Christians are now a minority in England and Wales but this can be a great opportunity to speak up for Christianity as a positive force for public life.
The latest results released from the 2021 census show that for the first time, less than half the population of England and Wales would describe themselves as Christian, and in Wales, more would class themselves as having no religion than being Christian.
How should Christians respond to these findings, is it a cause for concern, and what does it mean for Christianity in public life?
First of all, these findings are not a surprise; it has been widely predicted that this would be the result, and our own research through Talking Jesus found that 48% of the UK population described themselves as Christian.
Second, it is vital to understand what the census measures and what it doesn’t. The decline in this figure is primarily representative of fewer people holding to the cultural label of Christian. The same Talking Jesus research found that between 2015 and 2021 the number of practicing Christians had remained fairly stable at 6% – this takes a composite measure of people who attend church at least monthly, read the Bible weekly and pray weekly. Other surveys have consistently found that around 10% attend church at least once a month.
What is shown by these census figures is a decline in the label, but it does not tell us how many people are following Jesus in their daily lives. This reduction in nominal Christianity can actually bring clarity to the mission field in our nations, as rather than assuming people are Christian when all they are doing is holding a cultural label, we have a better idea of meaningful engagement with religious beliefs.
There is, however, a challenge that arises from fewer people describing themselves as Christian, and that is that we run the risk of the value and importance of Christianity in society being underestimated and it being overlooked that it underpins such a vast array of our social, cultural and political infrastructure.
Christianity was a driving force for the development of human rights, for the suffragette movement, for campaigns for justice and equality across society, for upholding the dignity of all people, and caring for the world God created. And today Christians are contributing in every community across the UK caring for the poor, providing community for the lonely, tackling addiction and homelessness, and often the lasting presence in communities who remain. As Gavin Calver, CEO of the Evangelical Alliance, said in response to the Census release: “Christianity will always be relevant and essential to our society.”
There are two urgent tasks that are prompted from these Census findings, neither of which are new. First, there is the permanent task to make Jesus known, we want people to follow Jesus, we want more people to describe themselves as Christians because their identity has been transformed by Christ.
Second, we need to continue to advocate for the positive influence of Christianity in public life. It is unsurprising that in response to the Census results humanist and secularist campaigners launched fresh crusades to banish faith from public life – whether that’s in parliament or schools, or wherever they find it. This will not help us foster a plural society but usher in one where religious belief is relegated to a private matter. Secularism may not be a religion in the way we have usually understood it, but it is a belief system nonetheless. We should not be hoodwinked into thinking that neutrality or secularism serves all beliefs equally.
We are not seeking to protect the relict of a religion that has been left behind, but churches and Christians who are the life blood of communities and removing faith from public life threatens to cut off these essential services at the root. We want to ensure that Christians are seen and known as people who love their neighbours, care for the poor, treat all people with dignity, contribute to society and work for the good of all.
In fact as things continue to change – and I would expect we will see fewer people choose the label of Christian in years to come – the societal benefit of describing oneself as a Christian will further fade. Being a minority isn’t something Christians should be afraid of, for most Christians, across most of history, across most of the world this has been the norm. But it does affect our posture. It may no longer be a necessary or socially beneficial label to use – it may be one that attracts derision and scorn – but the case for Christianity in public life will be more needed than ever. We do not want an assumed Christianity that fossilises into a monument of past endeavours, but one that is building a society that honours God, glorifies Him, sees His Kingdom reflected on earth, and contributes to making Jesus known.
Danny Webster leads the EAUK advocacy team's work across the UK including public policy work an engagement with the parliaments and assemblies, and respective governments. This article was first published by the Evangelical Alliance United Kingdom and re-published with permission.