The changing face of Christianity

Recently I have read about the decline of institutional and denominational churches in favour of independent Pentecostal gatherings. When one Anglican Church is closed, it is reported that six Pentecostal congregations emerge to take its place. If one does the maths, and this pattern continues, within 20 or 30 years Pentecostal styles of religion will be the dominant face of the Christian faith in this and many other countries.

When I look at the Church press, dominated for me by the Church Times, there seems to be a complete ignorance of this changing face of Christianity in Britain. This current massive popularity of what is commonly called ‘happy clappy’ independent churches seems to have been ignored by many commentators. The fact that these churches are also so far invisible to the media also means that many people are able to pretend that they are of little importance.

There are a variety of reasons why I am anxious about this explosion of Pentecostal theology and worship in the UK. If such churches were always going to be in a minority, then we could regard them as a healthy balance to the more traditional liturgical churches in the UK. Something changes when this exuberant expression of the faith becomes a dominant one. The perception of the outside world towards the church changes. The word ‘Christian’ comes to mean for the ‘man in the street’ something strange and even outlandish. The old notion of Britain being considered a Christian country becomes less viable. The outsider is no longer prepared to regard him/herself as even nominally Christian when the word has taken on a meaning of weirdness. I have often referred to the way that the word Christian has frequently been highjacked by groups with a strong conservative agenda. The whole church has a problem when the dominant expression of Christianity in this country puts forward a style of worship and theology that is fundamentalist and strongly experiential.

What are the further reasons that I am concerned about the dominance of Pentecostal worship in Britain today? A strong reason for my concern is that whatever I think about the theology and ideas of this branch of Christianity, I see an emphasis on experience above everything else. We can, with reservations, applaud exuberance, free worship and expansive music. The problems start when this style becomes the dominant one. Those who are repelled by this cultural expression of the Christian tradition have nowhere they can call home.

50 or 60 years ago, when I was a young person, the Church was institution which had a strong sense of social and economic issues. Through the parish system the church was present in every community throughout the land. Even when only a few people attended the local Anglican parish, there was always an attempt to be regarded as a body committed to serve the area. This outward perspective is no longer a dominant one even in many Anglican parishes. The independent churches are even less involved in the communities where they are found. Their priority is to provide an experience of intensity and passion through their music and styles of worship. It is not unfair to describe most modern independent churches as being far more focused on their interior life than any involvement with the community beyond the church doors. Such Pentecostal-style churches are cocoons of intense experience. This is encouraged for its own sake and is seldom seen as equipping members for involvement with surrounding neighbourhood. The word evangelism, which is highly prized, is all about increasing numbers of members particularly to fund the financial commitments which are needed to pay for the ministry. Converts are, to use an old-fashioned image, those who are like burning embers snatched out of a fire. There is no understanding of the call in the Bible for Christians to become salt and light to the world. In contrast the Anglican Church of the 1950s and 60s had a sense that it was a church for everyone, even though it realised that not everyone would attend its services.

The independent Pentecostal style of worship in the new churches is never going to be palatable for the vast bulk of our population. Not only do many people find the music jarring and alien, but the strong flavour of anti-intellectual rant found in many sermons, is decidedly off-putting for people of education. However much a preacher may quote the passage about the gospel being hidden from the wise, there is nothing attractive about faith which simply avoids the world of thinking and reason. If this form of Christianity becomes dominant in our society, then it will be very hard for other expressions of the faith to survive. The tradition of university study, reflective reasoned argument and academic rigour might simply cease to exist.

I have to say that I become somewhat depressed at the way that non-rational and experiential expressions of faith are taking over in Britain today. I need to repeat that they are valid forms of faith within a mixed economy of styles and theology. If, however, they become dominant then the Church in England has a real problem. We all know that it is healthy for a political democracy to have at least two parties which are reasonably matched in numbers and influence. This way an opposition party can keep a check on the party of government preventing it from becoming too powerful. The political situation in Britain at the moment is suffering because of the weakness of the opposition. When opposition is weak the governing party becomes too powerful. We can be grateful that some of the excesses of the Trump regime in the States have become neutralised by the existence of a reasonably united Democratic party. Such checks and balances are healthy and they also apply to church life. The church needs the life of the mind and intellect as well as the experiential and exuberant aspects of human experience. Academic theology can kill the Christian faith dead for many people in this country. Equally a dominating culture of anti-intellectual expressions of the faith is also lethal. Let us hope that, in the future, the life of the mind can be allowed to coexist with the energy involved in the primal experience of Pentecostal worship. These two expressions of Christian faith may find it difficult to exist at the same time in the same place. Nevertheless, it is possible for the exponents of each to have respect and some insight into the value of the other. In this way, the richness of the mind and the heart can be allowed to co-exist. Together the full depth of all that is involved in Christian faith can be celebrated and enjoyed.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

22 thoughts on “The changing face of Christianity

  1. A perceptive post, Stephen, as usual.

    I have a recollection of John MacArthur saying that the experience-focussed approach is all about putting on an event (ie the sunday service) rather than being a church. I have plenty of disagreements with MacArthur, but in this instance I think he’s spot on.

