21st century Christianity in the UK (Prologue)
A critical examination of the state of Christianity in the UK and the Christian church in the UK today
The purpose of this series is to bring genuine and rational understanding of the state of Christianity in the UK. It is not intended to be factually perfect, but aims to be as genuine as possible. The reader can draw their own conclusion after reading it, or carry out more of their own research.
Defining our term ‘Active Christians’ just for this article
Many people have either dismissed, or are too busy to stop and take a few moments to fully consider the state of Christianity in the UK.
Before we start, we must define what we mean by the terms ‘active Christians’ and active Christianity. For the purposes of this article, an ‘active Christian’ would broadly be defined as someone who:
- believes in one God in three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
- seeks, pray and talk to God directly and frequently. Believes and understands that God actively answers prayers and is actively involved in their life, communicating with them and guiding their life choices
- talks about their Christian faith to others, and expresses their faith in God through the decisions they make, the positive actions they take and the encouraging things they say in everyday life
- understands that God loves every person, and wants the best for every person including themselves, and He calls them to help and love all people and the people around them through both words and actions
- attends church / are an active member of a congregation on a regular basis
- upholds the Bible as the only genuine authority in terms of written word and also reads / studies the Bible frequently
- chooses relationship with God through Jesus guided by the Holy Spirit above all else. ‘Above all else’ means not elevating to equal importance to their relationship with God things such as:
- observing religious customs
- living only by the law and commandments in the Bible without love, compassion and grace
- worshipping any other person, god or material thing
How many active Christians are there in the UK in 2021?
The stark reality is that there are very few active Christians in the UK. This is despite relatively recent polls suggesting up to 50% of the UK still professing to belong to the Christian religion compared to atheists and other religions. Despite perhaps up to 50% or so of the UK population label themselves as Christians, many would actually fall into another category. That category that can be defined as ‘nominal’ or passive in contrast to our ‘active Christian’ definition above.
A nominal or passive Christian is someone that perhaps attending church once a week or at key times in the year such as Easter and Christmas, or someone that simply has an association with a local church and/or been Christened at a young age. A nomial Christian might also occasionally read or study the Bible or pray particularly when life is difficult. There is nothing wrong in these things, but their Christian lifestyle, faith, beliefs and understanding of God relative to the world is significantly different to that of an active Christian.
Reality check – the state of Christianity in the UK
Our research has led us to the point of being able to suggest that the real number of ‘active Christians’ in the UK is much lower than 50%. Perhaps somewhere between 2% and, maybe up to 10% of the population – if we want to be extremely positive. In reality, it is extremely difficult to put an exact figure on this as surveys vary widely. In addition, for some, their ‘active Christian’ faith is as much personal as it is public. This also means there (hopefully) may be more active Christians than our worse-case scenario of 2%. We therefore think we can safely assume the figure most likely falls somewhere around 5 to 6% of the population. If our assumptions are correct that means 3.35 – 4.02 million out of approx. 67 million people in the UK.
‘Active Christians’ are a minority group in the UK
All this firmly puts active Christians in the minority group category alongside other minority groupings and organisations. These include the LGB community with 2.7% or 1.81 million of the population in 2019 identifying themselves as LBG***. English Heritage has 2% or 1.34 million members, while the Muslim community is around 5% or 3.37 million in total of the UK population in 2018***. By contrast, the National Union of Students still have 6.2 million members in 2021, 9.25% of the population. You could argue at almost 10%, the NUS isn’t a minority group. It certainly does mean that they are more likely to influence and have a voice of authority. All of the various communities and organisations mentioned have a significant voice in the UK. They are picked up by the media, politics and others as a voice of authority in their area.
Looking globally – comparing the state of Christianity in the UK with other countries
Globally, there are many other countries with a higher overall percentage of Christians reported than the UK today. The UK stands at around 59% (may be less now)**. We also recently saw, for example, a statistic that stated 71% of Americans read their Bibles. We take this figure with a pinch of salt though. There are many distorted and misleading branches of Christianity prevalent in the USA (sadly, the same is true for most religions and countries). This means that some Christians globally will not actively be reflecting mainstream Christianity. So, many countries do identify as having a majority, or major percentage of overall Christians high above the number in the UK**. However, the actual number of active Christians in these countries may well be lower too.
Active Christians and active Christianity in general is fading in the UK
There are a number of reasons why active Christians and Christianity in general is fading in the UK. Many minority groups of a similar size are seemingly speaking out with a voice that is being amplified and actively heard in the UK. In contrast, other minority groups such as our self-defined ‘active Christians’, are seeming to be increasingly muted.
