Three reasons a decline in people identifying as Christian in the census is no cause for concern

Yesterday, The Times reported that less than half the population in England and Wales now identify as Christian. This will no doubt also provide the occasion for some dog whistles about certain areas that are now majority ethnic minority. Suddenly, we will find media outlets that couldn’t give two hoots about Judeo-Christian values – indeed, some of whom have played their own part in actively undercutting them – suddenly being very concerned about our status as a “Christian country” being under threat.

This is particularly interesting as an actual Christian – a minister of the Christian gospel, in point of fact – because, following some things from across the pond (by which I mean the Atlantic, not the little Irish Sea pond), Christian Nationalism has become something of a thing of late. As these things tend to go, what begins in America has a tendency to make its way over to the UK and so some of that Christian Nationalist thought is making its way here too.

But there are sociological, political and theological questions at play here. As someone with an interest, and academic background, in all those areas, I can say I am unequivocally not a nationalist of any sort. I have spent my past actively standing against British Nationalism, I have no interest in English nationalism and I have no truck with Christian nationalism. Nationalism is simply not the answer, theologically nor politically. So, with those cards on the table, let me explain why these latest census figures do not concern me so far as Christianity is concerned.

Not news

Ultimately, this is not news. At least, not from a Christian point of view. If there is a story here at all – and I repudiate all attempts to use this as a dog whistle – it is to do with the rise of those identifying a non-Christian religions in what was a culturally Christian country. But the story that an increasing number of people no longer even identify as Christian is not exactly news.

25 years ago, it was well known I was in a tiny minority of people in my school who would own the label Christian. I was in an even smaller minority of people who actually go to church. That trajectory has not improved from a church perspective. My dad’s boomer generation were the first to begin actively rejecting the faith of their fathers and, as scripture suggests, the third and fourth generation have followed in their footsteps. It simply is not news to recognise that most people do not go to church nor identify as Christian.

Death of nominalism

One of the things we are seeing is the death of nominalism. Nominal Christianity used to go to church on a Sunday but have no real understanding of the gospel. It then morphed into a belief that one can be Christian and never go to church at all. Unsurprisingly, such a belief is seen to be a bit hollow and the children of those who never went to church feel no identification with Christianity at all. This is exactly what we would expect to follow.

More to the point, from a Christian point of view, that is not any sort of problem. Indeed, I would venture it is much harder for the gospel when people who evidently aren’t believers seem to think that they are. Trying to break through to them with the clarity that they are not saved and they need to be is very difficult. Such people (or their children and grandchildren) coming to such a realisation on their own truly is no bad thing. We can start with the agreement that they aren’t believers, and that they do not know the gospel and have not themselves tried the church really, and can then explain the gospel on the understanding that it is unknown and they definitely do not currently believe it. This seems to me to be a better, healthier development for the gospel.

Clarity for Christians

By ‘clarity for Christians’ I don’t only mean so far as the gospel is concerned (though it does help with that). I’d like to believe genuine Christians are already clear enough on the gospel to recognise that many who called themselves Christians, but among whom there was zero fruit, were not actually believers at all. James is quite clear that faith without works is dead.

What I mean is the clarity that we do not live in a Christian country. We may well have a Christian heritage, but the Christian element has long been uprooted with little concern for most people. Many genuine believers, however, never seemed to recognise it is so. There was, is and, I suspect, always will be those intent on pushing Christian values in the public square despite the public square long having not been Christian space.

This clarity is helpful for us for a number of reasons. First, it helps us understand where we are at as a society. The attempt to impose Judeo-Christian values again on people who no longer subscribe to them automatically simply will not work. Second, it brings us a reminder that we probably shouldn’t expect unbelievers to want to live as believers nor should we expect them to be able to do so. Thirdly, and most importantly, it serves then to point us to the ultimate need of our country. Apart from real, active living faith in Christ – apart from a work of the Spirit bringing people into the kingdom – we have no grounds to expect anyone to subscribe to biblical values.