Imagining the possibilities in post-Christian Britain
Eighty-five per cent of people who don’t go to church are unlikely to do so. Jonny Baker, Britain mission hub director, urges us to see the potential beyond the percentages.
Fewer than half of people in Britain said they are Christian in the latest census, the results of which were published in November.1 This has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. Britain is most definitely now in a post-Christian era.
by Jonny Baker
The next largest response is now the “no religion” box or what some call the nones. We should be slow to leap to the conclusion that those people are atheists. In Linda Woodhead’s research into that group she found that only a few are militantly secular, and less than half considered themselves atheists.2 The largest group were made up of maybes and doubters and don’t knows and a group who believe there is “something there”. Interestingly, the younger the cohort, the smaller the proportion of atheists. So paradoxically Britain might also be post-secular!
At the risk of too many “posts”, the other one that is worth a mention is post-Christendom. Christendom describes the time in Europe when church hierarchy dominated the landscape in its alignment with political power and empire. The cultural memory and cultural presence in Britain is still there and we still have a state religion, but it is a faded reality.
An exciting context
Some reactions to all this are quite gloomy, but I find this quite an exciting context for mission. CMS intuited this was coming back in the 1970s, when members discerned through a vote that God was calling CMS to mission in Britain and Europe.
We are a minority-Christian country in which lots of people have not experienced Christianity at all. That could be positive, as they might well come across it as fresh and new rather than having been put off by negative experiences of formal religion. Christianity might be discovered as gift rather than obligation.
Sharing from the edge
It can really help us to move away from sharing faith in a dominant way if we can see ourselves as a minority, so we are sharing our faith from the margins, not from the centre. We may well find ourselves alongside and in solidarity with others in marginal and minority positions. Stories of being strangers or exiles might be rich and fertile ground for mission.
Rather than focusing all our energies into attracting people to our churches, we might do better to focus on nurturing communities of missionary disciples, who follow the way of Christ to be present with and among people as salt and light, sharing faith where opportunity arises in these borderlands.
The vast majority of people in Britain do not go to church. I was interested to discover that of those, 85 per cent say they are unlikely to do so. And yet so much focus in mission seems to go on trying to do church better to attract people to it. Let us go to and be with these people where they are instead!
This is why we are here
That is exactly what we train pioneers to do and they are doing it in such brilliant and creative ways. The Partnership for Missional Church training helps churches to develop mission practices that will help them to innovate in this changed context. And mission partners in Britain are all situated in spaces sharing the love of God with those at the edges. Jesus was always found dwelling at the fringes. We hope to follow in the way of Christ and see where God is at work and join in.
This is our edge in Britain – the post-Christian borderlands in which we seek to join in with what God is doing and share God’s love.
1 Office for National Statistics, Religion, England and Wales: Census 2021
2 Linda Woodhead, The Rise of ‘No Religion’ in Britain, Journal of the British Academy