    I do see the changes in contemporary Christianity as being like the swing of a pendulum. Previously, it was at one end – formal services and a highly intellectual approach, and now it’s moved to the opposite – informality and experientialism. The current state of affairs could be described as a rebellion to the ways of the past. It’s worth noting that the charismatic movement set these changes in motion during the 1960s, a period of similar rebellion against the existing social order. I do hope that a balance is eventually reached, but that’s far harder than going to extremes.

    And, of course, people tire quickly of experiences. Look at how worship music has moved from organs through folk guitars and acoustic instruments to full rock bands, even light shows. I don’t know what comes next – probably the desire for simpler and more authentic approaches as a reaction to showbusiness.

    A cerebral approach to faith is very much a protestant distinctive, and I have noticed it can be a barrier to many people, especially the working classes and those who are not intellectuals by nature. In this regard, I often contrast Christianity to Judaism. Whilst Jewish worship tends to be fairly formal, there is also a strong tradition of joy and celebration with festivals (involving lots of food) being central to their faith, and parties for weddings and barmitzvahs also playing an important part. This is lacking in Christianity, with protestants in particular tending to have quite austere lifestyles.

    I hope this rather rambling comment makes sense!

  2. I love this post.
    The early church was shunned be ause it comprised people who ate human flesh and drank human blood. I would have found that hard to stomach! All the same, the prejudice was overcome, and it grew well.
    I like your checks and balances point. Thanks!

  3. Peter. I like your image of the pendulum. It is dangerous if it swings too far in the experiential direction. As a retired priest talking to non-Christians, perhaps selfishly I don’t want them to tar me with the brush of being all about feelings and I would say, irrationalism. As David says, we need checks and balances in the church. It would be tragic if our entire culture opted away from any identification with Christianity because of the perceived extremes that are coming to the fore. There is a place for extremes, as in politics, but not at the centre or as a norm.

  4. My husband started out Lutheran, and when he finished college, he took a job in a small town in the rural South US at a textile mill for a few months. There were only two churches in town: Episcopal and Baptist. When I met him, I was young, and I had only experienced Christianity through the lens of the Pentecostal Church. Were I him, I would have defaulted to the Baptist one, because as my mother would tell me, “those other churches are dead.” Baptists were only half dead, I guess, since they did not speak in tongues and would argue that they “didn’t have the Spirit.” And none it made sense to me.

    My husband to be says that he felt that he had two choices. At the Baptist Church, people approached God with the attitude that “Jesus is my buddy.” That could not compare to “The Sovereign Lord is my Creator” at the Episcopal Church. (And he learned the recorder there and played renaissance style music in a recorder quartet.

    In and amongst some of the rock band churches in the US, someone dubbed one of the trends to be the “Jesus is my Boyfriend” music, also. Google it if you dare. I understand it to describe mindlessly repetitive choruses that differ little from secular love songs. Church becomes a venture of entertaining the masses to serve them instead of people gathering to serve and offer worship until a Holy God.

  5. Thank you Cindy K,
    I believe that the spirit of self-interest, big business, has attacked the Christian Church in my Country. So Machiavellian has been this creeping consumption that for me it is hard not to assume a demonic strategy to it?

    The outsider not only sees the puppet like, bouncy, bouncy happy clappie, and rock band audience, but also sees the vast Christian industry that is unashamedly capitalist. Christian stardom, where artists jockey for position and God’s will is seen proved if there is a fat cheque in the offering?
    An utter betrayal of Christ has taken place and no one (I repeat, No one in Christian leadership) wants to talk about this.

    The church leaders listen to powerful lobby groups like, the “Gay” lobby, but have no time for what is happening under their very noses.

