We, that is, Western civilization, find ourselves in a secular age. The last remnants of Christendom, akin to castles on a beach, are being eroded and fading away. In this great unraveling, the church is experiencing numerical decline as the old faithfuls depart for glory and are not replaced by children and young people, whether due to birth rates or those coming to faith.
Within the context of the Church of England, there is a rightful focus on combating decline through an emphasis on church growth and planting. Much of this emphasis is right and good, but here I want to make a simple point.
In a secular age, many faithful pastors, leaders, and priests will, over the coming years, find themselves ministering in a context of numerical decline. The tides of secularism, building for many hundreds of years, may not necessarily be stopped or countered by our initiatives. To reverse this demographic trend we would need a cultural turning point, a spiritual awakening for our disenchanted age.
For those in contexts of numerical decline, you may feel missionally second class, even a failure in contrast to churches that are growing. However, the truth is that in a secular age, decline is the norm. Many statistics bucking this trend are often related to transfer growth or are found in communities that are more diverse and international, less secular, and have a higher birth rate. I don’t say this to diminish the power of the gospel, the role of the Holy Spirit, or the need to be equipped for ministry in a secular age. Rather, I want to encourage and enthuse faithfulness as presence, even in situations where decline seems inevitable.
Take courage, dear pastor, if your role at this moment in cultural history is akin to that of palliative care. In this capacity, you preach, pastor, and preside as your congregation, despite your best efforts, experiences numerical decline, and heads towards closure. Your call is to be faithful with what God has given you. For some, the call is to lead growing churches—bless them. Still, for others, the calling and blessing is to compassionately journey with congregations and communities where the consequences of secularisation are more evident.