Preaching in Britain Today: Believing or Belonging? (Part 2)

16 Jun

What’s the State of the Church in Britain Today?

Looking back on the not-so-distant past, just a few decades ago churches in Britain seemed to be going from strength to strength. For example, from 1945 to 1956, overall church attendance increased in Britain. Sociologist of religion Callum Brown reports that during this period, “British organised Christianity experienced the most rapid rates of growth since statistics started to be collected in the nineteenth century.”[1]

Unfortunately for churches in Britain, this upward trend did not continue. Following this period of unprecedented growth, from the 1960s onwards the numbers of church members, baptisms, communicants and religious marriages sharply began to decline. Moreover, this trend shows no apparent signs of bottoming out. Since the 1960s, therefore, many traditional indices of religiosity have fallen off sharply. Of this trend Brown observes: “Across the board, the British people started to reject the role of religion in their lives—in their marriage, as a place to baptise their children, as an institution to send their children for Sunday school and church recruitment, and as a place for affiliation.”[2]

Chester and Timmis would not only concur with Brown’s assessment, they go further when they state that currently,

Seventy percent of the UK population have no intention of ever attending a church service. That means new styles of worship will not reach them. Fresh expressions of church will not reach them. Alpha and Christianity Explored courses will not reach them. Guest services will not reach them. Churches meeting in pubs will not reach them. Toddler churches meeting at the end of the school day will not reach them.

The vast majority of un-churched and de-churched people would not turn to the church, even if faced with difficult personal  circumstances or in the event of national tragedies.  It is not a question  of ‘improving the product’ of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events.”[3]

Contradictions in British Churches

In her book Religion in Britain since 1945, Grace Davie points out that the church in Britain today is beset by a variety of apparent contradictions. On the one hand, a majority of British people insist that they believe in God, yet as I noted in the first post, on the other hand church attendance continues to decline. And although churches are declining institutions, at the same time they continue to have a high public profile.[4] Of these trends, she comments that there is “an increasingly evident mismatch between statistics relating to religious practice and those which indicate levels of religious belief.”[5] How can this situation be explained?

Like most Western countries, Britain is currently experiencing a variety of massive shifts, all of which have proved problematic for traditional forms of religion. Demographically, Britain is an aging society that is witnessing rapid changes to the traditional codes of morality and the nature of family life. Post-WW2 Britain has experienced a large influx of immigrants, many from former British Empire colonies. Moreover, many immigrants to Britain do not come from historically Christian countries, and have introduced significant “other-faith communities.” In order to accommodate all manner of faiths and beliefs from religious to non-religious, the reality is that British society, which is typical of most Western civilizations currently, is becoming increasingly pluralistic and secularized.

Moreover, the economy is changing also: from a more localized and agrarian- and manufacturing-based to that of a global, IT-based economy, bringing with it changes to Britain’s traditional social structures. Patterns of residence have also changed; Britain can no longer be characterized as it was in its industrial heyday. Gone are the days when the large cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool were filled with working-class populations who toiled daily (often in shocking working conditions for extremely low pay) in nearby factories, mines and mills. Like much of the Western world, Britain is now a post-industrial society, relying on information technology rather than industrialization to fuel its economy for the future.

Yet even during these many changes, Britain still maintains a deeply rooted Christian tradition, similar to that of its European neighbours. As British society is increasingly impacted by various forms of secularization, what we find is that religious life is not necessarily disappearing entirely–but it is certainly mutating. In polls related to religious indices, oftentimes many Brits report that they are highly interested in spiritual matters and spirituality, but statistics indicate low levels of religious activities and affiliation with organized forms of church.

The apparent reason people in Britain believe but don’t belong, according to Davie, is this: these deep-seated cultural traditions remain largely as a residue of Britain’s pre-industrial past, with its patterns of religious organization. Davie observes, for example, that the attitude of most Brits today represents:

“…the fall-back position acquired by British people when they simply do nothing; an ordinary God indeed. It becomes, in other words, not so much a choice, but the backdrop against which other decisions are made. Hence the notion…that it represents the residue of the past (what is left of pre-modern religion after the toll taken by both industrial and post-industrial developments), rather than the emergence of a post-modern future.” [6]

Believing Vs. Belonging?

To return to the topic of preaching, exactly how are we to preach to people who say they believe, but don’t belong? Perhaps in reality this may be somewhat of a trick question. We have to take one step back from that question and re-think it from a somewhat different point of view.

I say that because if Brown, Timmis and Chester, and Davie are all correct in their assessment of the state of the church and the wider British society, the reality we face is that most non-believers today will not be darkening the door of the local church. Moreover, as we’ve seen, existing Christians are leaving the church also. Essentially, then, there are two “kinds of people”: the un-churched (who have never had an experience of church) and the de-churched (those who have left the church behind, for a variety of reasons). Both are proving problematic for many churches today: how to connect with the un-churched, and how to win back the de-churched?

As we have seen, for the average Brit, the notion of the church represents little more than a “fall-back position.” The prevailing attitude among many Britons seems to be something along this line: “I don’t need to attend regular services, but I can take comfort in the fact that the church will always be there if needed for things like christenings, weddings and funerals.” And in fact, many British vicars and pastors I’ve spoken to oftentimes see these three major events in people’s lives (referred to as “hatching, matching, and dispatching”) as a golden opportunity. From their point of view, christenings, weddings and funerals present the perfect opportunity to sell to the attendees of these events (who are captive audiences, after all), on the variety of attractional ministries their church has to offer.

But the fact remains that simply opening the doors of the church and expecting people to come flooding in, based upon a residue of traditional beliefs, is not a sound church growth strategy. The “attractional model” of church no longer has much currency left in it. Thus, no matter how hard the preacher works on his or her sermon, on a typical Sunday the pews or chairs will most likely not be filled with eager listeners who will hang on the preacher’s every word–as in times past. Organized religion, and mainstream churches, full stop, have simply ceased to be major factors of importance for many British people today–and the same is true of most Western countries also.


In light of these changes faced by the church today, this series of articles will explore the notion of thinking about preaching, and the ways in which we “do church,” in new ways. Traditional preaching places the entire communicative burden upon the shoulders of the preacher. This mode of preaching worked for the preachers we looked at in the previous post, largely because of the inherent authority accorded by British society to the Bible itself, the church and the preacher.

But the sermon today no longer gains the automatic acceptance it did in the past, since it is attached to what people perceive as the traditional and entrenched authority of the church–as an institution. People today, both in Britain and in North America, are in fact deeply suspicious of the mainstream church and for that matter, organized religion in general. It’s now established that people are leaving churches in droves, and for a wide variety of reasons, but are not necessarily giving up their belief in God. At the very least, they’re certainly deconstructing the (oftentimes) inherited views of God that they have been taught by others, such as pastors or teachers.

I suggest that given this reality, perhaps we should reconceive preaching, and instead recast it in terms of its connection with congregational leadership. Such a move challenges both church leaders and congregation alike potentially to change their ways in which they engage with the wider culture missionally.

My proposal, therefore, is this: that churches need to become much more incarnational both in terms of their missional and preaching strategies. In the next post, I’ll explore what this means in greater detail, and give practical examples of how this can be accomplished.


[1] Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain, 188.

[2] Brown, The Death of Christian Britain, 189-190.

[3] Chester, T. and Timmis, S., (2011), Everyday Church, Mission by Being Good Neighbours, Nottingham: Inter- Varsity Press, p. 15

[4] Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing without Belonging, 3.

[5] Davie, 4.

[6] Davie, 199.

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