Book review: Knowing our times

You know that feeling when you’ve said some stuff – all of it certainly true and legitimate – but somebody asks you to present that same stuff more formally, with a certain amount of robust research behind it, which you did not anticipate happening? Well, that recently happened to me. It may still happen but my initial response was that I’m not sure I’m qualified. Either I’ve got the wrong end of the stick on what’s expected, the brief will change a bit or the speaker will.

On the grounds (or, more accurately, out of fear) that it may still happen, I was desperately searching my shelves for something that might have some solid research that I could shamelessly steal utilise to support what I was saying. I have some basis for my comments but I sense the handful of numbers they’re based on, and the handful of blog posts outlining my position, probably won’t cut it. Given the need, my eye was drawn to John Stevens’ Knowing our times. Happily, it’s short enough to read in an hour or so, which is precisely what I did.

Frustratingly for me, the book didn’t contain the kind of figures I wanted. There were various facts and figures in the book, largely centred around the FIEC family of churches, most of which were insightful, instructive and helpful but none (or, at least, very few) quite served my purposes. It seems I shall have to land on somebody else’s research if I’m not going to make a complete fool out of myself. Nonetheless, I did enjoy John’s book.

The book is, in essence, the fruit of a paper John delivered at the Affinity Theological Study Conference and, unsurprisingly, most of the data is drawn from FIEC and the conclusions drawn are largely, though not exclusively, based on such figures (I was heartened, for the reasons above, to see John note his paper was made up of ‘anecdotal and observational conclusions’).

John’s purpose in the book is to bring a level of realism to our view of ministry. He wants us to see that, if we understand the cultural situation in most of 21st Century Britain, we will recognise that we are living in hard days for the gospel. He notes in his introduction that many are downcast with their ministry, expecting to see much greater fruit, when the reality is that ‘gospel work is slow almost everywhere’ and most are ‘simply experiencing what is normal for gospel ministry in Britain at this moment of history’.

John lays identifies as an ‘optimistic Amillennialist’ in the first chapter. By this, he means that he expects to see both persecution and gospel growth throughout ‘the last days’ between Pentecost and the Parousia. This essentially lays the ground for John’s argument that we should not refuse to engage culturally whilst avoiding the other extreme of ‘damaging idealistic overconfidence and complacency’. This also means we shouldn’t be surprised at our culture’s wider rejection of the gospel whilst recognising that we ought also to see areas of gospel fruit.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to considering the political and legal situation for Christians; the multi-cultural and pluralistic situation in Britain; the church generally and the effect of liberal theology upon it; the situation within British Evangelicalism; and considers several of the sociological factors impacting gospel work in our country.

John estimates that only around 3% of the population can genuinely be described as ‘born again’ and few Evangelical churches, particularly within FIEC, are seeing more than 1% growth per year by way of conversion. John contrasts this with the phenomenal growth of the gospel around the world in places such as China. This he does, not to say we are failing in our gospel endeavours, but to say that the ground in Britain is now much harder than it once was.

Perhaps most strikingly, John notes ‘there seems to be greater gospel response at present amongst the very rich, and the very poor, including amongst refugees and immigrants, especially amongst Iranians, who are turning to Christ in large numbers’. He notes that it is the ‘white-British, moderately affluent and aspirant’ who are least receptive to the gospel. I would have liked to have seen John press the implications of this further. For example, given that the ultra-rich make up a tiny proportion of the country, it is evident that most gospel fruit in the current climate will be amongst the very poor. I would have liked to have seen a discussion of whether this means our evangelism and resources, therefore, ought to focus upon this area of gospel fruit and, if not, why not.

John highlights in his preface that Evangelicalism ‘has tended to be most adept at reaching the majority culture’ which he points out is ‘predominantly white and middle-class’. He doesn’t note that 81% of Evangelicals hold a university degree or higher compared to the c. 70% of the country that hasn’t been to university. Though John offers some insight onto why students may be particularly receptive to the gospel, given the view that there is much gospel fruit amongst the very poor, I would have liked to have seen some suggestions for how we might redress this educational divide within Evangelicalism and how we might encourage those with a gospel heart to reach those who would be receptive to the gospel rather than remaining in largely unfruitful middle-class areas.

Nonetheless, with those caveats, John is seeking to encourage those who are faithfully sharing the gospel in areas that seem like such hard ground. He offers a clear and concise overview of the cultural situation in Britain today. He notes where there are areas of gospel growth and where fruit seems more difficult. He offers us a good reminder that most of us are simply not going to buck a national trend and we shouldn’t lose heart that we are seeing limited fruit when such is the same for almost everybody else too. Finally, John rounds off with some helpful comments about how we can respond to our times without falling into the traps of unbridled pessimism nor undue triumphalism. He encourages us to be faithful to our calling, not to capitulate to the culture and to ‘re-envision local churches to see themselves as the mission stations they need to be, rather than as safe bastions of orthodoxy in a hostile culture’.

If you want to understand the culture in which we minister the gospel in 21st Century Britain, you will not go far wrong reading this little book. John offers insightful analysis of our times and provides a compelling gospel vision for how we may navigate them as Evangelical churches. I only hope that the ideas John puts forward are genuinely taken up by the churches. Particularly noteworthy is that larger churches need to help the smaller and churche sin general need to become ‘much more interconnected, and much less protectionist, territorial and tribalistic in seeking to build and promote our own churches and ministries’. I am convinced our greatest problem in seeing these things happen will be the pride and hubris of church leaders needing to abandon plans of building a name and empire for themselves and focus much more on supporting and helping largely unseen and unknown ministries. If we want to reach the 97% of the country who don’t know Christ, this a key place to start.