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Growth possible ‘if young can be wooed into staying’

17 January 2014


THE Church of England must stop losing teenagers and those in their early twenties, if it is to reverse the decline that threatens its existence.

This warning was delivered by one of the authors of a new report on church growth, based on research commissioned by the Archbishops and published yesterday. The three teams behind the research, based at the University of Essex; Cranmer Hall, Durham; and Ripon College, Cuddesdon, were asked to investigate the factors that might deliver church growth, in the light of a nine-per-cent decline in church attendance over the past decade.

On Wednesday, Dr David Voas, Professor of Population Studies at the University of Essex, who carried out some of the research, said: "A lot of people think of decline in terms of people stopping attending. The major factor underlying numerical change is that people never start attending in the first place.

"What we find is that parents who go to church are not bad at bringing along their children. The really crucial point is when they can start making their own decisions, and stay at home if they want to. At the age of 14 or 15, children start to get a little bit rebellious, and are capable of looking after themselves.

"Another key point is when they graduate to young adulthood and leave home. Again, they are confronted with this choice: 'Will I continue down this line?'"

Professor Voas suggested: "The religious practice and identities people have in their mid-twenties tend to stay with them through the rest of their lives. If you lose them in their early twenties, it can be very difficult to get them back."

Data in the report suggest that 1.4 per cent of those aged 20 to 24 attend a C of E church once a month or more often. The percentage rises in every subsequent age-group, to 13.8 per cent in those aged 80 and above.

Besides studying data collected by the Church of England, the researchers developed a profile of growing churches, based on a survey of 1700 respondents.

The research found that growth happened in the most formal and informal settings. Cathedrals grew by 35 per cent between 2002 and 2012, although 74 per cent of newcomers came from other churches. At the other end of the scale, a study of ten dioceses by the director of the Church Army's Research Unit, Canon George Lings, found that about 21,000 people attended a Fresh Expression - the numerical equivalent of a new, medium-sized diocese from those ten dioceses alone. "Nothing else in the Church of England has this level of missional impact," Canon Lings said. Conversely, amalgamated churches were most likely to decline.

The report emphasised that there was no "single recipe" for growth. But Professor Voas warned that "churches cannot soar on autopilot." Factors "strongly associated" with growth in churches of any size, place, or context included good leadership, a clear purpose, and "being intentional in prioritising growth" (see graphic). Only 13 per cent of clergy surveyed had chosen numerical growth as their "top priority", although Professor Voas cautioned that those not experiencing growth might have been more tempted to select a different priority.

But he argued: "The churches that are not doing so well are those that have just stagnated in worship and activity, and have not really tried to reflect very much." He warned that, for some, the change needed to reverse decline would be painful.

"If you think about it, an awful lot of people who go week in week out do not have strong incentives to change," he said. "They are probably content with the way things are, and, from their point of view, bringing in lots of new people could actually be somewhat destructive. New people might want worship to be done in a different way . . . or might be seen as taking responsibility away from those that currently hold it. I don't think anybody is going to say deliberately, 'I don't want my church to grow', but I don't think on a conscious level they are quite aware of their own disposition to change."


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