  6. Hmm. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. In no particular order:-
    The Church of England during my childhood thought it was the only church. There was absolutely no understanding that loads of people didn’t go to a CofE church. Even my teachers didn’t believe me when I said I had not been Christened. It wasn’t that it thought it was responsible for everyone. It just thought everyone did attend their services!
    In my experience, “teaching” in the CofE was done by early teens who had just been confirmed. So there was a circle of ignorance. No-one ever learned anything beyond Sunday School because teaching stopped after confirmation, and sermons were rarely about the Bible. And so today’s adults often have an understanding of theology that hasn’t progressed since they were eight years old! I got this by talking to my friends about their churches. And I can see the results for myself!
    I’d agree that “normal” Christians have a problem if Christianity is perceived as weird.
    It’s not true to say that the free churches aren’t interested in their local communities. They often run recycling or swop shops and food banks for a start. And they are very much more interested in “saving” the unchurched than yer average CofE congregation.
    I’d agree up to a point that the teaching lacks academic rigour. Often the pastors do go to Bible college, but you don’t exactly need to be brain of Britain to qualify. Now, there’s a limited market for rocket scientists, but still, dumbing down isn’t good.
    I do agree with your conclusion. We need heart and head. Absolutely.

  7. I am encouraged that Cindy K has noted, “The mindlessly repetitive choruses”
    This negative acceptance of ‘christian?’ candy floss is sickening.
    I await a real discussion on this and the other points I have raised.
    Meanwhile, the seekers out there are faced with inverted mad theatres, but never mind we’re all having a good time!

  8. Chris Pitts,
    You point out another important distinction. A theologian at Notre Dame University in the US wrote a book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” He quotes a lot of Oz Guinness in there, and sadly he concludes that the problem is that there is no evangelical mind anymore. Some would argue that there never was one to begin with. Candy floss is an apt term. It tastes good as a treat now and then, but it lacks nutrients and does make one sick. Though I know that it’s also nothing new. First Century Christians were said to still be existing on pablum instead of feasting on the meat of wisdom.

    Some have done studies of American Christians, and most of them hold beliefs that aren’t consistent with what Christianity teaches. So many are biblically illiterate. But why would they be if they subsist on candy floss entertainment. I don’t even know that you can call it ear-tickling. Take a look at Joel Osteen who has one of the largest and most successful churches and best selling books. I can’t imagine anyone looking more vacuous, in word and deed. It’s embarrassing.

    1. Cindy K, I don’t have Mark Noll’s book (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) but suspect I would find myself in agreement with it. There was a response book published by Carl Trueman so it certainly ruffled a few feathers.

      The situation in the US is rather different to the UK, though. Over here, we don’t have a strong fundamentalist movement, and our evangelical mainstream is quite progressive.

      1. It’s worth a reading, especially if you don’t understand the way Americans have essentially never dealt well with this claim that we are a “Christian Nation.” The Puritan types couldn’t stand Thomas Jefferson or James Madison or both John and John Quincy Adams as they thought that they were too optimistic about the nature of man after the Enlightenment. I would argue that there would be no America without the Enlightenment. They’re just cherry picking what they like.

        Noll argues that rather than making a clear split between church and state that the issue was skirted and is still an enduring issue of contention. I contend that if our Founders wanted it make us Christian, they would have explicitly stated so. Things got murky after our Civil War in the 1880s because it took power away from the individual states and consolidated the power of the federal government. So it became a game changer. I don’t know that the old arguments could really apply after that. (Noll has another book about the American Civil War as well.)

        There’s also another excellent book by Janet Fishburne, and the whole text is online. The Family Pew chapter might be helpful towards understanding the disconnect among our citizens that many people take for granted.

  9. Peter I agree with you that the ‘fundamentalist’ movement in the UK is quite different from the States. The States have a lot of fundamentalism which informs politics and creates a huge voting bloc which brings in Trump! The point I am making that although there is less of this political conservative Christianity, there are vast swathes of Christian congregations who assume that everyone believes the Bible to be inerrant and that to be gay is to be evil and outside God’s will. From my perspective, and you will know something of it if you follow this blog, that is reactionary and totally counterproductive to the cause of evangelism and creating goodwill among non-Christians. For me the goodwill of non-Christians is important as together we can cooperate and make society a better place. I will work with anyone whatever their beliefs, if they seek peace, reconciliation and justice in the world. I don’t want to be labelled with the crankiness of many Christians on either side of the Atlantic who see devils everywhere or think homosexuals should be stoned! This blog is sticking up for Christian values, many of which can be and are shared with men and women of goodwill who do not have a Christian faith.

