I’m always wary of statistics but I readily admit that some studies can prove extremely helpful. Take the recent World Values Survey for example, a global study that has surveyed some 120 countries across the world since 1981. It has highlighted some very important facts about religious life in the UK today.
To begin with, it would seem that there has a dramatic decline in belief and as a result we have some of the lowest levels of religiosity and belief in God in the world.
There are some other fascinating findings too. Not surprisingly, as belief in God has died away, so too has belief in heaven; yet, strangely enough, belief in life after death has remained constant since 1981, with just under half of the population believing in this last year.
Likewise, 26 per cent of Britons said they believe in hell, a figure that has remained virtually unchanged over the last four decades.
Interestingly, one academic observer has noticed that while we Britons seem to be seem comfortable with this widely shared lack of religiosity, we have little objection to others being different, ‘at least so long as religion doesn’t intrude into public affairs’. That is certainly my experience.
So how should we react to these challenging figures as a church? Well, we should start from the premise that every single one of us has a God given right to trust or not trust Him.
I can’t coerce anyone into loving me and I can’t impose my faith on others either. In fact, I shouldn’t even try to do so. All I can do is produce the evidence, use my powers of persuasion and leave it to God.
Secondly, we needn’t panic. We have been here many times before. The church began as a tiny, almost miniscule, minority and yet it has continued to grow over the centuries.
Indeed, the story of a Jewish carpenter has shaped, and I believe will continue to shape, the course of world history until He returns in glory. It makes sense to say that if He conquered death, He can and will keep His promises to build His church and to come again at the end of time.
We shouldn’t worry about numbers either. Jesus didn’t.
He is not looking for religious audiences but committed disciples who are willing to live lives of sacrificial service. But of course that should remind us that the church needs to be a credible and attractive witness to the One it follows.
We will never be perfect this side of eternity, of course, but we have to admit that we do not enjoy a very good reputation at the moment and that can undermine the good news we have to offer. I get the feeling that this is one of the reasons why so few people find the Christian message appealing today, and we urgently need to get to grips with that.
Having said that, you could argue that it is remarkable that anyone believes the Christian message in the first place, given its supernatural claims and its challenging demands
But they continue to do so - and that sustains my hope because, when it comes down to it, people come to faith because God is in the business of working miracles. My conversion was proof of that.