Pulling Out of the Nosedive in the United Kingdom!

The good news emerging from the 2005 English (United Kingdom) Church Census is that the number of people going to church in England did not drop as much between 1998 and 2005 as it did from 1989 to 1998. Between 1998 and 2005, half a million people stopped going to church; however, between 1989 and 1998, one million stopped attending. Perhaps we are pulling out of the nosedive!

This key finding from the Census, along with many other results, was published in a book called, appropriately enough, Pulling out of the Nosedive, published in September 2006. For those interested in the detailed figures, especially at county and local authority level, there is an associated volume, Religious Trends No 6, 2006/2007, also published in September. Both books are available from Christian Research at www.christian-research.org.uk.

An Excellent Response
In May 2005 there were 37,501 churches in England; information was received from more than half of them. “More new churches than Starbucks” was the headline of a news release issued for the Mission 21 Conference on church planting held in Sheffield in March 2006. Between 1998 and 2005, 481 Starbucks branches started; the organisers knew of at least five hundred new churches which had started in the same period. However, there were actually over one thousand new churches started in this period, when the independent, black and other ethnic diversity churches were included. Behind this headline is an exciting story of growth, even if some 1,200 churches also closed in the same seven years.

Church Attendance Continues to Decline
The actual number of people attending church on a Sunday decreased from 3.7 million in 1998 to 3.2 million in 2005. This covers all denominations, and represents 6.3% of the population, down from 7.5% in 1998. If midweek attendance is included, the proportion increases to 6.9% of the population. If the rate of decline continues, even at a reducing rate, the percentage attending in 2015 is likely to be under five percent.

Why have the numbers dropped? Is no one being converted? Aren’t Alpha and other similar courses working? Yes, they are working and people are coming to faith both inside and outside such courses. Perhaps some 250,000 people came to faith in the seven years ending 2005. There were also some 100,000 babies born to churchgoing parents in the period, giving a rough total of 350,000 people who have started coming to church, equivalent to fifty thousand people a year or one thousand new people every week. That sounds great; however, it is spread across 37,500 churches!

At the same time, some 300,000 people died (more deaths than conversions!) and a further 250,000 stopped attending church altogether. In addition, we lost the equivalent of 350,000 people who now come less often, giving a rough total of 900,000 people who have stopped coming to church, equivalent to losing 2,500 people a week.

A gain of 350,000 people and a loss of 900,000 people make up the 550,000 drop seen in the total figures (3.72 million in 1998 less the 3.17 million in 2005). The picture is confused at local church level by some 500,000 people having moved around the country or from one church to another in these seven years, with perhaps ten percent not finding a church where they could settle. This is offset by ten percent coming back to church after perhaps eight or ten years away.

Why do people stop coming or come less frequently? Partly due to the sheer pressure of life (Sunday is a much more competitive day for activities than it was) and partly because, for many, the church seems irrelevant. Behind this is Satan’s strategy to weaken and ultimately destroy the Church.

Against this somewhat sombre background, the Census nevertheless found that a number of exciting developments are taking place:

1. Some Denominations Are Growing
As Chart 1 indicates (where “All others” includes the United Reformed Church, Orthodox and other smaller denominations), the decline in numbers has not affected every denomination. The Pentecostals, Orthodox and the rather miscellaneous group of “Smaller Denominations” all grew. The Pentecostals grew primarily because of the black churches, the large majority of which are charismatic, and the Smaller Denominations grew because the various Overseas National Churches, mostly non-charismatic, grew. However, those of a different spirituality, like the Quakers and the Orthodox also saw some growth, although small.

The Roman Catholics decreased most in numerical terms (300,000 people); the United Reformed Church (URC) dropped most in percentage terms, declining fifty-three percent over the seven years to just under seventy thousand people. Both the URC and the Methodists have forty-seven percent of their attendees aged sixty-five or over.

2. Ethnically Diverse Churches Are Growing
Black churchgoers are now ten percent of all English churchgoers. They have grown very rapidly, especially in Inner London, where there are more black people in church than white (forty-four percent to forty-two percent) despite there being several very large mainly white landmark Anglican churches in the capital’s centre.

Churches with nationals from other parts of the world (Chinese, Korean and Indian churches) have also seen growth and in 2005 amounted to a further seven percent of all churchgoers overall. Churches fed by immigrants (Italian, Spanish and Swiss) from Europe have grown too, especially since the turn of the century. Seven new Croatian Catholic churches started between 2000 and 2005.

Non-white churchgoers are younger than white churchgoers, bringing to their churches more energy and more children, as many have families.

3. More Growing Churches
The proportion of growing churches has increased from twenty-one percent which grew during the 1990s to thirty-four percent which have grown from 1998 to 2005, as illustrated in Chart 2. The percentage of declining churches has dropped from sixty-five percent to fifty percent, the remaining percentage being stable (congregations remaining within ten percent of what they were).

While this is positive, part of the reason for more growing churches is that some people are simply transferring from the declining churches. In the last few years, especially emphasised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, a number of “Fresh Expression” churches have started, some of whom responded to the Census; these proved to have smaller and also younger congregations. Could these be the answer for the declining numbers? They may well be part of an answer; however, there are still far too few of them.

4. Larger Churches Are Growing
The 2005 English Church Census found that the larger the church, the more likely it was to be growing. This is especially true of churches with congregations of more than two hundred people, and is particularly true of the larger Anglican and Baptist churches. Why do they grow? As other research has shown, this is partly because the preaching is relevant (a very important factor), the welcome received is warm, there are suitable activities for children and adults midweek and especially because there is likely to be strong leadership with a clear vision for the future.

