Here in the UK we live in what is referred to as post-Christian Europe, a continent where church membership and attendance is going down. Many people still think of themselves as Christian but in Britain in particular, it’s clear that traditional church attendance is down and that a drift into secularisation is for most of us nothing new. You could argue that this in itself should not be a problem.
There are two issues with this: one, it’s not the only story in terms of church attendance; and secondly, the rest of the world hasn’t drifted into secularism and, as we now know, the rest of the world in some form or other is now living here, right now, across Europe and the UK. Migration to Britain from Africa in particular has brought versions of Christianity that are more assertive than the Christianity that most Britons have grown up with. The assertiveness of these different forms of Christianity are often at odds with more liberal beliefs around issues such as same-sex marriage and blasphemy.
Alongside this growth in a more muscular Pentecostalism, immigration from Eastern Europe, and from Poland in particular, has also seen a sharp rise in Catholic numbers, with some churches now offering services in a variety of languages.
Across all denominations there is a growth in Christians from diverse backgrounds, from Iranian converts to Sri Lankan evangelicals, and the rapid growth of Christianity in China is something that will no doubt soon be noticed in towns and cities across the UK.
Of course, a revival of Christianity is not just down to immigration. A growth of home-grown churches, such as Holy Trinity Brompton, has seen a younger congregation worshipping in a manner a million miles away from the worship we associate with The Vicar of Dibley.
Young dynamic churches such as Hillsong – with a congregation of over 8,000 each Sunday at the Dominion Theatre in London – use technology, music and presentation that wouldn’t seem out of place on Saturday night TV.
Churches in inner city areas of the UK have numerous successful branches across the country. Congregations with strong ties often offer non-religious services from extra school education, English lessons, creches to dating agencies.
This dynamic, vibrant and youthful Christianity is not reinventing the wheel: it’s fusing modern tastes with clever messaging that sits with both traditional Christian values and contemporary concerns about the world.
Whether it is feeding the poor, housing the vulnerable, caring about the environment or helping the persecuted, these are not new notions that traditional churches don’t engage with. The delivery of the message, though, is fresh and new and that’s what we are experiencing – a changing of the guard rather than a revolution.
There are many who would say there is a battle for the soul of Christianity in Britain. It’s a fair point butI don’t think it’s a battle that will necessarily result in a winner.
This is more about the arrival of more diversity in Christianity in Britain. It’s about people behaving more like consumers and choosing the styles and orthodoxy that they want, and churches reacting to these diverse demands. This doesn’t mean that the caricature of the traditional Anglican vicar is dead and that the only church service available will involve strobe lighting and electric guitars. It means you can choose the one that you want and in the language you want.
What does this mean for the rest of society?
Well, it means Christianity is not in terminal decline as many would have us believe. It’s just different now and it’s growing. It also means we have to confront two big issues. One is our chronic lack of religious literacy in society. If there are more diverse forms of Christianity growing alongside other faiths, can we continue with our blind ignorance and relegation of faith and believers?
Linked to this is the second point: if among this growth is a more assertive Christianity with conflicting views with society on homosexuality, for example, then how do we deal with this?
This battle between liberalism and orthodoxy is not just one confined to Christianity. It’s one that involves all faiths and because of that, involves everyone whether you are a believer or not.
Christianity may have been pronounced to be at death’s door in the last century, but now it’s firmly back in the public space. How we deal with that is the real battle for Christianity here in the UK.
The writer is Head of BBC Religion & Ethics
“The Battle for Christianity” is on BBC1, 22 March from 10.45-11.45pm