FORMER churchgoers in Scotland are enjoying new forms of Christian fellowship, new research suggests.
The research, by Dr Steve Aisthorpe, a mission-development worker, on behalf of the Church of Scotland, is presented in a book, The Invisible Church, to be published at the end of April.
“I discovered that the number of people who attend church services are the tip of the iceberg of the total Christian community,” he said last week. “I found that changes in wider society, and in the practices of Christian people, mean attendance at Sunday-morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith. There is decline in Christian faith in Britain, but it is considerably smaller than previously assumed.”
Dr Aisthorpe suggested that Britain might be witnessing “a seismic shift . . . a movement from an affiliation to institutional forms of church towards new, less formalised expressions”.
He began his research in 2012 and 2013, exploring the experiences of people living in the Scottish Highlands and Islands — predominantly rural areas — who were not engaged with a congregation. Most were “deeply committed Christians who had been involved in some kind of Christian leadership”.
Thirty interviews were carried out with participants recruited through church leaders, articles in local newspapers, and social media. A 2013 paper on the findings cautions that “any more general conclusions are only informed assertions,” and refers to a later more expansive study involving about 400 people in these regions.
The paper, “Faith Journeys Beyond the Congregations”, refers to a “large and growing sector of the Christian community that is almost entirely neglected by the institutional Church”. This sector “remains largely invisible in the media’s comment on, and the public’s perception of, the Christian community”.
It is also under-researched, Dr Aisthorpe argues. No study to date has focused exclusively, he says, on people who are committed Christians but who do not regularly attend church.
The themes that emerged in the 30 interviews included the resilience of interviewees’ faith. Most described a sense of relief, and found that “their faith journey has been positively impacted by disengagement from the congregation they were previously a part of.” Most had developed “friendships or informal groups that have Christian fellowship as part of their purpose”. Several mentioned how the internet had aided this.
“It was a wonderful relief when I realised I was free to walk away from the churches in which I had tried so hard to conform, but wasn’t flourishing,” one participant said.
Catalysts for re-evaluating attendance included bereavements, health challenges, and home relocations. Sometimes this had been taken as an opportunity to “disengage with congregational church with as little stress as possible”.
While most interviewees cited some negative experiences as “push factors”, most implied that it was “a concern for missional challenges” which was decisive: “More and more time seemed to be demanded for internal matters, leaving less time to nurture relationships with friends outside the Christian community.”
Another recurring theme was that congregations were “very resistant to change”.
Several spoke about the “superficiality of the discipleship and worship”, and more than a third spoke of feeling “that they could not be themselves”. One had been told off for wearing a hooded top rather than shirt and tie. One of the main themes in conversations about leadership was “perceived poor handling of conflict”.
The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Dr Angus Morrison, said that the Church was taking heed of the findings by “investing money and resources in our pioneer-ministry programme, which is bringing our Church into the wider community”.