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Lessons to learn from Great Britain's declining Christianity

Big Ben
The Union flag flies in front of the Clock face on the Queen Elizabeth Tower, commonly referred to as Big Ben on April 2, 2019, in London, England. |

The recent release of the 2021 UK Census data has brought a bombshell finding to Christian observers everywhere. In England and Wales, which covers the vast majority of the population of Great Britain, the percentage of those who identify as Christian fell 13 points over a decade, from 59% of the population to a mere 46%. That comes on the heels of the previous decade, which saw the numbers fall from 72% Christian in 2001 to 59% in 2011.

Unfortunately, this poll may not give the full extent of the decline, partly due to the questioning in the poll. In 2020, the British Social Attitudes Survey used a more precise question about Christianity: ”Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? If yes, which?”  In that survey, 53% of UK respondents claimed no religion and only 37% claimed Christianity as their religion. Considering Christianity has been the most profound influence on the culture of the United Kingdom for over a thousand years, this trend (with the resulting accompanying trends in the breakdown of the family and plummeting birthrates) portents a dark future.

All leaders in the West, particularly Christian leaders, should take note of the lessons. Let me explain.

First, it is important to recognize those claiming “no religion” have risen exponentially to 37% by the 2021 Census data. The head of Humanists UK, Andrew Copson, claims the census numbers “confirm that the biggest demographic change in England and Wales of the last 10 years has been the dramatic growth of the non-religious.” The problem has not been other religions converting those in the UK, but of the British leaving the Church out of a seeming lack of commitment. Most church leaders understand this dynamic, and many mainline denominational churches have attempted to liberalize and become more “relevant” to modern society. This liberalization has invariably meant moving away from previously accepted Church doctrine based on scripture. In doing so, these denominations have brought the opposite results of what they sought.

British researcher and writer John Hayward has studied the hard data. He particularly focuses on the numbers of the decline by denomination in the U.K. His writings give the precise current numbers and trend lines for all British denominations going back decades and have led to clear conclusions. According to Hayward's studies, “All the evangelical denominations are growing, except for the Brethren. By contrast, all the mixed denominations are declining, with the liberal ones declining the most.” In the United Kingdom, the majority of those identifying as Christian was part of the established Anglican Church, including the Anglican community of the Church of Scotland and Church of Wales.

Other similar long-established mainline denominations, like the Methodists, contained the vast majority. Even with the rise in numbers of the scripturally faithful Evangelical Churches, the overall numbers continue to plummet as the elderly in now liberal denominations pass away.   

Hayward studied the specific deviations in accepted doctrine of Churches seeking relevancy versus those unmoved and found:

“To date, no growing church has adopted same-sex marriage. All of these denominations hold firm to historic Christianity. Indeed, they are all evangelical in doctrine...Not all denominations are declining (in the UK); there are growing ones: churches that stand on historic Christianity and against the progressive ideology...I can see that the growing evangelical congregations will have surpassed the liberal and mixed denominations by the middle of the century.”

Critical to note is that other religions/denominations standing firm to established doctrines, like Orthodox Judaism and Islam, have likewise not seen the decline of those Churches moving to progressive ideology. I think it is important to note that within denominations, individual churches and even subgroupings of denominations have stood firm. That is particularly true of parts of the Anglican Community.

American leaders need to pay attention, as the dynamic is playing out throughout Christianity in the West: As the percentage of Christians in the West has declined, Christian influence on society and culture has declined, and as a result, society has become more morally ambiguous. Families break apart or never form and children are left without moral guidance. The growing and scripturally faithful churches offer the anchor and moral clarity people seek at this time. Those attending scripturally faithful churches are not coddled with whimsically morphing values, as has happened in too many of the declining churches. Christians are exhorted to commit to counter-cultural “biblical” moral standards which don’t change.

In regaining biblical Christianity, the Church will grow and society will benefit from the salt and light the Church is called to provide.

Bill Connor, a retired Army Infantry colonel, author and Orangeburg attorney, has deployed multiple times to the Middle East. Connor was the senior U.S. military adviser to Afghan forces in Helmand Province, where he received the Bronze Star. A Citadel graduate with a JD from USC, he is also a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Army War College, earning his master of strategic studies. He is the author of the book Articles from War.

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