[Jesus said] there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
We began this series of sermons with some thoughts on a Life of Righteousness – Living rightly, or living in the way God wants us to live; and last week Roger followed that up with a sermon based on the 10 commandments, the basic and foundational things that our lives are based on to help us live rightly; and as Roger said, we must interpret them for today – not many people would covet their neighbour’s ass, but they might covet their neighbour’s car for example. Today I will be answering the question: Is Christianity in decline? And I guess along side that is the question why are so many people choosing not to live God’s way, and therefore not living a good and fulfilled life? Let’s start with the statistics from the Church of England.
ATTENDANCE FIGURES for 2005, published by the Church of England, show a fall from 2004 of two per cent for Sunday worship and one per cent or less for weekly and monthly worship.
About 1.7 million people attend C of E services in churches and cathedrals monthly; 1.2 million weekly, on Sunday or a weekday; and just under one million (988,000) on Sundays.
But, although the average number of children and young people attending services weekly also fell by one per cent to 231,000, the number attending monthly continued an upward trend, rising by one per cent to 441,000. The number of children and young people in regular contact with local C of E services of worship has steadily increased each year since 2001, when accurate weekly records began to be systematically collated. Levels in 2005 were six per cent higher than in that year.
The picture is acknowledged to be mixed. Fifteen dioceses — Birmingham, Bristol, Canterbury, Derby, Durham, Leicester, York, Newcastle, Oxford, Ripon & Leeds, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Truro, Wakefield, Worcester, and Manchester — saw annual increases in their total-attendance figures.
The most dramatic increase has been in Christmas Eve and Christmas Day church attendance: at 2,786,200, it was seven per cent higher than 2001, the highest figure since Millennium celebrations drew in 2.85 million in 2000. [source: Church Times Jan 26th 2007]
And when we look at our own churches in this benefice the same mix is evident. St. Luke’s congregation has over a number of years seen a decline in numbers – some people can still remember when the church was full. Yet in recent years the congregation has remained at about 25 on average Sunday by Sunday. St Matthew’s congregation also remains fairly steady, with a slight increase in numbers in recent years, and compared to longer ago there has been a large increase in numbers attending.
But statistics don’t really give us the full picture, and these are only for the CofE, once we include the other Christian denominations the picture changes again. One thing that is difficult to factor in, even though people do try now, is the irregularity of worship for many people. Whilst many people do go to church every week there are many for whom this is difficult due to work and other commitments, so they come to church when they can, either fortnightly, monthly or irregularly. And of course there are those for whom church is a thing they do twice a year at Christmas and Easter, whilst they hold on to a very private faith that is expressed quietly. (I’ll say a little bit more about this later). If everyone who is connected to our church came every week the church would be much fuller.
So is Christianity in decline? Well, I guess it’s a sort of non answer of yes and no. When we look at the fabric of society, the immoral and amoral behaviour that is constantly in the news, of course we are tempted to say that Christianity must be in decline. When we see shrinking congregations and churches closing, again we say yes Christianity is in decline. But set along side that the number of people coming to faith, the number of new churches opening and the statistics that show an increase in the numbers attending churches in many diocese throughout the country we have to say no, Christianity is not in decline. When we take into account the people who come fortnightly, monthly and irregularly, again we see that Christianity is not in decline. And this is without reference to the growth in churches in other countries too. Christianity is still the faith group with the largest numbers of believers world wide.
But we should never be complacent. There are millions of people who have no or little faith, people who, like in today’s gospel are lost. When I read today’s Gospel I was very mindful of part of the bishop’s charge at my ordination that I should “to search for God’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.” [Common Worship Ordination service]. But the Prayer Book ordinal, published 100’s of years ago, the charge was the same: priests should “seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. [BCP The ordering of Priests]. Throughout the history of the church there have always been people who are Christians and people who aren’t – people who recognize God and seek to follow him and people who are lost in the midst of a naughty world (to use BCP language) and are suffering through lack of knowledge of God. Our task is to reach out to those who are lost and bring them home to God – and we’ll look at that in more detail next week.
Those churches that are growing, of which there are many, are churches that have a balanced life; Churches that look to meet both the needs of its congregation and the community in which it is set. This is not always an easy task, especially when the parish is small; but it is a task that needs addressing. Now before going any further it’s worth saying something about what I mean by church growth for there are several ways in which churches can grow. There is natural growth – something we don’t have much of a say in, as this is about children being born into Christian families; there is numerical growth and spiritual growth. Numerical growth happens when a church is engaged with the community – when it is active in mission – when it actively seeks out those who are lost. And spiritual growth is about enabling one another to grow in knowledge and love of God – it is about building one another up in Christ, to use St. Paul’s words. Again, I’ll say more about this next week.
The biggest change that I haven’t yet mentioned is the change in English society over the last few years. When St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s were built in the Victorian era church attendance was very different than it is today. Then it was considered right to go to church Sunday by Sunday – it was still part of being English. Membership of the church was an automatic thing; now society is very different, but there is still for many the idea of being a member of the Church of England regardless of attendance or belief. The Church of England being the state church has always had to deal with the difficult issue of faith v’s membership. Whilst many would say that they are members of the Church of England it doesn’t mean that faith automatically follows. The Church of England baptizes 1000s of babies every year - 93,000 in 2004 [source: Church Times Jan 26th 2007] but not all of them continue the journey to become Christians. Here too there is a challenge for us to seek out those who get lost in this naughty world.
And being the state church leads some people going to church only occasionally – or in some cases hardly ever. Their line of thought being: “I am baptised; my faith is a private thing and I live it my own way; I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” Whilst I understand this view I don’t agree with it. There are many passages of scripture that I could use to backup my argument, Jesus’ illustration of how he is the vine and we the branches, and unless we remain in him we wither and die, for example. But the illustration that has stuck in my mind for the last 30 years I think has more power. It was told to my home church in Yeovil; I was a young chorister at the time – and it has to be said usually played “I spy” or “noughts and cross” during the sermons. But this one Sunday I listened to at least part of the sermon, and it went something like this. The vicar of a church went to see a man who hadn’t been to church for a long time. The vicar asked him if everything was alright, and why he hadn’t been coming to church for a while. The man said, “I don’t have to go to church to believe in God – I’ll come occasionally when I want.” The vicar said nothing. Instead, he leaned forward and took a coal out of the fire. They both watched it go from glowing red hot to being cold and grey. The vicar then picked up the coal and put it back in the fire, and they both watched it regain its glow. Before the vicar left he said only this: “I often think the church is like a coal fire. God bless you.” The following Sunday, and every week after, the man went to church.
If we are to remain glowing for Christ we need the encouragement and fellowship of each other; we need also to sit in God’s presence and be feed by Him, so that we can glow in the world. Here we are enabled to live a righteous life; a life centred on God. Here we are renewed by his gracious spirit that we may draw the lost sheep of the world back to God.
Is the church in decline? It may seem like it is when we look at all the wickedness in the world; but as long as we continue to remain in God, fired by his love, then the church will continue to grow, and never die. In heaven there continues to be much rejoicing over every lost sheep that is found, over very sinner who repents.
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