The church on the brink of extinction?
The week before these words were written there was something of a controversy in the media. Some strong words about the church and its future made the headlines in much of the popular and up market press. By now these words will have been almost forgotten. However it is worth revisiting them because they represent themes that recur constantly within the life of the church and our mission. What are these themes?
Let’s talk first about the sequence of events that gave rise to these themes. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, gave a talk to a conference in Shrewsbury on the urgency of evangelism. During his talk he said something that I have heard many times over the decades. He talked about the need to reach young people and in that context noted that if we failed to reach young people we are only a generation away from extinction.
Of course, it has been true since the church began that we have always been one generation away from extinction. Still, given our current failure to generate significant Christian movements amongst young people, it’s a warning worth noting.
However, its one thing for a local preacher to say that we are one generation away from extinction, its another thing for George Carey to say it. So, the headlines soon appeared. “FORMER ARCHISHOP SAYS THE CHURCH IS ON THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION”.
That is not what the Archbishop said, meant or intended but the media never allows the truth to get in the way of a good story. In the business of mission we need divine wisdom in dealing with the media. They can be wonderful friends or terrible foes.
Reflecting on this controversy, the columnist A N Wilson – a self declared agnostic and regular church attender offered his thoughts in a large feature in a prominent daily newspaper. In essence his words condemned George Carey’s vision of a renewed and active church.
For Wilson, the idea of charismatic style churches offering Alpha courses everywhere would finally turn the whole population against the Church of England. Wilson suggested that the real problem of church decline lay in the core beliefs of the church – the incarnation, the resurrection and our obsession with sex.
Wilson’s essential vision of the church is that it should be aesthetically pleasing (even soothing) and that it should offer precisely no moral guidance whatsoever. In other words it should promote the secular views of our broader society but with a dash of tasteful religion thrown in.
Leaving aside Wilson’s lack of insight into how Christian ethics operates, he overlooks that his formula for success is precisely the poisoned dish that has brought the church to its present perilous state all across Europe.
So in terms of mission, three immediate lessons:
1. Be wise in dealing with our friends in the media.
2. Remember that the church is beginning to grow and it is growing precisely in those parts of the church that take orthodox and traditional faith seriously.
3. We do need to rework our presentation of the importance of Christian ethics. Working for justice, protecting the poor and the marginalized, working to protect children lies at the heart of a Christian view of ethics.
We do have something to say about sexual ethics but most of what we have to say about these issues relates to the need to protect the vulnerable. That has obviously not been communicated well to the wider population.