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Theos Team Blog

Doing Good: A future for Christianity

16th December 2016

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Today we’re publishing our ten year anniversary report. It’s a few months late – it should have appeared in early November – but what’s a month here or there when you’re talking about a decade?

Those blessed souls who have been following us since the dark days of 2006, when the New Atheism hurricane threatened to sweep all before it and faith was widely judged a virus, will recognise the title of our new report, Doing Good, is a deliberate echo of our inaugural essay, Doing God. 

That publication set out a series of reasons why we would see more of “faith” in public discourse and life over coming years and, while I would like to claim the mantle of a prophet (crying in the post-modern wilderness), you didn’t need a crystal ball or personal access to the Spirit of God to get that one right. Faith is still here, banging on and on, as it does.

So as not to reinvent wheels, Doing Good is about Christianity, not “faith”. It is also somewhat less theoretical and a little bit more concrete than the inaugural essay, packed with juicy statistics that will thrill the heart of any researcher. It looks at what has happened to Christianity over the last decade, what is going on today, and what is likely to happen in coming years.

Please read it. No blog is going to encompass a tenth of what it has to say. But to whet your appetite here are some headlines.

1. Over the last decade (well, two generations really) affiliation has fallen off a cliff. Once upon a (not too distant) time, ‘Christian’ was the default nominal identity for people born in the UK. Now it is, or shortly will be, “none”. That doesn’t mean that these ‘affiliation nones’ believe or do anything different from the ‘affiliation Christians’ of yesteryear – this is fundamentally a shift in nominalism. But it is a momentous one nonetheless. For the first time in around 1,200 years, people born here will not automatically call themselves ‘Christian’.

2. Church attendance has declined, but nothing like as precipitously. If anyone tells you they know exactly church attendance levels in the UK, they are probably lying. Having dug through the available data and asked anyone who might really know, I have come to realise the best we have is guesstimates (hence the appallingly lengthy footnotes in chapter 1). That recognised, best guesstimates see the decline in church attendance over the last decade as from about 4.5 million (on an average week) to about 4.2 million.

3. Christian social action has not declined and, in fact, seems to have increased. Again, data are inadequate here but what there are appear to support the anecdotal evidence that more and more churches and Christians are rolling up their sleeves and getting involved. The number of Christian charities is on the up, disproportionately so, and the number of churches reporting or planning some form of social engagement is similarly on the rise. We need more research here, but we can be reasonably confident that the trajectory here does not follow either of those above.

These three basic points lend themselves to a prediction – that the church of the future, at least in the UK, will be smaller but more intensely activist; fewer Christians (or at least fewer people who call themselves Christians) but doing more with their faith.

Doing Good doesn’t stop there. In fact, that is not much more than a third of the essay. It goes on to explore what is needed to be done – what is the nature of the social challenges in 21st century Britain – and then, crucially, how it should be done. How might Christians and churches live out their faith in response to the genuine, pressing and intensifying needs of our society without losing or diluting their gospel motivations?

This is critical. The report, and its author, is keenly aware that we have been here before, and that – bluntly – doing good is not a substitute for doing god. The so-called social gospel of yesteryear started out with inspiring intensions but somewhere along the road dropped the gospel bit. That way extinction lies.
This is why the final chapter steers the talk away from Christian social action and towards Christian social liturgy. If the phrase grates, it’s because it’s meant to: the chapter explains what is meant by “liturgy” – what does the term mean and why is it appropriate to this topic – and begins to explore what that might look like.
We hope to look at this in a little more detail in a series of blogs in the New Year, exploring the implications of Christian social liturgy for the future of Christianity in the UK, and what needs to be done in response.

In the meantime, this blog has already dragged on too long and edged from “whetting” territory into summarising territory. I shall stop. Please read the report and engage with our blogs in the New Year.

Oh, yes, and have a good Christmas!

Download out the report from here.


Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick


Image by TusitaStudio, via Pixabay, available under CreativeCommons

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e-newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Friends Programme to find out how you can help our work.

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