2018 marked among other things the centenary of the end of the First World War. It was a conflict whose most famous quote came right at the start of it. On the evening of 3rd August 1914 the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey looked out of his office window overlooking St James Park, and noticing the lamplighters starting their work, remarked: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’.
It was, of course, a reference to the coming conflict about to engulf the continent. Along with the following physical, psychological and social trauma that followed – many have also seen that war as a great moment of spiritual upheaval. For many it was a tipping point leading to the subsequent great decline in Christian belief in the nation. Its horrors causing a crisis of faith that the British have never recovered from.
The Great Decline
The reality is more complicated and the decline of Christianity in Britain can be traced as far back as the 19th Century. However, whatever part the War may have played in exacerbatingor indeed accelerating that decline, there is no doubt that we stand in 2019 at the end of a 100 years when the ‘spiritual lamps’ (as Revelation describes local churches) in our nation have, year by year and decade by decade, steadily gone out.
In the early part of that process the decline was less noticeable, at times seemingly offset by local Revivals and special events (e.g. the temporary spike in church attendances after the Billy Graham campaigns in the 1950s). However, in the later twentieth century the underlying attrition gave way to cliff edge falls. In Scotland church attendance more than halved in the 30 years prior to 2016 – the drop between 2002 and 2016 equivalent to ten congregations closing every month. The result is a decimated Scottish church - that today is more than twice as elderly as the nation as a whole.
As the ‘lamps’ went out, in buildings that are now nightclubs, artisan flats and carpet warehouses, the darkness has increased. The two things go hand in hand.
Flickers of Hope
But thank God, who is always much more merciful than we deserve, it has not been a complete blackout. Indeed in an increasing number of places the ‘lamps’ are being switched back-on again. On the last Sunday of 2018, I attended one such ‘lamp’ – a busy, all-age, joyful congregation, a church where the Bible was opened and preached faithfully. It was a ‘lamp’ that wasn’t there 12 months earlier but is now burning brightly in the heart of gospel-needy community.
It’s one of 5 FIEC Recognised Church Plants in Scotland that began public services in 2018; the Free Church of Scotland are currently supporting 9 Plants and have a vision to see 21 more established in the next decade. On average a FIEC connected Church Plant is being launched every 3 weeks somewhere in the UK. These are just two of a range of Gospel networks supporting such work – not least the growing proliferation of ethnic minority congregations who are starting to ask: ‘How can we reach our white British neighbours?’
Additionally the 2018 study ‘The Desecularisation of the City’ challenges the received wisdom that secularisim is an unstoppable tide – pointing out that between 1979 and the present the number of congregations in London has increased by 50%.
A brighter future
Now only a prophet can predict the future and I’m not a prophet – but it may be that just as the first half of the C20 contained the seeds of decline (e.g. liberal churches squandering their evangelical inheritance) – it may be that the first half of the C21 has within it the seeds of growth.
Like the initial period of decline after the First World War, the coming of growth is not likely to be immediately apparent. Indeed it will be offset, in the foreseeable future, by the continued decline of compromised and aging churches. So we shouldn’t expect any sudden return to ‘Christian Britain’ – if anything the next few decades are likely to be spiritually harder and darker yet.
We can, however, take hope and pray that the decades of spiritual pruning might lead in the future to decades of renewed spiritual flourishing in the nation. Our grandparents witnessed the ‘lamps’ beginning to go out – but we can be part of a work in 2019 that, by God’s grace, may allow our children and grandchildren to see them lit again across the nation.
 Brierley, Growth Amidst Decline – Future First (April 2017, Issue 50)
 Brierley, Growth Amidst Decline – Future First (April 2017, Issue 50) & www.gov.scot/Topics/People/Equality/Equalities/PopulationMigration