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Mixed outlook ahead

31 January 2014

Attendance is certainly declining, says the veteran religion researcher Peter Brierley, but it is not all doom and gloom

IN ITS general forecast for the year ahead, The World in 2014, the editor of The Economist makes the sensible observation that "forecasts are as important as the decisions they inform."

Assessing what is currently happening, and what might happen as a consequence, is fraught with difficulty. But this was courageously tackled by the actuaries asked by the Church of England about future attendance. The First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, in the July 2012 General Synod meeting in York, said that forecasts indicated that numbers would decrease to half a million by 2030, and by 90 per cent of the 2007 weekly attendance by 2057.

Both those figures represent a severe decline (see figure 1, opposite) for the years to 2030, broken down by age. It is clear that reaching those aged under 30 needs urgent attention. It is against that background that we evaluate the stories of encouragement where quality evangelism and church growth are taking place.

Two elements are 90 per cent likely: first, the overall numbers will continue to decline; second, the percentage of those who are 65 and over will increase. While some denominations are growing, even collectively they are not as big as the Church of England, which represented a quarter - 26 per cent - of the total attendance in 2012.

The only denomination of comparable size - and, in fact, slightly larger - is the Roman Catholic Church, but it, too, is declining, not growing (except slightly in London). It is also equally clear that, while most older people continue to attend church while they can,the numbers of young people joining the Church are simply too few to replace those who die.

One conversion to four deaths is the broad, overall equation from the past decade. Within that broad context, therefore, it has to be asked: where, and for whom, is the Church growing?


THE Pentecostals are growing, largely because of the enthusiasm of black churches in urban areas. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, for example, started its first church in 1993. It is now the third largest Pentecostal denomination in the UK; it had 100,000 members in 2012, across 500 churches.

The Pentecostals accounted for 12 per cent of total church attendance in England in 2012 - double their percentage in 1990. They are especially growing among black church families, so among adults and children up to, perhaps, 50 years of age.

Immigrant churches are also growing, especially in London, where there are more than 200 of them. This phenomenon has not (yet) spread widely to other cities. The Roman Catholics have been especially strong in starting churches for the many language groups coming from Roman Catholic countries (which is why they are growing in London). These attract mostly adult immigrants, 60 per cent of whom are 20 to 44.3 years of age).

Some of the larger churches are growing, particularly in London, where young people in their twenties are fairly numerous, and twice as likely to attend church as in other parts of England. Why are these churches, many of which are Anglican, popular? Part of the answer may lie in their application of biblical content, contemporary and flexible models of worship, and a lively, outgoing congregation.

Fresh Expressions, under various names, are growing. The expected growth of Messy Church (see figure 2) is remarkable. Half of those who attend them are probably already included in figures elsewhere, but the other half are new, non-church, or returned-to-church people.

Half of the forecast figure for 2020 would account for five per cent of church attendance then. Sixty per cent of their attendance is adult; 40 per cent is children.

BETH KEITH, a Church Army researcher, alongside George Lings, has been looking at places that appeal especially to those under the age of 30. Most of these are partly, or wholly, outside established denominations. She describes them as follows.

There are "informal" churches, meeting "more often around the dining table than in the church building". These are small communities, reaching young adults who often have no prior faith or church experience.

"Church-planting hubs" are "contemporary services for young adults, organised alongside community based activities, with an emphasis on personal missional activities. These reach educated, middle-class young adults with a Christian upbringing, often located in student areas."

"Youth church grown up" are organisations "which began life as youth ministries. Ten years on, their members are growing up, but not connecting to other forms of church. They are considering how their church could become a place for young adults."

"Deconstructed churches" meet regularly, but not necessarily, on Sunday, and probably not in a church building. "They place a high value on community, with church practices based around meals. Prayer, thanksgiving, communion, and discipleship happen during the meal."

"Churches on the margins" reach "young adults marginalised by wider society, from non-church backgrounds. Many in these churches struggle with illness, mental health, addictions, suicide, homelessness, violence, and criminal activity. These churches focus on transforming lives, meeting together over food, and providing practical support."

"Context-shaped churches" have regular gatherings, not necessarily weekly or on a Sunday. While traditional elements of church, such as communion, teaching, worship, prayer, discipleship, and fellowship are evident, there is often no clear service, preaching, or singing. By using a range of spaces, these churches cross the sacred/secular divide."

THERE is also growth in other denominations, among the independent and new church sectors; but, because there are also closures, they balance out. The Orthodox churches are growing steadily, but represent a small proportion of total church attendance (one per cent in 2012). The Orthodox are especially strong with those aged 30 to 44.

And there is a further facet of interest in urban areas, where, while we cannot exactly observe growth, there is a much slower rate of decline than elsewhere. Taking towns at random, Luton had a church attendance of eight per cent in 2012, against six per cent in the rest of Bedfordshire; in Cambridge, the rate is seven per cent to five per cent in Cambridgeshire; in Macclesfield, nine per cent to six per cent in Cheshire; Carlisle, eight per cent against six per cent, and so on.

Such urban growth is not uniform or universal, but there is enough of a pattern to suggest that some churches outside London can have a significant impact, attracting more of those under the age of 45.

Weighing up these movements statistically is not easy. Figure 3 puts the percentage of churchgoers under the age of 30 at 20 per cent by 2025, and those who are 65 or over at 43 per cent. These percentages compare with 15 per cent respectively for 2025 in figure 1, showing that, when other denominations are taken into consideration, the future may not be as bleak for the Church of England as the actuaries forecast.

Peter Brierley is the founder of the Brierley Consultancy.

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