If English Anglican white Evangelicals thought the analysis of Robert P. Jones represented a range of subjects on which they’d rather not comment (i.e., “… Let’s just get back to those Mission Action Plans, church-plant, grow, grow, grow…”, etc.), then he has done some more calculations and projections for us to wrestle with. As he is charting the deep and rapid changes in the cultural currents, his data and research should give yet more cause for concern to white Evangelicals in the UK and USA.
We have known for some while that Evangelicalism still seems to be the best at attracting young people to church. Evangelicals have certainly assumed this. They usually go one step further here, making the apparently logical deduction that more young people must mean the future of the church also belongs to Evangelicals.
But appearances can be deceptive, and this hubris has been checked in the first quarter of this century by the rapid fluxes of culture change amongst Evangelical youth. They are not necessarily against equal marriage; likely to have gay and lesbian friends; and likely to have friends who are Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.
Whilst Evangelicalism remains committed to evangelism, this emerging generation is probably more committed to tolerance, diversity, equality and inclusion. Young people are different. They value sensitivity, mutual respect of differences, and otherness. They are against discrimination on grounds of gender, sexuality, disability and ethnicity. They are likely to be advocates of equality for minorities. This means that targeting, grooming and coercing their peers – this used to be called evangelism in universities – has become a mode of Evangelicalism that many Millennials and Gen-Z-ers now want to keep a safe distance from.
The emerging generation of Evangelicals no longer read books from ‘approved’ publishers that strain and stretch to offer highly tenuous scriptural ground rules for sexual relationships. Nor do they join prayer meetings for supporting missionaries in predominantly Muslim countries. In short, most of these emerging Evangelicals are quite different to anything that has gone before them.
That is a huge cultural climate change, and most Evangelicals I know over the age of 50 are just in denial about it. They are working with old weather maps and forecasts, and they dwell in spiritually-insulated double-glazed centrally-heated bubbles. Many of our Anglican Evangelical Bishops fall into this category. True, they were never pro-Trump. But they are into cultural climate change denial in a big way. They still believe in old-style missions, and their gospel-speak and faith-language increasingly sounds hollow and inauthentic in an age that values integrity, humility, forms of social and civic service, and kindness.
But Robert P. Jones has more surprises in his data and findings. For the first time in a century, mainline American denominations are performing better than their Evangelical rivals. That is, not catching up. They are ahead in the polls. Now, in truth, all parts of the church are actually in decline – sexuality, sexual abuse scandals, the churches putting reputation and survival before authenticity, truth and integrity – are just some of the reasons why emerging generations are not joining churches at all. Young people remain spiritual, but are not religious.
However, the churches that do champion the poor, foodbanks, social justice, climate change, refugees, asylum seekers, equal marriage, equality for women, and
more besides – are now ahead of Evangelicalism in polling for attendance for the first time in almost a century. Some may rejoice at this news. A few may think the trajectory of the inter-ecclesial Cold War (e.g., the CU versus SCM, etc.) has seen a reversal.
But this is not what it seems. For as Jones points out, cultural climate change is challenging all denominations. The white Evangelical voters that put Trump in the White House may now be in steep decline. But it does not follow that the children of those voters will switch to mainline denominations in large numbers. True, some have, and are no doubt attracted by the progressive values and politics these churches exemplify. But the rising seas of cultural change are ones that affect all churches, and the signs are not encouraging. To paraphrase Canute,
“Let all the world know that the power of Bishops is empty and worthless, and there is no church leader worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws.”
Where does it end? What does the futurescape look like? J G Ballard wrote a fine science fiction novel published in 1962, entitled The Drowned World. Ballard imagined a dystopian London of the future that had mostly disappeared, submerged by flooding and rising seas. The inability of humanity to control the climate – and our failure to understand how, by positive actions and self-limitation, disaster and dystopia could be averted – shape the context for the novel.
In some respects, the churches face the same issues, culturally. There is little that churches can do to change the environment around them. They can take some positive action, and also exercise self-denial, enabling the common good. By self-denial here, I do not mean some narrow Lenten discipline. Rather, self-denial is a moral and spiritual discipline, which may mean, for example, that no matter what churches and church leaders think about equal marriage, they accept the cultural change and adopt it with grace as an act of public service.