Why might this be?
There is no doubt that all sorts of minority groups and organisations today are being heard very loudly. They are actively influencing many critically important areas of life where once active Christians influenced too. Christianity today is often featured in the news only in a negative or poor light regards reporting, and rarely for opinion or viewpoint in the conversation unless it is controversial and directly linked to a Christian related issue. Who the media chooses to represent the current voice of the UK Christian (or Church) is significant. They may not represent the same voice across the spectrum of Christianity. For active Christians, every area of life is influenced by their faith personally. However, the wider community in 21st century UK is no longer interested in what that actually means or looks like. The world would probably say they’ve ‘moved on’, or it is ‘not relevant any more’ in modern society.
Erosion over a relatively short time has accelerated decline in the state of Christianity in the UK
Recent generations have, over a few decades, more quickly moved away from the roots of Christianity. Perhaps this is because Christianity is seen not to have moved with all the perceived positive changes of the rest of society. This even includes some so-called ‘modern churches’ as well. People no longer connect with the church, and they have found that active Christianity places incompatible limits on secular thinking and understanding. These limits, over time, have come to feel like a suffocating and frustrating restriction to such things as free thinking and inclusivity. Active Christainity is often quickly rejected in a world of choices and reason and ‘enlightenment’ as soon as the reality of the ‘wave’ of archaic limits and ideas crashes over the sandy shores of freedom and fun where most want to remain standing – without challenge.
Freedom of speech is never truely without bias
Today, active Christians do still speaking up and voice an opinion. Unfortunately, that opinion can be quickly muted unless it’s pallitable in today’s 21st century UK. Often it is lost in the noise, ignored or even ridiculed. Some say we are priviledged in a democracy to have full freedom of speech. Unfortunately, complete and perfectly fair freedom of speech is not limitless and is actually impossible to exist. By this, we mean it cannot co-exist in an imperfect world such as ours. This is true throughout history (and since the fall of mankind in Genesis 1 for Christians specifically).
Freedom of speech is, even if we choose to ignore it, guided and distorted by influence, popularity and the world around. The same was true in the time of Jesus. Freedom of speech is never really truely unbias. This is mainly because humans are imperfect. By default there is no such thing as a perfect democracy. It is always possible to influence, deceive, manipulate, pursuade people. Sadly, Christians are not immune, and also vulnerable to, and guilty of these things as much as anyone else.
What’s really causing the state of Christianity in the UK to fade?
Perhaps one of the main reasons for ‘active Christians’ and Christainity fading away can be found as one looks back into history. In reality this erosion of Christian faith, hope and love-filled beliefs in God faded very gradually at first. It later then accelerated dramatically. This has really only happened exponentially in the last 50 to 150 years or so with increases in scientific understanding, communications and so on. Is it possible, therefore, that a combination of the following things has brought us to the state of Christianity in the UK today:
- 2000 years of Christian Biblical recorded history since Jesus’ life and ministry
- The evidence and influence of 1500 years of Christian history and heritage in this country specifically
- The advancement of humankind’s understandings, development and abilities only since half-way through the 1800s
- Worst of all, ironically, the exponential acceleration just in the last 70 years or so, of a more connected world. This has brought great advances in science, technology, our general understanding of the world around us – and beyond. Also access to information (good and bad). All these things have continually eroded and ultimately impact on the Christian faith (and religion in general).
Is there no longer room to be counter-cultural in 21st century UK because the culture is so diverse
If we look at the above list, and line it up with our definition of an ‘active Christian’ the term counter-cultural seems fitting. Christianity in many ways, has now become counter-cultural, much moreso than in the previous 1850 years since Jesus’ ministry. Ironically, Christianity was counter-cultural even in Jesus’ time. Today, with a well connected world, the clashing of modern culture and Christianity is continuing to increasingly diverge from the world’s ‘progress’. What makes Christianity today counter-cultural will ultimately be defined by the thoughts of you, the reader – but it is actually defined in the Bible. Many non-Christians, and indeed, Christians view much of Christianity now as outdated, ‘behind the times’ even archaic.
Is active Christianity becoming irrelevant?
We are all living in a world where humans are more than ever working out the meaning of life and everything. They are more and more empowered to do this for themselves and in their own efforts. This is being done partly with the aid of new scientific and information advancement. At the same time, everyone is busy being distracted and influenced by constantly interacting with the people around them locally and globally, and, in many parts of the world, though not all, being encouraged to find their own path in life without someone else (like God) telling them what to do and why.
