churches (though it seems many did at Christmas, with record attendances). People are interested, but we have often offered a dull and boring version of Christianity – one that would shock Jesus and the early disciples. We need to offer a personal relationship with Jesus, the biblical story that anchors us in a world of chaos, and a church community of conviction and compassion to help people navigate life’s challenges. No matter what 2024 brings, we can be increasingly confident in a world of chaos. 

But we also need to acknowledge the discipleship challenges ahead. We have lots to offer on the big issues of 2024, but we need the courage to speak up. Church leaders are feeling battered. Conversations on thorny issues cause strong reactions and are deeply draining. So, many leaders simply avoid them, leading to a discipleship deficit. We need to be braver and kinder in our engagement.

The big conversation topics of 2024 will be on areas the Bible equips us to speak about — order amongst the chaos, human dignity, rights, identity, sexuality, compassion, truth, freedom, creation care and so on. We should offer refuge for those seeking asylum and fleeing persecution while engaging in the complex conversations that mass migration requires. We should have compassion for those with gender dysphoria while challenging a dehumanising ideology that has caused deep confusion. We should support Israel’s right to defend itself from terror attacks while being critical of its excessive use of force. We should embrace aspects of AI while noting its limits when it comes to empathy and ethics. We should also offer clear and countercultural approaches to sexuality and abortion as the church has always done. Each issue raises core questions about what it means to be human and how the good, true and beautiful story of God shapes our response. 

Our culture is experiencing a crisis of confidence — the emperor’s new clothes have been found wanting. Will we recognise this moment for wisdom, compassion and confidence in a kingdom that cannot be shaken?

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