Worship by other means

A decline of faithful attendance in Western churches does not mean less practice of Christian qualities of thought.

Fans watch the World Cup in the Holy Trinity Church in Sittingbourne, England, Nov. 21.

New census data in Britain caused a stir this week when it was revealed that England and Wales are no longer majority Christian. That shift has been coming for decades – brought on by a rise in other religions (Islam and Hinduism) and negative attitudes about Christian churches. It is reflected in a once-unimaginable political constellation: a Christian head of state, a Hindu prime minister, and a Muslim mayor of London.

For many in Britain, where national identity has long been shaped by a deep entanglement of church and state, Christianity’s minority status arrived sooner than expected. The number of people who identify as Christian dropped by 17% over the past decade. Those who claimed “no religion” soared by 57%. A similar shift is underway in the United States and across Western Europe. 

To focus on the numbers, however, misses something. As the world’s religions come increasingly into contact with each other, there is evidence that they are reinforcing similar qualities of thought – and perhaps a more faithful practice of shared convictions.

“The Christian calling to love God and love our neighbors endures, regardless of our demographics,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, on the website Sojourners. 

Indeed, the thinning out of pews in Western churches may not be a reliable indicator of attitudes toward spirituality or the enduring influence of Christian values in those societies. A 2018 Baylor University study of the increase of so-called nones – people who identify as having no denominational affiliation – found that while 27% of Americans attend a church service at least once a month, 58% pray weekly. In the United Kingdom, Anglican Bishop Philip North estimates that more than half those who say they are not religious nonetheless believe in God and a third of them say they pray. There remains “quite a significant spiritual questioning in the U.K.,” he told The Washington Times. Spiritual curiosity may be driving a generational shift among youth, too. A new study of teenagers in 26 countries published by the evangelical research group Barna in October found that 60% want to know more about Jesus.

For some, the decline of Christianity among Western nations and its growth elsewhere offers an opportunity to focus less on how it defines nations than on how it uplifts societies through individuals’ practice. “Isn’t Christianity steady, even on the rise, in the majority of the world?” Marlena Graves, an adjunct professor at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay, Ohio, asked Sojourners. “Our sustenance is to do the will of God whom we serve: loving God, neighbors, and enemies in practical ways, not in our imaginaries.” Qualities of thought, like salt, neither decline nor perish.

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