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Extinction in a generation?

Photo of George CareyHave a read of this report from the Daily Telegraph: ‘Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, warns Christianity “a generation away from extinction” in Britain. Clergy are now gripped by a “feeling of defeat”, congregations are worn down by “heaviness” while the public simply greets both with “rolled eyes and a yawn of boredom”, he said.’

Lord Carey goes on to say how in particular ‘we’ have let down young people and that we must deploy ministers to get children and youth back into church.

There’s much here to admire. Lord Carey may no longer be Archbishop of Canterbury, but it still takes courage for such an establishment figure to point out just how bad things are. But he’s quite right: Christianity is a generation away from extinction in the United Kingdom. This is something both very old and very new.

Let me explain.

On the one hand, this is a very old truth. Christianity is always a generation away from extinction. This was true just after Peter preached in Acts chapter 2 and people turned in their thousands to the Lord Jesus. This was true as people were converted in droves during the Evangelical Awakening. And it is true as people turn in hordes to Jesus in China today, unreported as that is by the BBC. The people of God is always one generation away from extinction.

This is because of the reality that our heavenly Father calls individuals by name from our death in sin into having faith in his Son. As the example of Jacob and Esau shows, faith is not a genetic inheritance, notwithstanding the preciousness of being raised within a Christian family. God has no grandchildren. In consequence, the gospel must be preached afresh in each generation, to each generation, without the assumption that somehow faith becomes automatic.

Yet this is easily overlooked and Lord Carey is quite right therefore to remind us that preaching the gospel is constantly necessary, because new generations are constantly arriving. He is also right that if we have so allocated resources that the gospel is not preached to each generation then we have indeed failed, and at the most fundamental level, because we have failed to carry out the great commission. This may be an old truth, but it is a vital one. Lord Carey has got us smelling the coffee.

But there is also something new here. This is more, it seems, than the salient fact that each generation must be evangelised anew. Lord Carey talks about a defeated clergy and a laity full of heaviness. Observationally I think this is by and large true – although there are remarkable exceptions. But I want to draw a distinction here.

Is it…

Clergy and laity are heavy and defeated in their emptying churches because they have tried evangelism and it has failed?

Or is it…

Clergy and laity are heavy and defeated in their emptying churches because they have not tried evangelism?

It may, of course, be both, and I accept that as we talk about defeated and heavy clergy and laity we are talking in generalisations. Even so, I think a key underlying question as we look at ‘extinction in a generation’ is: Have we as the Church of England actually preached the gospel?

I haven’t seen Lord Carey’s full text, but it intrigues me that his criticism apparently focuses on the lack of resources allocated to youth work. Even if that were true (the conservative evangelical churches I know do try in this area), the issue is not whether we have bodies on the ground in youth work on Friday nights. The issue is whether those bodies on the ground know the gospel personally, understand it intellectually and care enough to share it.

This means that Lord Carey’s misgivings are perhaps more serious than even he realises. The issue of extinction cannot be separated from whether we have been preaching the gospel. It means the term ‘gospel’ cannot simply be a fashionable, on-message word one throws into discussion papers from Church House. It must be given the concrete meanings that it has in the Bible. John Calvin, thinking of Luke 24:46f, insists that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ is the sum of the gospel. So too did the Lutheran Reformers, and so too does the Church of England in the Homily on Repentance.

Candidly, are we in the Church of England as a whole discussing the gospel in those terms? If we aren’t, do you think this might have something to do with Lord Carey’s observation about ‘defeated’ and ‘heavy’?
Even more seriously, if parts of the Church of England are not evangelising the coming generations, so that ‘extinction’ stares us in the face, then should we not be worried that extinction, spiritually speaking, is already here: is it that there will be no one in the pews in 30 years’ time, because the gospel is not in the pulpit now?

Let’s smell the coffee again.

By Mike Ovey

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