The church in Britain today is at a very low ebb. Attendances are small. Congregations tend to be ageing and almost all declining. The vast majority of people show little respect for God. His name is blasphemed, His day is desecrated, His commandments are broken, His Gospel is despised and His church is for funerals. Why?
The publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ in 1859 proved a turning point for Western civilisation. Up till then most people believed in a Creator God and feared Him. Now it appeared that God was not needed and that there was a natural explanation of the origin of the world. Even although evolution was not proved and much evidence existed to cast doubt upon it, yet human unbelief grasped hold of it as an escape from the Creator and Judge.
At the same time as Evolution was carrying all before it in the scientific and popular realm, German liberalism was undermining the church from within. Doubts were cast upon parts of Scripture. Questions were raised. At first it was about matters which appeared somewhat peripheral, eg the authorship of certain Biblical books. However, once doubt was cast upon the Bible’s inerrancy in one area it soon spread. If what Scripture said about the Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible was wrong why believe the Bible on other points?
No age has had so much readily available entertainment as ours. People have no time to think about deeper things. The music is always on and it is of the kind that makes individuals forget God or rebel against Him. Television and video pictures are constantly and alluringly passing before the eyes to fill the mind and distract the thoughts from God. Pleasure is presented as the purpose of life. Envy is encouraged. Marriage vows are smiled at and sexual immorality is portrayed as something which everyone enjoys apart from Victorian hypocrites.
We live in a day when it is popular to regard all religions as having the truth and being different ways to God. Liberal theologians agree. It is considered the height of bigotry to say that the followers of any religion are wrong and on the way to hell. People conclude that there is no such thing as objective truth in the realm of religion.
There are many churches. Which is right? Perhaps they are all wrong? What is a Christian? Within the large denominations some ministers are obviously heretics since they do not believe fundamental truths such as the atoning death or physical resurrection of Christ. The world hears an Evangelical preaching the Gospel, then hears his neighbouring minister and fellow-worker teaching universalism (that everyone goes to heaven). What is he to believe? The Evangelical treats the heretic as his brother in the church, so is heresy really a soul-damning error? No wonder the world is confused. Does the truth really matter? “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed” (2Jn:10). “If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal.1:9).
Recently it was forcibly impressed on me just how damaging some funeral services can be for the Gospel. In our world, where ministers are viewed as primarily professional comforters, what is to be said when someone dies who gave no evidence of saving grace? The practice of giving tributes at funerals is becoming very common. In some cases it is an easy exercise, but in other cases, if one is honest, it is very difficult. Sadly many ministers today say what people want to hear whether it is true or not. It is becoming increasingly rare to go to a funeral and not to hear the dead being put to heaven. When the immoral drunkard hears his fellow-sinner sent by a minister to his eternal rest, he either rejects Christianity as lies or continues in his sins assured that he will still somehow get to heaven too.
In some parts of the world becoming a Christian could mark you out as a target for beating, imprisonment or even execution. In Britain there is a more subtle form of persecution, but it is one that is very difficult to withstand. The real Christian is despised, patronised, ridiculed and ostracised. If you hide your faith you can be accepted. How hard it is to stand alone, mocked by the majority! How easy to compromise so that the popular people will not laugh at you! How often does one hear a sermon on hell? The world ridicules hell-fire preaching. Certain subjects such as the rôle of husbands and wives are avoided in preaching lest they give offence. There is a fear of mentioning specific sins from the pulpit.
No doubt in every age there have been church leaders who have badly disgraced the Christian church by their behaviour. However it seems to be worse in our day. The horrid sins and crimes of Roman Catholic priests have been paraded in public. The uncovered immorality of money-grabbing tele-evangelists cannot be hid. The media loves to publish the scandalous sins of ministers so that Christians of whatever denomination or persuasion can be written off as hypocrites.
In no age has the church been so concerned with results as at present. The number of conversions is the way used for gauging whether a ministry is successful or not. Because numbers are so important shortcuts are taken to ensure results. ‘How to’ manuals sell well. Man does the work of the Holy Spirit for Him. A decision of the will is all that is required of the unconverted. “Make this confession or say this prayer after me. Now you are a Christian. Don’t let the devil tempt you with doubts”. In this way even Evangelical churches are flooded with ‘converts’ who have never been born again. It is strange that ministers, the watchmen, do not fear being held responsible for deceiving souls to hell.
Because of the lack of visible results many even in the best churches are losing hope. Evangelism can be very hard work especially if you are seeing little fruit. It is easy to become fatalistic. If God means to convert He will. Meanwhile we sit back and do nothing or lay all the emphasis on teaching and worship. What is the point of speaking to my neighbour about Christ? They are not interested and have made that plain time and time again. What is the point of preaching evangelistically? Few unconverted folk come to my church and those who do have heard it all innumerable times. If we do not expect to see conversions it is unlikely that we shall.
If as Christians we were more consistent in our lives our witness would make more of an impact. Sadly Christians generally are as worldly as the rest of society. Our greed, bad temper, deceitfulness and unkindness undermines our words. Our lack of prayer leaves us without power. Our laziness and fear of man keep our mouths shut when we have evangelistic opportunities presented to us. Surely we need to repent and at the same time plead with the Sovereign Lord for revival!