Church up, Church down, Church ahead

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.

Anglican and Roman Catholic church attendance in UK for last 100 years

Anglican and Roman Catholic attendance

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.


9 comments on “Church up, Church down, Church ahead

  1. nig
    January 31, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    possibly this is the John Kent work you quoted from:

    John H. S. Kent. The End of the Line? – The Development of Christian Theology in the last Two Centuries. Pp. x+ 134. (London: SCM Press, 1982.)

    The date would indicate that it may well have been in the library where you studied- I’m not going to buy a copy to find out for sure, though!

    • Will Cookson
      February 1, 2011 at 8:29 am #

      I am impressed! Well done. Never read it and I’m never likely to but good piece of detective work!!

  2. Harvey Edser
    February 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    I tend to think the whole business of whether the church is in decline or not isn’t particularly important either way. Christianity’s never been primarily about numbers or institutions, and the Spirit is always at work both inside and outside the church. The end of Christendom will of course mean the loss of some of the perks and privileges we’ve got used to, but I think I’ll be very glad to see the back of it overall. 🙂

    • Will Cookson
      February 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

      Well first of all – congratulations Harvey – I just noticed that yours is the 200th comment on the blog! Of course its just a number! But numbers do matter.
      If numbers didn’t matter why is there an entire book in the bible called Numbers? Why are we given the numbers that Jesus fed (the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000)? Why are we given the numbers who converted on the day of Pentecost?
      Numbers allow us some idea of what is going on. Now numbers aren’t the whole story. But it is the excuse of churches that are dying and not trying to do anything about it – well its not the numbers its our presence that matters.

      What about the churches in the Middle East? They have been persecuted into virtual extinction in many countries.
      The numbers certainly don’t tell the whole story. Large numbers can mean that a society has jumped on the “bandwagon”. But the badly declining numbers in the last decades were just not taken seriously enough by churches until quite recently (and still not by some even now). It can mean that the church has not engaged with the culture enough. It can mean that it has confused culture with gospel etc etc. But numbers help us to reflect on all of this.

      • Harvey Edser
        February 2, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

        Yes, I always did think ‘Numbers’ was a bit of a naff book title. I do understand that numbers have a place and a purpose in the Bible, but rightly or wrongly those are the bits I tend to skip over when I’m reading. I’m not really a numbers kinda guy.

        Seriously, I do take your point that numbers can sometimes be significant, and statistics can tell us useful things – though equally they can also mislead and conceal (‘lies, damned lies and statistics’).

        Crucially, numbers never tell the whole story. They don’t explain. Why are the church numbers falling (or increasing)? Is it a genuine decline (or rise) in Christianity, or simply a change in the patterns of how people belong and worship? Are the figures part of a wider trend, or just an anomalous blip? The picture is always more complicated than the bare numbers suggest.

        And flattered though I am at writing the 200th comment, I don’t actually see what that tells either of us! 🙂

  3. Esther Somerson
    February 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    I was unsure of where to place this as it is not really a reply to your item, however, it does pertain to theology. I was delighted, following yesterday’s service, to be invited to an eccumenical gathering to hear Dr. David Wilkinson speak, along with what promises to be an evening of uplifting prayer in sung praise by a renowned choir.
    I purchased DW’s book ‘God, time and Stephen Hawking’ in 2001. You will probably know of him, both an astrophysicist & theologian. He facilitates the comprehension of science in his book with humorous cartoons and parallels, plus of course, the Bible. i.e. A drawing of a child with a telescope looking to the heavens ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are…..up above the world so high. A contracting ball of hot hydrogen gas!’

    • Will Cookson
      February 8, 2011 at 8:19 am #

      I have heard him speak. He is good. Even better is John Polkinghorne. He was a major physicist on the international scene. Master of Queens college in Cambridge and a professor of mathematical physics he eventually gave up to become an Anglican priest and writer. He has written a number of very good books in the whole science/ religion area. One of the more well known ones was quarks, chaos and christianity.
      Anyway enjoy listening to david wilkinson.

  4. Esther Somerson
    February 9, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    Thank you for your recommendation. I look forward to hearing what he has to say & I shall also look out for JP and his book. I do not know why but I have a strange feeling that I recently purchased a type of cheese for a new recipe and it was also named ‘quark’. It was a substitute for mascarpone. My ignorance of ‘quark’ and skewed logic wonders is there a connection with the moon being made of cheese ( you must excuse me – long day !) Science is not my strong point and it is thoroughly enjoyable when one finds a writer who makes it accessible to those of us who find its complexities difficult. (My science teachers were the most boring monotonous people.)
    I keep getting told off for reading more than one book at a time and have Jim Wallis’ ‘God’s Politics’ & Dr Esther de Beurgh’s ‘ the Mary Magdelene Cover Up’ currently on the go. DWs book is also prompting me to finish ‘Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’.


  1. Is religion about to become extinct? | Will Cookson's Blog - March 22, 2011

    […] that are going on and the way that the fall in church membership has largely levelled off as I reported previously. But I think that part of the reason for this levelling off is that some of these issues in this […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s