In reality, for many is there even any major ‘quality’ time left to think, pray, study or talk about things to do with God and Christianity – indeed, religion in general? As we were writing this article, the Youversion website and mobile app surpassed 500 million users worldwide. Meanwhile, the Bible remains by far the biggest seller of all-time with 5 billion estimated to have been printed (according to the Guiness Book of World Records). Fantastic! But what does that actually mean today, we wonder?
Worldly richer, spiritually poorer
Suffice to say that it seems the developed world, of which the UK is a part, in many ways is becoming worldly richer (materially and wealthily). It is also simultaneously becoming spiritually poorer. This might be a matter of opinion depending on your viewpoint, but if you look at the Bible, it is quite clear on this subject. The worldly statistics even back the Bible up… the wealthy become wealthier, the poor even poorer, corrupt leadership and decisions for self-gain, money driven decisions – the list is long. In the meantime, it is important to note that active Christians and active churches are often involved in the world. They are involved with charitable activity, teaching, caring professions, wellbeing and other services. These are all things that have a real genuine impact on society as a whole.
Perhaps one of the biggest things that set Christians apart is that they are also concerned about matters of the heart. These encompass faith hope and love, people and relationship, something the world struggles to fully grasp. The world continually looks to explain rationally these things through science, study of the brain and so on. Maybe, Christianity is not quite so out of touch afterall, choosing to accept these three things (faith, hope and love) without trying to scientifically prove what they are. Out of that restful place of faith, hope and love there is more room to hear and listen to God. Active Christians would say God can speak directly, via the holy spirit, through the Bible and through others on matters of the heart as well as the mind.
Where it seems we are… the state of Christianity in the UK is serious
‘Active Christianity’ seems to be diminishing rapidly in many parts of the developed world. That said, it seems to be increasing where luxury and philosophy and science are less important / understood. Why? Christianity is not complicated at its core. It actually brings a wonderfully simple message. Perhaps, science, philosophy, people and material possessions simply get in between the message. Like a wall being built higher and higher, gradually blocking out / overshadowing faith, hope, and love.
Faith, hope and love are the most unstable and unexplainable things in this world. They are often – as science would say – irrational aspects of humans and human nature – they drive / cause unexpected things to happen, sometimes with out reason. This is difficult for science to accept. They are matters of the heart more than the mind. Interestingly, science seems to be catching up a bit at this point in the world, by finding faint parallels with the discovery of things at subatomic level which don’t behave as they should and unexplicably defy the laws of known physics and maths*****.
Christianity has been around for thousands of years. In the days before great leaps in science, life was a lot simpler. To believe or not, have faith, hope and love was the main question. There were really few other choices no matter what you decided to worship. Today, there are plenty of things to distract, some good and helpful, many not. As a result, now more than ever, the UK is loosing what’s been at its heart for some 1500 years, and that is serious.
The state of Christianity in the UK – losing our voice, time to look closer and speak up
In the UK we have estimated earlier that around only 5-6% are ‘active Christians’. Yet there are so many areas that active Christians today are – often quietly – involved with. We believe that active Christianity has a crucial place both in our UK history, but also critical for the future (but then we would, since the Bible tells us more than enough of how the future is going to play out). The voice of the active Christian needs to be restored positively and completely before it is silenced completely, in what is now essentially both a secular and multi-faith country.
The consequences of silencing our Christian history, heritage and Christian traditions, beliefs and wisdom is already becoming, and will ultimately be, a disaster for the UK, not just for Christians. It will also ripple out in a growing wave into future generations – for the rest of time (dramatic, we know!). With this in mind, we are following this progloue with a series of three documents taking a closer look at the issue of the state of Christianity in the UK in the 21st century. We will start by considering history first.
Further reading and information – is the UK still a Christian country?
Is the UK still a Christian country? (BBC News)
Christianity at risk: ‘Dramatic decline’ in Britain’s Christian identity – shock report (2019 article in the Daily Express)
How religious are British people? (YouGov)
Doing Good: A Future for Christianity in the 21st Century (Theos Think Tank 2016 article) – downloadable report
**The Most Christian Countries (World Population Review –note: unsure of the authenticity of data sources). Scroll the list to find the UK.
Anglican Churches in the UK Are Shrinking in Size but Not Impact (Christianity Today)
Great Britain: The Spiritual Situation Today (at July 31, 1961) (Christianity Today)
British people more likely to believe in ghosts than a Creator, YouGov survey finds (The Guardian, 2016 article)
***Source: Office for National Statistics
****Source: The 100 Largest UK Membership Bodies (Memberwise)
*****Source: The quantum world is mind-bogglingly weird (Science News for Students)
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