First of all happy New Year to you and I hope you were blessed by the Christmas season. I did a lot of college work, got some plot ideas together and read a lot.
Following through a mention on the Christianity Today review of the year I came across some much discussed blogs by Michael Spencer on the ‘coming Evangelical collapse’. There is a similar sort of treatment on this website as well and I gather the matter has been discussed widely elsewhere. The basic thesis of these authors is that Christianity in the United States (and it is distressing that a number of authors fail to distinguish between the United States and the rest of the world) is, for all its apparent strength, in deep trouble and a massive decline or even collapse looms in the next few decades. Now being on the other side of the Atlantic I do not feel able to make any serious comment on this thesis as it applies to the United States. Ignorance is not a good basis for opinion. However, I do think it is worthwhile pointing out the experience of Wales in the last hundred years and suggesting that anybody who is interested might find it very profitable to do a detailed sociological and theological comparison.
The basic situation is thus. One hundred years ago, buoyed by the 1904 revival (itself the last of a number of great revival events) Welsh nonconformity of an essentially evangelical hue was the dominant cultural feature of Wales. Chapels of every size and shape dominated the landscape and in any sort of urban area you would often find chapels every few hundred yards. On my five-mile drive to work I pass seven buildings that were chapels 100 years ago and I could easily adjust my route to pass nine. Welsh culture was dominated by the hymn singing and choral tradition of the Church: hymns were sung at rugby matches; they still are but no one knows what the words mean. The Welsh churches were sufficiently powerful that they were regularly consulted by administrative authorities at every level. Chapel culture dominated the moral, cultural and spiritual landscape. Deacons ruled the world.
And then slowly at first but soon at an appalling rate the tide went out. Chapel culture was still lingering on in the 70s when I came to South Wales and was converted. There were still parts of Wales where you could not buy alcohol on the Sunday, the Saturday evening paper had a full page advertisement for church services for the following day and on Sunday itself people (true, mostly by now old women) could be seen regularly filing to church from 10 o’clock onwards. Every year began in Swansea with a civic ceremony in which some chapel or other hosted civic leaders. But these were the twilight years and all these phenomena have now gone. Indeed my own church is held to be one of the largest in Swansea (population 250,000 ) and we barely get 150 people on a Sunday morning. The percentage of people attending church regularly in Wales is now less than 3%, which means that you can put every churchgoer in Wales in the great Millennium stadium in Cardiff and still have space.
There are certainly some striking parallels between Welsh nonconformity a hundred years ago and American evangelicalism today. There was an emphasis on controlling culture and setting the moral tone, there was a glorification of big-name preachers, an encouragement of peripheral activities such as male voice choirs which, although church sponsored, were somehow not really Christian. There was the often sycophantic wooing of politicians which was heartily reciprocated by the vote-hungry politicians themselves. There was an emphasis on music and events and on novelty and status. There were weighty rulings on such vital matters as what one wore and what one said. There were the massive building programs which saw chapels rise up like mushrooms.
Now don’t get me wrong – there were giants in those days; great missionaries, great preachers and great scholars. Yet seemingly, all that they laboured for vanished within a few decades. Many of the bright young men were lured into liberalism or ecclesiastical showmanship; others perished in the trenches of the First World War. Many others found the heady politics of the 1920s far more attractive than churchgoing. Nevertheless the scale and speed of the collapse is extraordinary. I think I remember reading that Martyn Lloyd-Jones found himself the only evangelical minister in the sizeable urban sprawl of Port Talbot in the late 1920s.
Quite simply and I’m sorry it is such a sober thought at the start of the year, it is worth bearing in mind that even the most apparently solid church culture can collapse within decades. In one sense that’s a scary thought. On the other it’s an encouragement to put our trust not in denominations or programmes but in the living God.