The Mission Agencies Partnership organised a series of seminars yesterday at Belfast Bible College for local Northern Irish missionaries returning from abroad, as well as foreign missionaries visiting Ireland. I was asked to speak on ‘Christian Engagement in a Secular World?’
Rev. David Thompson, the Mission Development Officer for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, extended the invite after hearing Claire Mitchell and me speak at East Belfast Mission back in February about the findings of our forthcoming book, Evangelical Journeys: Choice and Change in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture.
In that book, we detail six different journeys, or directions, that Northern Irish evangelicals are taking – two of the more controversial being leaving religion altogether or ‘transforming’ their faith in a post-evangelical direction.
Thompson wanted me to provide a picture of the scale of ‘secularisation’ on the island of Ireland, as well as to suggest trajectories about how Christians might engage in this more ‘secular’ world. You can see my powerpoint presentation here.
Using reports and data from the 2008 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, it was fairly easy to show a sharp decline in church attendance across all denominations since 1968.
I also used data from the 2007 Iona Institute survey on religious knowledge in Ireland to demonstrate just how little the average person on the street knows about Christianity. One of the more shocking results of that survey was that only 42% of people in Northern Ireland could identify the number of Gospels in the New Testament (52% of Catholics and 36% of Protestants).
I said that the most common responses to this ‘secularising’ world have been:
- A retrenchment of traditional belief that looks after its own and shuns socio-political engagement
- A retrenchment of traditional belief that looks after its own and engages selectively in ‘moral’ issues such as abortion or homosexuality legislation
- A ‘resident aliens’ approach to Christianity that sees the churches as one group in a pluralist world, that has a responsibility to model love and service to the wider world (this approach was recently well-articulated by Dr Patrick Mitchel, a lecturer at the Irish Bible Institute, in the Irish Times)
- A post-evangelical or emerging church approach that has called for abandoning or deconstructing existing church institutions in favour of a ‘religionless’ Christianity
- Leaving Christianity altogether
I gave a slightly different version of this talk over the summer at the New Horizon conference in Coleraine, titled ‘Is Religion Doomed?’ In both of these talks I outlined the ‘emerging’ critique of the churches:
- Evangelical churches have been interested in the wrong issues: personal morality and sexual matters (sex before marriage, restricting gay rights, abortion) at the expense of more important social justice issues
- Evangelical churches have sold their souls politically. In Northern Ireland this has meant aligning themselves with unionism; in the US this has meant aligning themselves with the Republican Party
- Evangelical churches have been wrong to insist on literalist readings of the bible; people in the emerging church would say the bible should be read as a dynamic document that is up for debate
- Evangelical churches have created unrealistic expectations, such as Christianity is about being happy and fulfilled all of the time, Christians should never have any doubts about their faith, and God will always answer your prayers the way you want as long as you have enough faith
- Evangelical churches have created unrealistic and damaging images of Christ, whether that is a ‘buddy Jesus’ or a vicious, all-conquering king who will vanquish his enemies in a bloody battle at the end of time
- Evangelical churches have told people they should not have doubts about their faith; people in the emerging church would say that doubt should be embraced, not resisted
I think that these statistics and critiques are understandably unsettling for people of faith, especially those with strong commitments to church ‘institutions,’ such as ministers or missionaries.
First, the statistics show that the churches have lost their once culturally and politically powerful influence on the island of Ireland. Christians who see their faith as a positive thing that can bring goodness to others are saddened and threatened by this. I think there is a fear that without a widespread faith, society will crumble.
Second, the critique of the emerging church is hard for people in the churches to hear. It can sound like people in the emerging churches are accusing those inside the traditional churches of being hypocrites who are preventing others from living authentic Christian lives. The response can therefore be to try to silence or ignore those critics.
When I talk about the emerging church to those in traditional churches, what I try to get across is that in many ways they all have the same goal: faithfully living the gospel. These two broad groups of course don’t agree on what faithfully living the gospel means.
But a major question for Christians (of all flavours) in a pluralist, secular world is will they choose to talk civilly about their differences and to learn to live peaceably with dissent, or will they shut down debate in a way that further alienates their secular neighbours?