Joel Edwards thinks reports of the death of Christianity have been greatly exaggerated.
I slightly enjoy this misnomer that the church is dying because less people are apparently going to church on a Sunday, you know, and I think news of our demise really is greatly exaggerated. When I arrived in the United Kingdom at the age of 8 in 1960 – you can do the maths if you want to – the word in my ear as a Jamaican, age 8, coming to England was, don’t go to England because it is a spiritual graveyard. That’s the quote, age 8 – spiritual graveyard.
And I think if you’d said to me then could I imagine the plethora, the kind of hyperactivity of the Christian church in the UK, I would be totally unable to do that. What I have found as a Christian leader working in primarily the Western context, across Europe and Australia and the US and so on, is that the hyperactivity of the Christian church, and particularly its concern to get the balance right between prayer, Christian witness (sharing our faith about Jesus with others), our commitment to practical engagement in the world of politics, in fighting poverty, in relief and development, in human rights, Christian engagement in these areas – are unprecedented, I think, for the last hundred years. And I think what’s also exciting about this for me is that increasingly we’re seeking to do this, not with a kind of sinister proselytising mindset, but because we genuinely want to serve our communities around the world.
And so, yes, there is to some extent the perception – and it’s a real perception – that church attendance is diminishing on a regular basis. You might argue that some places where people go to church, it ought to diminish because it’s not a pretty sight what goes on behind those closed doors! It can be as boring as it gets, so why not diminish. But I wonder if that is the only sort of indicator – the key performance indicators of the kingdom – and I’m increasingly asking, you know, what are the KPIs of God’s activities, what are the key performance indicators of God being at work? Is it church attendance? Or does it have to do with the way in which people are being served in their community as a result of people’s Christian faith?
So here in the UK where I can talk about from a more informed basis – things like food banks, where Christian communities indiscriminately serve those who need food, has escalated to such an extent that during our last general election just about every politician made reference to food banks. Or an activity here now called Cinnamon Network, which is bringing together small, medium-sized, sometimes larger caring initiatives, usually from the local church. And in 2015 they did a survey of their activities and estimated that they had initiated something like 220,000 social activities involved through Cinnamon Network – a sum of about three … the equivalent of three billion pounds’ worth of voluntary activities to the community. I just think that’s so exciting.
And if you’re looking for the significance of a community which believes in human dignity, which believes in, yes, the salvation of the soul, which believes in, yep, the lordship of Jesus Christ, but equally who believes that we want to be judged not just on our beliefs as Christians but on our service to the whole community, people of all faiths or none, then look for what we are doing. Look for the life of the church in its service to its community, not just in who’s pushing the doors open on a Sunday morning – you may miss what’s actually happening in the life of a church committed to engagement.