Justin Thacker, Head of Theology at The Evangelical Alliance, writes …
Every year, the government produces an annual report detailing the Social Trends of the United Kingdom. This year’s report has just been released and its section on religious participation is making the atheists angry.
In the report, we discover that almost a third of adults have not participated in sport in the previous 12 months, that the average charitable giving by UK adults was £4 per week, that a quarter of households have two cars, and that some parts of the Christian church have almost doubled over the last ten years.
To put that rise in context, we need to also acknowledge that over that ten-year period the historic denominations saw a distinct decline. This was particularly true of the Anglican church which went from 29% to 22% of the population. Nevertheless, between 1996 and 2006, the proportion of the population claiming to belong to a particular religion dropped a mere 3% from 57% to 54%.
This hardly squares with the National Secular Society’s claim that we are a ‘dwindling minority’ and that the church is dying on its knees, particularly when you realise that it is the evangelical parts of the church that are showing the most vibrancy. The report reflects the rise of the independent Christian churches, the vast majority of which are evangelical, from 4.7% of the population to 9.6% over the last ten years. It is also probably the case that a large part of the decline is due to a reduction in the less committed sections of the church. After all, when you have senior churchmen wondering whether there actually is a God, or whether Jesus really did rise from the dead, you have to ask yourself in what sense they were Christian in the first place. So, maybe what is taking place here is the kind of pruning that fosters new growth.
Moreover, all of this fits in with the Tearfund survey of last year which revealed that 15% of the adult population attend church at least once a month. When we bear in mind that the most popular sporting and cultural activities do little better then we realise the church is actually in a very healthy position. For, according to the Social Trends report, swimming – the most popular sport – was participated in by 16% of the adult population in the previous four weeks, and cinema – the most popular communal leisure activity – was enjoyed by just 17% of the population in the previous month.
Yet, despite the fact that church attendance is on a par with these other pursuits, you never hear anyone say that they are in terminal decline. So, it’s no wonder the atheists are getting angry. Yes, Sunday church attendance is declining, but at nothing like the fatal rate that they suggest. And parts of the church – particularly the evangelical church – remain extremely healthy. And for that, we can thank God.