Philip Jenkins’ recent Climate, Catastrophe and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval (2021) shows how the shocks of sudden climate change in the past produced famine, social upheaval, violence and mass migration. In turn, these changes were interpreted in the religious beliefs and practices of their times: apocalyptic visions, revivals, new religious movements born (and then persecuted), religious violence, scapegoating, persecutions, witch-hunts (literally), victimisation, internecine conflict between denominations, and end-time prophesy.
We are entering that age again. The evidence has been with us for some while, but our church leaders have shown little self-awareness in reading the signs of the times, and how cultural climate change has slowly overwhelmed the churches. The symptoms have predictably manifested themselves in the more secondary issues of money, sex and power. In fact, we should be watching out for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: famine, plague, war and death.
Our church leaders are not paying attention to this rising sea-change. The “dearth” (as Philip Jenkins dubs it), is the lack of food, water and future that is already upon us, and is now leading to the largest movement of mass-migration our world has ever seen. This dearth arises from the very death of the earth, and the migrants travel, seeking new life and hope.
It is to these global issues that churches should turn. Not with bland sentiments, but with serious action that slows and stables each of the Four Horsemen. How can we help those facing famine, plague, war and death? This is now the frontline of our mission and vocation in the twenty-first century.
To be sure, money, sex and power remain fissiparous and divisive matters for churches at the best of times. But perhaps what churches have failed to grasp in the last 25 years is that however our internal wrangling has been conducted, social media and 24/7 news coverage means that the world can tune in and watch anytime, and without drawing near or joining a congregation or denomination.
On the whole, the world has not liked what it has seen and heard. In the Court of Public Opinion, churches are regularly weighed, and frequently found wanting. We don’t do transparency and accountability. We don’t do fairness. We preach about justice, but won’t sign up to the Human Rights Act (1997). Observers notice this.
No Mission Action Plan, Strategy, Governance Review or Bold Rebrand can address the deep cultural chasms that have opened-up – and continue to multiply – between normal standards and shared values in public life, and how the churches actually act. Reputation-management and PR from the churches cannot bridge this gap either. The sea is washing over the very legs of the churches, yet our church leaders still seem to think they can turn back the tide. They can’t.
It would be much better if we shifted to more solid and higher moral ground. Or, if we can’t change our ground, and to borrow a slogan from Donald Trump, it is time to drain the swamp? Otherwise, we will continue to be bogged down. Draining the swamp would mean becoming congregations and denominations that were unequivocally in favour of equality, transparency, fairness, justice, truthfulness, integrity, humility, and accountability. It would mean an end to trying to find some middle way between sexism and equality; or to ‘affirming’ people in same-sex relationships or equal marriage, yet not actually treating them equally.
We keep putting the reputation of the church before accountability and transparency. The churches will not be saved by PR agents or some new ‘comms strategy’. Only the mercy and grace of God can save us now. We need leaders who understand this, and who begin with their own repentance, humility and humanity.
Everyone sees through what the churches are trying to do to evade scrutiny and accountability. The public can see it for what it is. Churches are only pretending to themselves. We currently have far too many church leaders in cultural climate change denial mode. They fool no-one but themselves. Yet the cost of their ongoing denial continues to fall on us all. Sometimes, the only way to effect change and avert disaster is to reject and eject the very leadership that holds us to ransom in this head-lock, and then pegs us back. Their vested power-interests are no longer in the interests of serving wider society, or even right for the church.
We may now need some cultural climate change activists in our churches, taking direct action to end systemic abuses of power and privilege. We are entering an era in which the only way to reform the church is to protest and resist, even daring to withdraw, just as the first Protestants did.
Our scriptures and faith emerged out of lands and cultures that were at the constant mercy of climate change, bad harvests, locusts, plagues, disease and wars. We can barely imagine that world, in which the very survival of any community or race depended on kind seasons, peaceful living and collaborative labour. Our planet is now out of kilter, and we need church leaders, as never before, to practise fearless care and courageous prophetic activism in our service to the world.
As the prophet Jeremiah said: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jeremiah 8: 20). But neither are we doomed. Yes, the time is short, the harvest perilous, and the labourers few (Matthew 9: 37). We don’t have much time to put things right. We will need to work together. That will require some serious levelling down of existing powers and authorities in the leadership of our churches. And laity, clergy and churches must be levelled up, so our local Christian communities become the Arks of Salvation they are called to be. Even as the rains fall, and the waters continue to rise around us, there is always hope.
The Very Revd Prof. Martyn Percy, Oxford