A ComRes poll published yesterday showed just 22% of 18-24 year olds believe Christianity is a force for good in the world. Yet I’m struck by the range of ways in which it feels to me that it is making life better for millions of people.
Sometimes it is hard to see the glory of the church. Dwindling numbers. Occasional hypocrisy in members and in the clergy. Awkward, divisive conversations held through the media about women bishops, and homosexuality. On an individual level, sometimes the Christians we see at work don’t look all that different to anyone else in a disappointing way, through office intrigue, broken promises, or just indifference.
The Church is full of people. Therefore it often goes wrong. But it has something magnificent and extraordinary at its heart. And the ability to transform communities as well as individual lives.
When, rarely, the Church is praised, it is usually for its historical achievements. The church has been instrumental in the foundation of universities, schools, hospitals, hospices, factory reform, prison reform, the abolition of slavery, democracy, human rights, free will, and the very notion of egalitarian kindness.
But its glory days are not just in the past. Despite present trouble, by following Jesus it is still going strong:
- It is generous with its money – against a national average of about 0.5-1% of income given to charity, church members commonly give away 10 or 20 times that amount.
- It remembers the poor – the Catholic church alone gives billions of pounds each year to overseas aid, more than any other single nation for medicine and education.
- Most food banks, which served around a million meals in the UK last year, have a Christian foundation, Christian management, and work in partnership with local churches.
- It is hospitable – providing the inspiration and most of the workforce for welcoming initiatives like Nightstop.
- In the UK the church is still the largest provider of state schools, and their academic performance is as distinctive as their ethos.
- In an increasingly polarised society, the church is the best forum for social mixing between people of different age, class, ethnicity, income, and politics.
- In prison, Christian courses like Alpha, have a reoffending rate of just 17 per cent, compared to the national average of 58 per cent for those serving less than 12 months.
- Within the church, marriage breakdown is rarer – at our church an incidence of 1 in 50, compared to a UK average of 1 in 3.
- It supports free face to face debt counselling for more than 20,000 people each year, 34% of whom were feeling suicidal because of their debts, and 81% said they struggled to provide for their families.
- And, at the risk of panglossian optimism, Clergy are the happiest workers out of 274 jobs.
The church does not simply have a moral advisory role, but is the engine-room of social cohesion, educational excellence, community welfare, and international development. And while numbers have fallen in UK pews, around the world the church is still growing – by about a million new people a year in China.
There is always more to do, through individual efforts and system wide reforms. But if the pews now seem emptier, those that remain are still at work. Despite the failures and fallibility of the church, it can still give glimpses of glory.