Last week the UK Office of National Statistics published data from the 2021 census which showed the percentage of those in England and Wales who identified as “Christian” has dropped below 50% for the first time, a 17% decline in a decade.
Now, of course, identifying as a Christian – possibly for cultural reasons – is not the same as being a follower of Jesus. And the picture for evangelical churches is more positive. Moreover, it is hard to interpret the figure without knowing what lies behind it: has it become less popular to identify as a Christian? Or are people changing in their understanding of what a Christian is? Or is it just that nominalism is evaporating?
One thing is clear, though: many people will assume from this that Christianity is declining because it is untrue, irrelevant, or un-sellable.
But Jesus would have us think differently. Looking at a vast crowd, He said, The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Matthew 9:37). People just need Christians to explain His message to them. Christianity is true, and life-changingly relevant: if only more people knew!
Speaking personally, what made me give up atheism and brought me to follow Jesus was having people explaining real Christianity to me. I’d thought I’d known what I was rejecting, but I didn’t. I hadn’t understood God’s grace, or the momentous significance of who Christ is and what He came to do. Someone had to explain this great news.
And that has made me wonder – how many more are in the same shoes? The harvest, says Jesus, is plentiful! It’s just the workers who are few.
Here in Cambridge we are in an area of spiritual privilege: there are many churches where you can hear Christ faithfully preached. And yet the picture in our region and even across the UK is much bleaker. Some towns have no church where the Bible is being opened reliably, and locals hearing about Jesus. So, no wonder if there are fewer Christians, and Christianity is not permeating our culture so much!
By contrast, the history of the great revival in Britain in the eighteenth century, in which hundreds of thousands came to a living faith, turns out to be the story of a large number of faithful preachers in many towns across the land preaching the good news.
Where do we start? Jesus says, pray. In fact, more literally, He urges us to plead – for that is the verb He uses – for the Lord of the harvest to drive out (yes, again, the verb is as strong as that) workers into His harvest field. Will we pray that? Will we pray it for our world, and for our church? And, with ourselves in the frame, how can we serve?