Why has the church in the West declined?

The church is prospering in many parts of the world, but in the West in general, and in the UK in particular, the church seems to be in decline. In fact there has been a steady decline over the last one hundred years. Apart from a few bright spots, and a certain amount of ‘whistling in the dark’, the prospects for the visible church in Britain seem, humanly speaking, rather bleak.

Why has this happened? There may be a variety of reasons, but three stand out to me.

  1. The church has become too worldly, and individual Christians seem almost indistinguishable from their non-Christian neighbours. They follow the same fashions, often even when such fashions border on immodesty, they listen to the same music, even when the lyrics are, to say the least, risqué; they enjoy the same entertainments, even though the New Testament warns against enjoying the portrayal of sin (Romans 1:32); they read the same books, even though some books describe evil deeds in detail; they unthinkingly follow the current fashion for disfiguring their bodies with piercings and tattoos, and they are often vague or unsure of their beliefs. That they go to church perhaps once a week seems to be the only outward evidence of their Christian belief. Non-Christians often match or exceed some Christians in their friendliness, kindness and compassion. Sometimes workmates and neighbours do not realize that those close to them are even professing Christians.

Yet the Bible is very clear that Christians should stand out in society. They are to be in the world but not of it. (e.g. Matt. 5:13-16; Ephesians 5; Philippians 2:14, 15; II Corinthians 6:14-18; I John 2:15-17).

Apart from some, often vague, beliefs about God and a future life, there is sometimes little to distinguish Christians from unbelievers.

  1. A second reason for the decline of the church is academic compromise in order to be thought ‘scholarly’. This includes not only accepting critical and rationalistic views of Scripture, but also surrender to the atheistic beliefs of evolutionary so-called science. Macro-evolution has enormous implications for our Lord’s teaching and indeed the teaching of the whole New Testament. This compromise has been going on for over one hundred years, steadily increasing year by year.
  2. A third reason is failure to obey the command to ‘go on being filled with the Spirit’. (Eph. 5:18). The denial of any work of grace beyond conversion is understandable for at least two reasons. First, the dislike of any idea of two classes of Christians. Second, the heretical views and ungodly behaviour of some who claim to have been ‘baptized in the Spirit’. But to react against the biblical teaching of progress in the Christian life is to leave the church powerless. While we must acknowledge that every Christian born of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3, 5) has the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9; I Cor. 6:19), nevertheless we must not ignore the command of Ephesians 5:18, nor the promise of Christ in Luke 11:13. It is quite undeniable that the early Christians, though filled with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, were filled again, and again (Acts 2:4; 4:31; cf.6:3; 7:55,etc).

This point is well expressed by George Smeaton: “[N]o more mischievous and misleading theory could be propounded, nor any one more dishonouring to the Holy Spirit, than the principle that because the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, the Church has no need, and no warrant, to pray any more for the effusion of the Spirit of God. On the contrary, the more the church asks (for) the Spirit and waits for his communications, the more she receives.” [The Holy Spirit, Banner of Truth, p. 255].

I believe that these three failures, worldliness, compromise with unbelief, and lack of Holy Spirit power, are some of the main reasons foe the weakness of the church in the West.


2 Responses to “Why has the church in the West declined?”

  1. Brian Wakeman Says:

    A problem may be about the validity of our knowledge. How do we know that the church is declining? Is this a general impression?
    Surveys might indicate that church attendance in main denominations has decreased, but does it take account of the vigorous growth of house churches, non-aligned groups, and for example the growth in FIEC churches ?
    Are we including the mushroom growth of Keswick and Bible weeks, and New Wine, Filling Stations, or the influence of Roy Godwin and Ffald y Brenin in South Wales?
    Would it be more accurate to say that some parts of the visible Church on in decline while others are experiencing growth and fruit?

    • stanleyjebb Says:

      Yes, that is true up to a point, but we have to go deeper. If you examine the growth most of it consists of Christians moving from other churches. That was true during my years at West Street. We grew from 98 members to nearly three hundred. But relatively little of the growth was due to new conversions. Most came from people moving into the area. The same is true of our current church. If you came on Sunday morning (few attend at night now) you would find a lively packed church. But the pastor and elders are concerned that we are seeing very, very few conversions. Virtually all the growth is from Christians leaving dead churches or moving in to the area. The baptisms we have had are all ‘biological growth’, that is children of church members. All the authorities are agreed that there has been serious declension. Certain Bible Colleges and theological colleges which were once evangelical are now liberal, and some have closed, including the one I began my training in, and the one I once taught in. Westminster chapel which once had thousands attending, now has a very small congregation. Christian influence in the media is but a shadow of what it once was and Christianity is constantly being squeezed out more and more. We desperately need to repent of our backsliding and call upon the Lord to pour out His Spirit. Complacency because of the apparent success of our immediate environment is very dangerous.

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