There have been a number of conflicting church statistics of late.
I wrote an essay back in 1996 at theological college. And being a college essay it usually had some grandiose title. Mine started with a quote by John Kent (whoever he was – I never did find out!).
“The barbarians have arrived, twilight has descended, and this time when it lifts the Western churches will have ceased to exist.”
My belief at the time was that unless the church changed the way that it approached how it communicated that there would be an inevitable decline. Using a straight-line graph it showed the church declining to virtually nothing in 2080. Obviously, a straight-line graph was probably too severe and I did recognise that but still even with all my statistical skills we were still seeing a large drop-off to a level where Christianity was insignificant by about 2050.
And in the face of all the statistical evidence that the church was in steep decline we saw signs of major putting heads in the sand. In fact one bishop told me that he wasn’t worried that few children went to church as “they would come back when they had retired”. This without any explanation as to how they would be drawn to the church through their lives! Amazingly blinkered and sad.
Between 1960 and 1985 the Church of England halved in size.
So what has happened since? Any hope around?
Well both good and bad really.
Firstly, the long steep decline in church attendance appears to have halted (at least for the moment). The focus on churches and Fresh Expressions has helped play its part. We have seen more and more churches prepared to consider new ways of doing things – from Messy Church to transforming their provision of youth services etc.
We are not alone in seeing significant increases in our congregation. We have seen average congregation increase of about 50% in the past 5 years. Others have had just as large or even larger (All Saints Carshalton, Holy Trinity, Redhill in this area).
The chart below shows the long drawn out decline over the past century with the slowing down tail.
In addition the number of Anglican congregations has slightly risen between 2007 and 2008 from 18,198 to 18,208. It is, obviously, a minuscule rise but it is the first rise in many years! In addition Church of England membership is up 6,000 to 1,179,100 and the RC’s increased 3,000 to 1,657,644 meaning that they are the largest denomination by attendance in the UK.
The biggest growth has come in the Pentecostal churches which between 2002 and 2008 grew by 50% to 300,000.
Now this is all good news. But there was also some more worrying news around. The latest British Social Survey (for 2009) showed that the majority of the population has for the first time said that they are non-religious (50.3%) compared to 43% who said that they were Christian. This is surprising given that only the previous year the figures were almost the reverse (43.4% non-religious vs 50% who said that they were Christian).
One set of figures doesn’t mean that they are correct (when a set of figures say that they are 95% probability of being correct – which is what most polls claim – it means that you expect a wrong set of figures in 5% of cases). There is some doubt with these ones given that the non-religious figure has been bouncing around the 40-46% figure all the way back to 1995.
But the problem that we will face more and more is that the media continues to paint Christians in an extremist way continually going to extreme organisations such as Christian Voice to represent us. You only have to read here to get some idea of the organisation.
The route we choose will be vital in the coming years. It is because I think that the stakes are so high in terms of how we present ourselves and re-thinking mission that I am convinced that our highly relational, strong supportive community style of church is vital going forward.
The Anglican prayer book has as one of its statements in the Declaration of Assent about the Church of England the great phrase:
It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.
That is the mission of our church. We are called upon to keep looking at how we present the great truths of the Christian faith to each generation anew. it is not enough that these ways worked in the past. For each generation we need to find ways to make the Gospel understandable and relate-able to them.
We had some visitors at church yesterday who were coming to see what we were doing that was different from their church. I suspect that they wouldn’t want to do what we do. But if they can work out in their context how to share the love of Jesus with others. If they are prepared to sacrifice to do that and to welcome change in their context there remains hope going forward for the church in this country.
Change is not a one off any-more. It is not a going from the Book of Common Prayer to Common Worship. Change will remain constant for the foreseeable future. Yes, we need to bring people along with us. No it doesn’t mean that Jesus has changed. It does mean that we will continue to struggle and pray and plan how the Gospel is presented. Taking from what is ancient and what is new.
Christianity as it moves out of the era of Christendom has resources within it, and especially in the stories of Jesus, to cope with what is ahead.