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UK: University missions provide signs of hope amid Anglican decline

UK: University missions provide signs of hope amid Anglican decline

By Andrew Symes
March 20, 2018

The numbers don't look good, nationally. Surveys tell us regularly that church attendance is going down, and those who have religious faith are now in a small minority. For example, on the faithsurvey.co.uk website, 2016 figures suggest that only 28% believe in God, while 38% are convinced there is no God -- the rest don't know or have a vague belief in spiritual power but not a personal God (although many of these appear to put 'Christian' and even 'CofE' on census forms). In the past 40 years, overall church attendance has more than halved, down to three million, or less than 5% of the population (here's a new campaign -- The 95 Campaign -- that seeks to address this). Following a trend of mainline church decline, Peter Brierley's research predicts that Anglicans will make up only 21% of all churchgoers in the UK by 2022.

So are there signs of hope? It's not all bad news for the Kingdom: by that year more than 30% of churchgoers will be Pentecostal or independent evangelical. Amid general decline, some CofE churches are holding their own, and there are pockets of growth. Again we know from research that churches with enabling leadership, a clear vision, commitment to bible-based evangelism and with good youth and children work, among other factors, are more likely to attract already committed Christians (often at the expense of smaller churches), motivate parents to pass on their faith to their children, and even see people come to faith through focused preaching or more likely, one to one friendship, and discussion courses.

Some say that numbers don't matter; that in a context of secularism, decline is inevitable and should be managed to ensure it's gradual, rather than a crisis of cliff-edge collapse. But many churches reject this view: they still care about the eternal spiritual destiny of the thousands in their parish and beyond who don't know the Lord, and are taking action to share the Gospel and make disciples. In addition, they care about the material and social lives of people here and now, contributing to the common good, giving aid to the poor and seeing that a prayerful, evangelistic presence enhances the well-being of a community whether or not people are being converted.

Many churches have times of special focus on evangelism, whether running an Alpha or Christianity Explored course, evangelistic preaching for the Christmas crowds, or mission weeks -- but often these don't reach beyond the fringe, close friends of existing church members, perhaps, who have already heard the Christian message a number of times.

While the local church has always been a primary agent of evangelism, historically it's not the only one. As the context for mission in the nation becomes more of 'unreached people' rather than the nominally Christian majority that the great Billy Graham rallies encountered, we have to look perhaps to the methods used by evangelists in Africa and Asia in the 19th and early 20th century. But before that, we can observe other major evangelistic initiatives, not necessarily part of a church programme, which already happens in our midst every year in February and March, connecting with previously unchurched young people. These are the missions run by university Christian Unions.

Dozens of evangelistic programmes have been held up and down the country among students over the past few weeks. Hundreds, perhaps thousands have heard the Gospel explained clearly, often for the first time, by listening to talks, reading testimonies on social media, or reading a Gospel with a friend using the 'Uncover' material. And people have put their faith in Jesus, started to live the Christian life, and begun to attend church. Young Christians have begun to develop spiritual gifts and leadership skills as they move from a shy, perhaps second-hand faith learned from parents and home church, to confident witnesses, having broken the 'pain barrier' of asking a friend to a meeting, now bold in intercession and participating in the organization of evangelistic events.

What is the impact? How many have come to faith this past 'mission season'? It's quite difficult to find publicly accessible reports. The UCCF site features a few blogs, and each year I hear anecdotes, but generally this seems to be an area of mission which needs more attention from sympathetic researchers. There would certainly be a lot of material to draw on, ranging from the major events run by traditionally large CU's at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham etc, to the stories now coming out of the smaller and newer higher education centres. The initiatives themselves are often full-on and exhausting for the CU members, who when it's finished have to catch up on their missed academic assignments, rather than collect stats and write missiological reflections. It would be very helpful for the wider church if this work of recording could be done.

History shows that UCCF student evangelism will always have its critics from outside and inside the church -- 'the theology is too conservative, the methods too didactic and pressurizing'. But there are large numbers of church leaders and committed lay people in the C of E today who trace the beginning of their journey of faith to the persistence and prayerfulness of friends at university who led them to a place where they could hear and understand the simple Gospel.

Many Christian students of today will not end up in CofE churches, but often because of what they perceive as a lack of Gospel clarity there, increasingly gravitate to new independent evangelical fellowships. The work of the Kingdom is not being harmed by such transfer, and it could also have a positive effect on mission-minded Anglicans. So it would be counter-productive for a church to try to co-opt and domesticate this movement; rather let the Spirit do his work in refreshing the church.

The Anglican Church in Nigeria was by many accounts rather staid, before its transformation in the 70's and 80's into a mission powerhouse, largely as a result of contact of its members with vibrant bible-based student ministry, and the Spirit-filled worship of Pentecostal churches. So it could be that in Britain too, the growth of independent churches and the indigenous mission movement that is student evangelism could provide new impetus not just for new forms of Christian church, but also for biblically faithful Anglicans both inside and outside the national church structures.

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