It’s simple really. Look at these global figures 1
Annual rate of growth of Christians: 1.8% (roughly the same as population growth)
Annual rate of growth of worship centres: 2.4% (mostly because of the continuing rise of independent churches)
Every year, therefore, the number of worship centres increases faster than the number of Christians does. And–to a first approximation–every worship centre is an accounting unit. Each one needs a treasurer. So the demand for church treasurers is rising at 2.4% p.a. while the supply of church treasurers is only growing at 1.8% p.a.
This is what we journalists like to call a Looming Shortage. Don’t say I didn’t sound the trumpet.
‘The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.
Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.‘
He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:
‘It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.‘
(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).
The most important ingredient in a successful 21st century democracy? Nineteenth century Protestant missionaries.
Sociology scholar Robert Woodberry wrote this:
’Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.’
This remains true (on Woodberry’s analysis) after correcting for every other explanation you can think of, and he’s done work too to look at whether causation is involved (the one caused the other) or merely correlation.
Robert Woodberry is one of the depressingly-increasing numbers of people of whom I can say, ‘I knew his father’. (Prof Dudley Woodberry at Fuller Seminary taught me Islamics).
Woodberry fils has devoted years to careful data-gathering and analysis and has established a strong correlation between ‘conversionary’ Protestant missionaries and nations’ subsequent trajectories in literacy, poverty, women’s rights, and social capital.
Woodberry’s landmark paper, ‘The missionary roots of liberal democracy’ has won awards and intrigued sceptics:
“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”
It’s fascinating. Compare Ghana with next-door Togo; Canada with Argentina; and Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary with Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia. You have to read the paper for all the nuances. But still.
These quotes are all taken from Andrea Palpant Dilley’s cover story in Christianity Today, January 8 2014. Robert Woodberry has recently made the paper free as a pdf download and you find it here. For a less-gushy perspective on Woodberry see this thoughtful piece.
Jean-Paul Satre or Radiohead might not have the last word
‘Jesus lived as someone who knew something we don’t – that something of dramatic importance was about to happen, and he was bringing it about. And then he rose from the dead, kickstarted the new creation, and told his followers there was a job to do, a planet to heal, a Gospel to share, a world to save. Look what happened. Deadbeat fishermen became apostles. Tax collectors wrote books that are still bestsellers today. Broken, demonised women became the first witnesses of the new creation. Arrogant thugs turned into church planters. Jesus had taken on futility and won, so you don’t have to listen to Marcel Duchamp, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Radiohead, or whoever is depressing you at the moment. Because of Jesus and resurrection, futility is very, very last season. Meaning is back.’
Andrew Wilson, quoted in Matthew Hosier’s Thinktheology blog Meaning Radiohead. Worryingly, I knew Matthew’s dad.
Since 2001, London has lost 1200 of its 5000 pubs and gained perhaps 1500 new churches.
Pubs: The Economist1 reports a decline from 4,835 pubs in 2001 to 3,615 in 2016.
Churches: as for churches, Peter Brierley’s London Church Census, the last detailed analysis of London church growth I am aware of, measured 1000 churches opening and 300 closing in the period 2005-2012, a net gain of 100 churches per year; two a week. More than 700,000 Londoners were in church on a typical Sunday in 2012 compared with 600,000 in 2005. Extrapolating roughly, it’s likely that since the turn of the century, the growth of churches in the capital has at least matched the decline of pubs.
Of course, pubs and churches are not particularly in competition with each other or serving exactly the same clients. Perhaps the real competition is between getting people to meet together compared with staying home in front of ever more high definition screens.
But I’m more interested in how the facts depart from the “facts”, that “everyone knows” – which are that London’s pubs are teeming, while London’s churches become ever more irrelevant.
The inventor of the Big Bang theory (sorry to disappoint, but I mean the actual theory, not the TV series) was a Belgian priest called Georges Lemaitre.
The Catholic Church was fond of Lemaitre, and hugged his theories perhaps even a little too warmly, relishing the way Lemaitre’s idea of a moment of creation became mainstream. In a reversal of the Galileo-vs-Urban VIII fixture, Lemaitre had to persuade Pope Pius XII not to be too enthusiastic about what was, after all, just a science theory.
Lemaitre also explained his take on why Christians should embrace science:
Does the Church need Science? Certainly not. The Cross and the Gospel are enough. However nothing that is human can be foreign to the Christian. How could the Church not be interested in the most noble of all strictly human occupations, namely the search for truth?’
For Lemaitre, you could two two sources to learn about God: revelation, and the natural world.
The quotes were taken from Star Struck (2016), a brave attempt by Evangelical astronomer David Bradstreet and writer Steve Rabey to hint to zealous Young Earth Creationists that they might be, er, wrong.
What were we thinking of in the 1980s? When did the church ‘marching across the land’ end well? What would it even look like, the clatter of zimmer frames, the trundle of wheelchairs, the clergy in nice jumpers, overweight people looking hot and wanting to sit down, the toddlers needing the toilet?
Surely ‘marching across the land’ is not how the Kingdom of God spreads. Here’s how the experts do it:
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.1
For Tolkein, myth was a fragment of a truth, and a pointer to God. (The quote also shows him to be no fan of modern technology.)
“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”2
’Science’ was originally a name for virtue, or a good habit–like making your bed or not doing that thing with your nose in public.
According to the thoughtful book The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, when thirteenth-century Doctor-of-the-Church Thomas Aquinas filtered newly-recovered Greek philosophy through a Christian net, — which was more or less what Aquinas did with his life — he came to understood ‘science’ as ‘working out conclusions from first principles.’ It was one of a trio of virtues: intellectus (grasping the first principles in the first place) scientia (deriving conclusions from them) and sapientia (coming to terms with the highest and ultimate cause, namely God.)
Good people possessed scientia. It was a fine habit. They were able to arrive at conclusions from principles and evidence, unswayed by prejudice, rage, timidity or Fox News (Vulpes Fabulae).
Religion –religio–was also a virtue. I am oversimplifying Peter Harrison’s careful historical inquiry here, but perhaps religio could be ‘a disposition to worship the true God and live out a life of goodness.’ Insofar as this sense was true, it potentially transcended any one expression (Catholicism, say), by focussing on the timeless essence of the thing, namely the heart-to-God encounter that leads to a good life.
The opposite of religion could be ritual or idolatry–investing in spiritual scratchcards, as it were–or the equally empty pursuit of money, pleasure and stuff; or again the worship and pampering of Self; or even the slavish and fearful preoccupation with the Material Only.
Back in the early modern day, good people were defined by a kindly God-centred life and by applying logic to facts and arriving at conclusions. Scientia and Religio. Could perhaps do with a comeback.
Peter Harrison’s book is available on Kindle, and his first chapter, which arguably contains all the really good bits, is free to download.