Eddie and Sue Arthur

Why People are Leaving Church: A Look at Context

Rachel Held Evens recently wrote a piece on the CNN blog entitled Why Millenials Are Leaving the Church which gained huge readership (I lost count of how many of my Facebook contacts mentioned it) and has sparked a fair bit of debate. There have been a number of responses to Rachel’s paper including this thoughtful one by Trevin Wax and Krish Kandiah has pointed us to something he wrote on the same issue a couple of years ago.

All three of these articles are worth a read and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing they all lack is a sense of historical and geographical context. So I’d like to provide some framework to help us examine the particular issues that Held Evans and others have raised.

There is no missing generation in the church. Krish is right when he highlights the lack of people in their 20s and 30s in the Church in the UK, but this is a Western phenomenon. Worldwide the Church is growing incredibly rapidly and the highest growth is among the generation that we find hardest to reach in our corner of the world. It isn’t all doom and gloom around the world and the future of the Church looks extremely bright; but we do have a struggle on our hands around here.

It isn’t just millenials who are going missing. Many British churches have very few people in their 20s and 30s, but across the board, there are fewer people of all age groups who are attending church. Simon catches one reason for this, but there are many others. So while the worldwide picture is more encouraging than these articles imply, the local one is more discouraging.

The point of these two statements is to indicate that the drop in numbers of younger people attending Church in the UK is a reflection of a much broader and long term trend. Churches are in decline across the UK  and have been for years. This article from the Daily Mail captures this trend quite graphically (and probably loses me a lot of credibility).

However, the fall in the number of Christians in the UK (and elsewhere in the heartland of Christianity) is more than counterbalanced by a huge growth in the Church around the world.

Andrew Walls suggests that this shift in the demographics of the Church is part of a much broader pattern which is ingrained in the history and nature of Christianity:

Christian expansion is not progressive; it is serial. Perhaps we can understand this best by comparing the histories of Christianity and Islam. Both faiths call the whole world to allegiance. Each has succeeded in establishing itself among peoples among diverse culture and diverse geographical locations. But in the light of comparative history, Islam has, so far at least, been much more successful than Christianity in maintaining that allegiance over time. Lands that have become Muslim have, generally speaking (there are exceptions), remained Muslim. Arabia now seems so utterly, axiomatically Muslim that it’s hard to remember, isn’t it, that the Yemen was once a Christian kingdom.

Contrast Jerusalem, which cannot even claim an unbroken Christian history, let alone a dominant one. Jerusalem, the mother church of us all, is not the Christian Mecca. Or consider Egypt or Syria or Tunisia -these were once the showcase churches, the churches that led the Christian world, adorned by the greatest theologians and the profoundest scholars, and sanctified by the blood of the Martyrs. They were churches that had seen the collapse of paganism around them and the triumphs of Christ throughout their surrounding areas.

Or think of the days, and few Christians nowadays even realize that those days happened, when the Christian faith was the profession of the whole Euphrates valley and most of the people who live in what is now Iraq, professed that faith; when new churches were springing up in Iran and across Central Asia, even in the countries we now call Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Or consider my own country, with its towns where John Knox and John Wesley once preached but are now full of churches that nobody needs and that get turned into fellowship doors or restaurants or even nightclubs. In my own city of Aberdeen we have a former church that now rejoices as a nightclub under the name “The Ministry of Sin.”

In each of these cases, a place that had been a leading center of Christian faith, an area where the Christian faith was dominant, ceased to hold that position. For whatever reason, and there are many different reasons in the different cases, the light was dimmed, sometimes indeed, extinguished. As the Book of Revelation puts it, the candlestick was taken out of its place. But in none of these cases did the dimming or withering of Christian witness in one of its major centers lead to the end of Christian witness in the world.

By the way, if you have never read any Andrew Walls, you really should. He is one of the most important Christian thinkers of our age; but widely ignored because he doesn’t write about fashionable subjects (he writes about important ones).

One of my colleagues, Paul posted this quote in a book review this morning:

“I have come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch. If you really want to understand the future of Christianity, go and see what is happening in Asia, Africa, Latin America.… God very often is working most powerfully far from the center.”

This has taken us a long way from the problem of a missing generation in the Church in the UK, but I believe that it gives us a context in which to understand the issues. It is good that Krish and others are looking at this issue and suggestion solutions. However, we need to be aware that lying behind the problem of one generation in one part of the world is a profound historic trend which will need a response on multiple levels.

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