    1. Stephen, the whole inerrancy thing is very much American. My feeling is that only the more conservative end of UK Christianity focuses on it, but it’s not an issue with mainstream evangelicalism. Homosexuality is a bit different, but again, in the mainstream, I don’t think a homosexual orientation is seen as “evil”. So I’m not sure that your comment on “vast swathes of Christian congregations” is really true.

      Other evidence for the progressive nature of UK evangelicalism is the acceptance of women clergy (perhaps 2/3 are OK with this) and the lack of support for young earth creationism (I don’t have any figures but I’d guess a majority of UK evangelicals are happy with some sort of theistic evolutionary model).

      But yes, I do think that Christians in the UK have an image problem for all the wrong reasons, and I certainly don’t want to be associated with any flavour of fundamentalism.

  10. Evangelicals in the independent fellowships may not focus on inerrantism but I believe it is part of the air they breathe. The Bible college culture where some of them train knows no other way of dealing with the Bible. They certainly do not read the books we had to study at college. The evidence I bring is a visit to a ‘Christian’ book shop. There are simply no books for sale there that deal with scholarly questions. I have spent long periods of time in these places trying understand what publishers like IVP are churning out.

    1. I do like IVP’s book by Moreland and Craig about the Philosophical Basis for Christian Belief. As for the rest…. At least they don’t publish this Eternal Subordination of the Son doctrine which prefers an social Trinitarian view that bleeds into tri-theism. Jesus has no authority to hear and answer prayer but is said to still be equal. ??? The large Christian book chains in the US will not carry any IVP books as a consequence.

    2. Stephen,

      Inerrancy is indeed part of the independent evangelical culture – for example the FIEC statement of faith says the Bible is “without error”. (I don’t know the details of how they interpret this). However, they are not in the majority. There are vast numbers of Baptists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, plus other independent groups, and these don’t believe in inerrancy. The Evangelical Alliance statement of faith doesn’t require it either, which is probably a good way of defining the mainstream.

      I do think the church is “dumbed-down” somewhat at popular level – and this is probably reflected in the bookshops. But it’s not all that bad – for example NT Wright is very popular.

  11. This is another essential book if you’re interested in understanding that Evangelical Mindset. Chip Berlet, one of the Authors, spoke at an ICSA meeting ages ago. In a way it is a mindset but not a mindset and almost a worldview that is steeped in fear about conspiricism and catastrophizing everything. I grew up in this mess and wish I’d happened on to this book 20 years earlier. It’s like it’s own flavor of thought reform:
    – producerism
    – white nationalism
    – demonization and scapegoating
    – apocalyptic narratives and millennial visions

    The Theonomists (essential in founding the Religious Right known today) love and live by this outlook. It’s one of the best books I’ve read along with Mark Noll. I don’t think that you can get a grip on what motivates Evangelicals on the broadest scale until you consider these influences.

  12. Stephen, since you liked my pendulum image, let me offer another one – newspapers.

    I often think that church (and I’m thinking of Protestantism and evangelicalism) is like the Times or the Telegraph – intellectual and wordy. But the most popular papers in the UK are the Mail and the Sun. Overall, I think tabloids outsell broadsheets by 4 to 1.

    I think that says a lot about the culture in the UK. And, whilst I’m not suggesting that the church should adopt the values of the tabloids, I do think that we are out of touch with the majority of people.

  13. Peter,

    I will shortly accompany my wife to “Spring Harvest” at Skegness, (She had a car accident and does not drive long distance)

    We have discussed the Evangelical mindset many times on this blog; one of the striking features of this is the total inability to see things from the point of the outsider. Spring Harvest attracts some very loving a good Christian people, but I am yet to find anyone willing to talk about how the present incarnation of the Christian faith, comes across to the outsider, and those seeking for meaning on the lower regions of the working class?
    When we talk about the, “Changing face of Christianity” we must surely ask ourselves about the advent of, Christian TV, Christian Radio, Christian celebrity and Christian Stardom?

    I personally challenge the word “Christian” in any of this?
    Following Christ, the way of the cross, loving neighbour, everyone on a level playing field (Not a praise band stage) seems a thing of the distant past?

    1. Totally agree, Chris. In fact, nonbelievers tend to see popular Christianity for the self-interested business empire that it is.

    1. Chris, definitely. I’ve been around long enough to see the way that evangelicalism has changed over the last 30 years, and many aspects worry me. I’m not sure if the past was better, but it seems that one lot of problems has been replaced with a different set.

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