Revival, social transformation and church growth

Saturday was the first teaching day for the MA in Missional Leadership that I’ve embarked on, and very good it was too.
Martin Robinson, national director of Together in Mission led the day, looking at ‘our missionary context’. Briefly, we covered developments in mission and the growth of the church from the 1700’s to the present day, the impact of modernity and post-modernity on people’s thinking, and communicating with, and changing the mind of, our culture.

I love learning new stuff about old assumptions and Saturday provided a fascinating insight into revival and the growth of the church in this country over the last 300 years. The 1700’s, known for the revivals of Wesley and Whitfield, for dynamic preaching and manifestations of the Spirit, actually saw a substantial decline in numbers in the church. Such was the state of the church that some even predicted it would not survive the 1800’s. However, something was stirring in the small congregations of non-conformists where evangelical faith, effective organisation and particularly a commitment to work with the poor led to dynamic growth. This growth went on to have a significant impact on society, which began to notice that Christians were making a difference, and also on other denominations, many new churches being built during the middle of the 1800’s.

The 18th centuray revival did not immediately produce the growth in the church that it is often believed to have produced. That growth came in the 19th century following the re-engagement of Christians with the heart of their faith and a concern for society.

In many ways, I wonder whether we are in a similar situation. For a while I’ve pondered the shift from spiritual renewal in the 80’s and 90’s to social action in the late 90’s and 2000’s. The 80’s were marked by ministries such as that of John Wimber, with an emphasis on spiritual gifts and intimate worship and continued into the 90’s with the impact of the ‘Toronto blessing’. Then, from the mid 90’s onwards, we’ve had an increasing number and variety of community based outreach projects, such as ‘The Noise’ and the groundbreaking Eden projects in Manchester.
Important though these movements have been, just like the decline during the revival of the 1700’s and early 1800’s, the church in the UK has shrunk by 34% between 1989 and 2005 [The Christian Research English Church Census, 2005] – we have yet to see a change to significant growth.

Is there a reflection of the process of revival, social action and church growth of the 18th and 19th centuries in our accelerated culture? For that to be so there would need to be a growing recognition of the contribution the church is making to society. Whilst in no way conclusive evidence, I was surprised by the findings of our own survey of young people in Yr.8 & Yr.10 in schools here in Colchester which showed that 55% agree or agree strongly with the statement “The church does a lot for the poor in this country and around the world“.

Revival renewed the church, community involvement is making the good news visible – is the church about to grow?

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