The Census found other factors were important as well. The larger the church:

  • The greater the proportion of people under age thirty. Could this be because of suitable midweek activities? Young people also like to be part of larger groups for friendship and interaction.
  • The greater the proportion of non-white churchgoers in attendance. Could this be because they like to attend “successful” churches which a growing church appears to be? Perhaps they feel more at home because they are less conspicuous.
  • The greater the proportion who come to church least frequently, that is, less often than once a month.
  • The greater the proportion of visitors. Could this be because of the friendly welcome or because in a larger church there is a greater likelihood for anonymity? This is perhaps especially true of the Cathedrals.

The larger churches are likely to become increasingly important as the years move on.

5. The Challenge of Greater London
In seven Inner London Boroughs there are over fifty Black Majority Churches, and thirteen out of the eighteen Inner London Boroughs saw churchgoing numbers increase between 1998 and 2005. In Greater London there are:

  • eleven percent of all the churches in England
  • twenty percent of all the churchgoers, making London’s churches twice as large on average as those elsewhere
  • twenty-three percent of all the Evangelical churchgoers
  • fifty-three percent of all the Pentecostal churchgoers
  • fifty-seven percent of all churchgoers who are in their twenties (against nineteen percent of the population)

Such is the strength of London’s church attendance. It will find its supreme test in how they can work together for mission with the coming 2012 Olympic Games. Is it possible for the rest of the country to learn from London?

The flipside of London’s strength is that other parts of England are relatively weak, especially in having relatively few churchgoers in their twenties. If 131,000 of the country’s 231,000 people aged twenty to twenty-nine who go to church go in London, that leaves 100,000 people to be spread across thirty-three thousand churches! As this implies, not everything is good news. There were some serious weaknesses exposed by the Census as well.

6. The Church as a Whole Is Aging
The average age of those going to church has increased to from age forty-three to age forty-five; this is against a population average of forty. This is because twenty-nine percent of churchgoers are sixty-five or over. This means that we lose many people through being “promoted to glory.” Chart 3 illustrates the gap.

The Church is weakest among those aged twenty to forty-four (the age of many parents) and comparatively strong among those aged sixty-five and over (the age of many grandparents). Some church children are brought up by their grandparents, not their parents. Grandparents can hold an important position in their families, and often in a church. They are frequently asked to help with Sunday School. A few churches have experimented with holding “Being an Effective Grandparent” sessions.

7. Less Frequent Attendance
Judging by the decline in frequency of attendance (seventy-two percent which is among women) shown in Chart 4, there is considerable pressure on those aged thirty to forty-four. This was a similar finding to that in Scotland in 2002, where focus groups showed that this was primarily because of the strains of looking after a home and family while going to work, many having to take jobs on Sunday partly because many such jobs were available and partly because childcare would be provided by their partner.

How can churches help alleviate stress and strain on those aged thirty to forty-four, especially if they have a young family? Can services be held for them at more convenient times, either during the week, or even on a Sunday? One Baptist church switched its morning service from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and found its numbers doubled!

8. Evangelicals Are Declining
The number of Evangelicals in England is fewer in 2005 than it was in 1998, dropping nine percent from 1,390,000 to 1,260,000. The decline was least among the charismatic (five percent) but greatest among those describing themselves as Broad Evangelicals (twenty percent). The overall smaller rate of decline among Evangelicals is, however, because of the growth of the non-white church community, not because of the growth of conservative or strongly Evangelical churches which are mostly white.

9. Midweek Opportunities Not Being Taken
The numbers attending midweek meetings were greater in 2005 than in 1998. However, this was not because more churches were holding midweek meetings; rather, it was because more people were attending the midweek services that were being held. The percentage of Anglican churches holding a midweek event dropped from fifty-one percent to forty-five percent, and Baptists from forty-five percent to forty-one percent, but it increased in other denominations, especially the Methodists, United Reformed and New Churches, so that the overall percentage of forty-two percent remained unchanged. Almost three-quarters of attendees at these meetings also came on Sunday.

However, only twenty-seven percent of churches held a midweek youth meeting. This was partly because there is still a dire absence of young people in many churches:

  • thirty-nine percent of churches had no one attending under eleven years of age
  • forty-nine percent of churches had no one attending between eleven and fourteen years of age
  • fifty-nine percent of churches had no one attending between fifteen and nineteen years of age

These are horrific figures and indicate the huge amount of work that churches must do to reclaim the lost ground among young people today. We may be emerging from the nosedive, but without the support of more young people, we will never begin the climb back to a safe level.

However, where churches do hold a midweek meeting for young people, they were shown to be particularly effective in helping those aged eleven to fourteen to stay connected with a church. Some 330,000 young people attended a midweek meeting (more than a third of whom were in Anglican churches), and of these, over half did not attend on Sunday. So midweek youth meetings are worthwhile, which is presumably why up to one-fifth of churches now have their own or shared youth or children’s worker, or both.

It is clear that the Census provides some fascinating material. Can the English church pull out of the nosedive? YES! We need to either start new congregations or increase our existing ones. We need to hold more midweek activity and strategically plan ahead! The newspaper columnist, Andrew Brown, wrote last year, “Almost nothing that’s possible is too improbable ever to happen.” In other words, “with God, all things are possible.”

Dr. Peter Brierley, a church consultant, is the Senior Lausanne Associate for Church Research. He attended Lausanne I in 1974 and has been involved with the Lausanne movement since 1984. He is former executive director of Christian Research, a UK charity which produces resource volumes like Religious Trends and the UK Christian Handbook. Brierley can be reached at [email protected].