If we observe the trends and look at current statistics, things do not look good for the church in Britain today. Attendance is declining and its influence is on the wane. On the other hand, the new atheists and those who hang on their coat tails have more than found their voice and are gaining an audience in almost every sphere of life. It is tempting to think the church is past its sell by date.
It might sound strange, coming from a churchman, but the apparent ‘decline’ of Christianity in the West may not be a bad thing. But that is because not all that claims the name ‘Christian’ is really what it says it is. Far better that what is ‘Christian’ in name only evaporate and disappear, than be a distraction to what is real. Too much Western ‘Christianity’ is nothing more than a Christianised version of Western culture as opposed to what is actually found in the Bible.
The curious thing about these declining trends is that despite them all, people from all kinds of backgrounds keep turning up at churches looking for answers to those big issues that always seem to lurk just under the surface in life. ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where have I come from?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ (Not to mention the, ‘Where am I going?’ question that tends to get put off until it’s almost too late.) It is perhaps Prof. Richard Dawkins’ greatest irritation in life that despite all the answers he and his fellow neo-atheists have provided, people still believe there is a God. They still want to hear what the Bible has to say and the challenge for churches (if they are to survive) is to actually present its message in a way that shows it’s got something to say.
Perhaps ironically the appeal of the Bible’s message has nothing to do with its being popular, because it finds its focus in the cross. Not the cross as a piece of jewellery or a religious symbol; but the real and ugly cross on which Jesus Christ died almost two thousand years ago. The message of the cross has had and continues to have an almost inexplicable spiritual magnetism that draws people to put their trust in Jesus Christ from every corner of the cultural universe. How can that be so?
The answer comes in two parts. The first being that the whole purpose of what Jesus did on the cross was to deal with our alienation as human beings. It is not just that we are in so many ways estranged from other people and even from ourselves, but that at the deepest level we are estranged from God. On the cross Jesus dealt with that estrangement, as St. Peter puts it, ‘to bring you to God’.
The other thing that gives the cross its unusual appeal is that, unlike other religious messages, it is not about what we must do for God to get back to him, but what he has done for us to get us there. He offers a restored relationship, not as something we can earn, but as a gift he freely gives – all on the basis of what Christ secured through his death.
We live in a fragmented and fragmenting world. Yet all over the world – and throughout the UK – people are discovering there is a way to reverse that fragmentation and it begins by understanding what happened on the cross. As long as the church sticks with the message of the cross, it will always have something supremely relevant to say.