The Numbers Message

TWO EVENTS last month highlighted the Church’s sensitivity to the number of people in the pews. The first was the launch of Christian Research’s English Church Attendance survey which showed that average Sunday attendance is now approximately 1 in 13, down from approximately 1 in 8 twenty years ago. The second was the pastoral letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in which we were reminded of the biblical encouragement that is given to small struggling churches.

The figures for Church attendance aren’t the only ones to have received publicity recently. Shortly after the new millennium started, the Daily Telegraph was drawing attention to the ironic fact that the official Church of England initiative to distribute candles to every home had failed to take off, whereas the unofficial initiative (which had originally started with Reform) for distributing copies of Gospels had greatly exceeded the original expectations. Five times as many homes have received, or will have received Gospels by the end of this year, as have received candles.

So what are we to make of all these figures?

Arguably, the concern over numbers is misplaced. The Bible consistently urges us not so much to be successful, as to be faithful. That said, the current decline does raise questions about how faithful the Church is being to her mission of going into all the world and making disciples of Jesus Christ.

The fact is that despite all the many and valiant stands taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury and his officials to mark the new millennium in a distinctively Christian way, too much has been given away to the politically correct inter – faith agenda. The candles and resolution idea couldn’t motivate people because it was a compromise. Furthermore, despite the Archbishop of Canterbury’s insistence on a Christian prayer during the millennium celebrations at the dome, he has also had to attend an inter-faith event at the House of Lords in which all those present offered a joint Act of Commitment. To whom this Act of Commitment was offered was not entirely clear.

What should be clear by now is that when something clearly Christ – centred is initiated – such as the gospel distribution – God’s people are galvanised into action and the Church’s mission is carried forward. This is born out by the Christian Research survey too, which showed that despite the overall decline in the last ten years, attendance at ‘mainstream’ evangelical Anglican churches (as opposed to what Christian Research categorises as ‘broad’ or ‘charismatic’ evangelicalism) grew explosively by over 300%.

Interestingly, the pastoral letter from the Archbishops urges Christians to heed the words of Romans 12: 2 to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. It is only when the Church is willing to deviate from the politically correct mind – set of our present day, and allow the mind of Christ to fill her, that she can hope to respond properly to what all these figures are telling us. We need to be clear about the exclusive claims of Christ and faithful in presenting them even if it leads to ostracism from the circle of the politically correct.