Preaching Shaped Church

MA Thesis

Posted By Rev Dr Christopher Noble on 14/04/2020


Introduction: Conservative Church Growth in The Context of The Secularization Debate.

This thesis is situated in the contemporary debate over the veracity of secularization theory, that was used from the 1960s onwards as a way of trying to explain and understand the decline in Church attendance in the UK and the USA, particularly during the second half of that decade. Speaking from the American context Dean Kelley says that ‘for the first time in the nation’s history most of the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink’. This was a shock, because as he points out most of these denominations had experienced uninterrupted growth since colonial times. The secularization paradigm was adopted and developed as a way of trying to understand and explain what was going on in this sudden decline in Church attendance and the consequent loss of social and moral influence over society.

Steve Bruce, a contemporary British writer in this field, offers a highly nuanced and robust defence of the secularization thesis. Bruce alerts us to the roots of secularization theory in Max Weber and his observation that people seemed to be increasingly ‘religiously unmusical’, meaning that they were becoming indifferent to religion. Bruce follows the development of the theory from early writers in the field like Peter Berger in the 1960s and Bryan Wilson in the 1970s, through to the more contemporary supporters and critics of the paradigm. Central to Berger’s definition of secularization was the idea that the social power of religion is in decline. He saw it as the progressive autonomization of societal sectors from the domination of religious meaning and institutions.

In the 1970s Bryan Wilson wrote that ‘Religion in modern society will remain peripheral, relatively weak, providing comfort for men in the interstices of a soulless social system of which men are the half-witting, half restless prisoners'. Building on Wilson’s work Bruce argues that not only will ‘religion cease to be significant in the working of the social system’, but also that this reduced significance will reduce the number of people interested in religion. This reduced number of people interested in organised religion is backed up by a variety of church statistics that show church membership at 10,017,000 in 1940, 9,918,000 in 1960, 7,529,000 in 1980 and 5,862,000 in 2000. In the 1960s in the Church of England, confirmations fell by 40%, and Easter communicants by 25%.

Secularization theory was also adopted as a paradigm in historical works such as Alan Gilbert’s history of the secularization of modern society. He outlines his understanding of the theory when he says, ‘there is no clearer way of analysing secularization than that which sees it essentially as a gradual intrusion of secular consciousness into areas of thought and activity dominated previously by religious perceptions of reality’. Gilbert uses the secularization paradigm to provide a historical evolutionary map tracing the development of British society from Christian to what he terms ‘Post-Christian’. Interestingly he sees the publication of John Robinson’s book ‘Honest to God’ as an example of theological secularization.

However, it is not just sociologists of religion and historians who have bought into secularization theory. Alister Chapman has proposed that in England in the 1960s secularization theory ‘became part of the story it was trying to tell, as it generated anxiety among Christian leaders, like John Stott, who were committed to reversing the decline in church attendance in England’. Chapman points out that although Stott and other leading evangelicals did not seem to have interacted with the secularization theory on an academic level, ‘they were aware of the theory, and it seems clear both that it worried them and that it influenced their outlook and their strategies at the time’. As Chapman points out whilst the secularization theory seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the wider church, in the Anglican Evangelical Churches there was a continued vitality that bucked the trend. He says that ‘All Souls was not an exceptional case. From fewer than twenty communicants when he was instituted in 1961, Dick Lucas’s congregation at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, grew exponentially at weekday lunchtime services, and geometrically on Sundays, with figures over 400 and 100 respectively by the early 1970s’.

The growth and tenacity of Conservative Anglican Evangelical Congregations such as All Souls and St Helen’s Bishopsgate does not in itself refute the secularization theory, however it does raise some important questions about why these churches grew and developed at a time when secularization was in the ascendant? Alister Chapman says that ‘more work needs to be done to understand why it was that some churches were able to flourish while others declined’. He also proposes that attention be paid to the ‘particular location, it’s social composition, the internal politics of the church, the cultural climate of the 1960s, the apologetic that Stott adopted and the influence of secularization theory itself’.  Bruce puts the resilience of these churches in the face of secularization down to what he calls ‘strong belief systems’, and these are certainly in evidence in these churches. However, the success of these churches in the face of apparent secularization raises some critical questions for the secularization theory itself. Robert Marcus points to the way in which he was unduly swayed by the theory in his book saeculum, in which he says he was ‘inclined to see Augustine as one of the founding Fathers of a Christian Tradition of secularity’. He asks the question, ‘was my approach to Augustine unduly swayed by the intellectual climate in favour of secularization, was I simply swimming in the tide of intellectual fashion?’ The same question could be asked of the churches especially those in the mainline denominations. Had their buying into the theory prevented them from exploring a theology and practice of ministry that could have caused their churches to have expanded and thrived in the changing environment of the 1960s and 1970s?

Marcus quotes Peter Berger [the ‘guru’ of the secularization theory] who in the 1990s changed his mind and wrote that ‘a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labelled “secularization theory” is essentially mistaken’. Stark also quotes Berger’s 1997 statement as a conclusion to his thesis ‘Secularization R.I.P’. Berger said, ‘I think what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularization and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization. It wasn't a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it's basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It's very religious.’ Markus drawing on Samuel Huntington’s work also argues that apart from Western Europe the world is becoming ‘un-secularized and drifting towards confrontations in which religious conflict is taking an ever-growing part’. He quotes Peter Berger as saying that the rest of the world is ‘as furiously religious as ever’. Grace Davie quotes Modood giving us a hard-hitting Islamic critique of our ‘secular hegemony’. In the fall out from the Salman Rushdie controversy Modood wrote: ‘the Rushdie affair’ is not about the life of Salman Rushdie nor freedom of expression, let alone Islamic fundamentalism or book burning or Iranian interference in British affairs. The issue is of the rights of non-European religious and cultural minorities in the context of a ‘secular hegemony’. Is the Enlightenment big enough to legitimise the existence of pre-Enlightenment religious enthusiasm or can it only exist by suffocating all who fail to be overawed by its intellectual brilliance and vision of man?’ It is not only Islam that experiences ‘secular hegemony’, Christianity, is also subject to the same pressure to bow to what William Swatos calls the Enlightenments ‘new religion’ of reason.

Alister Chapman points out the importance of specific locations. He says that ‘Attention must be paid to the specific local circumstances faced by ministers and churches, as this alone can highlight the peculiar opportunities and challenges, they faced’. He argues that the ‘fortunes’ of churches like All Souls cannot be understood ‘without paying attention to its particular location, its social composition, the internal politics of the church and the cultural climate of the 1960s’. It is beyond the scope of this thesis to explore all these factors that would feed into an overall understanding of the resilience of St Helen’s church in the shadow of secularization, however what this thesis is seeking to do, is to demonstrate how the adoption of a Puritan Theology and Practice of Ministry focussed on preaching and personal ministry has enabled this Church to thrive in a so called period of secularization and religious decline. 

This thesis picks up Alister Chapman’s challenge, to do more work on ‘particular locations’ where churches flourished whilst others declined. I will be addressing the question of why the congregation of St Helen’s Church Bishopsgate grew exponentially in the years from 1961 through to the late 1980s, a period of church history noted for supposed secularization and serious decline in Church attendance? Building on Alister Chapman’s paper about All Souls Church, Langham Place, and the ministry of John Stott this paper is proposing that St Helen’s Bishopsgate and it’s minister Dick Lucas were uniquely equipped to flourish through their rejection of the secularization paradigm and their adoption of a Puritan theology of ministry focussed on preaching and catechesis, as expounded by Richard Baxter in his treatise The Reformed Pastor.  

PDF of Full Thesis Available upon Request





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