ONE third of Church of England churches run enquiry and “Christian basics” courses and two-thirds of these report that their courses are attended mainly by people who already go to church, new statistics suggest.
The figures have been collated for the first time at Church House, Westminster, in the Statistics for Mission 2018 report, published by the C of E’s Research and Statistics department.
Of the 13,003 churches that responded to this question, 34 per cent reported that they ran such courses (4400 churches). Of this group, 28 per cent ran courses that they had designed themselves; 28 per cent ran Alpha; 17 per cent ran the Pilgrim course; nine per cent ran Christianity Explored; and 30 per cent ran other courses, including Lent and confirmation classes.
Two-thirds (67 per cent) said that they were mainly attended by people who already attended church regularly. Ten per cent said that they were mainly attended by people who did not already attend regularly, and 19 per cent that they had equal numbers of church-goers and non-church-goers.
The Experiences of Ministry survey of 2011, completed by 2916 members of the clergy, found “an important association between the running of nurture courses and both forms of growth [spiritual and numerical]; growth is stronger when nurture courses are more frequently run.” Research by Dr Stephen Hunt published in 2001 found that 77 per cent of Alpha attendees were already churchgoers, although his sample size was small.
The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, who helped to develop the Pilgrim course (Features, 11 October 2013), wrote in a blog published on Thursday: “The hunger for purpose and meaning and love remains. Questions about life and faith are as deep as ever. Many people still pray, especially at great crises in their lives. But most people need more help to explore Christian faith in a way which welcomes you in and makes no assumptions about what you already know. . .
“There is a huge appetite to learn and explore. We may not be called to be a bigger church in this generation. But we are called to be a deeper church: helping beginners come to know Christ and be formed as Christian disciples for a life of faith and adventure.”
Overall, Statistics for Mission reports continued decline in most key measures of attendance — by between ten and 20 per cent between 2008 and 2018. Highlighting a graph showing numbers since 1960, it notes that “the trend over the past decade is consistent with what has been happening for the past half century.”
Average Sunday attendance has fallen by almost twice as much for children as for adults in the past decade: by 28 per cent, compared with 16 per cent.
Another new section this year reports that 25 per cent of a sample of 13,200 churches offered regular (at least monthly) youth-focused provision with young people aged 11 to 17 in 2018. In 80 per cent of these, it was run by volunteers, in 37 per cent by paid youth workers, and in 36 per cent by clergy.
Research suggests that the average C of E church has only three children attending, and the smallest 25 per cent have, on average, none at all (News, 20 October 2017).
This year’s report notes that the overall pattern of decline “masks differences in experience in individual parishes over the past 10 years”. In ten per cent of parishes, “Usual Sunday” attendance has increased; in 39 per cent, it has decreased; and, in half, there was “insufficient evidence to form a clear conclusion about the trend”.
Church House’s 2014 report, From Anecdote to Evidence, reported that, in the decade up to 2010, 18 per cent of churches grew; 55 per cent remained stable; and 27 per cent declined.
In a note attached to this year’s statistics, the head of Research and Statistics, Dr Bev Botting, writes: “There is no single perfect measure — churches are too complex and diverse for that — so I recommend that anyone using these statistics avoids focusing on one measure to the exclusion of all others.
“I also accept that there may be other measures that become important as new initiatives — including those funded through the Renewal and Reform programme — take root and bear fruit; we therefore need to continually review how we monitor the impact of new initiatives and understand better our Church in all its different guises.”
She also observes: “There are many other valuable and important activities in which churches are involved that are not quantified every year through the Statistics for Mission return.”
The report draws attention to questions about the reliability of self-reported measures. Churches reported 24,000 more people joining than leaving their Worshipping Communities over the course of the year; and yet the total Worshipping Community across the Church of England fell by 14,000 people.
“This highlights the record-keeping challenge the Worshipping Community presents, as well as suggesting that joiners are more noticeable than leavers,” says the report.
Worshipping Community is a figure supplied by churches asked to estimate how many people attend church regularly (once a month) or would do so if not prevented by illness or temporary absence. In 2018, this was 1.12 million, down from 1.14 million the previous year.
Churches reported that of this number, 20 per cent were aged under 18, 48 per cent were aged between 18 and 69, and 33 per cent were aged 70 or above. A 2014 Church House survey of congregations, Everyone Counts, suggested that only about 12 per cent of people in C of E churches were under 18, and almost 60 per cent were aged over 66.
Statistics for Mission suggests that the median (middle) size of a Worshipping Community is 42 people. Median attendance at worship in an average week in October was 32, the majority being adults. The largest five per cent of churches had 235 or more people in their Worshipping Communities. The smallest had nine or fewer.
In July, Church House acknowledged that it had “neglected” middle-sized churches of between 20 and 60 (News, 26 July).
On average, 871,000 people attended Church of England services and acts of worship each week in October 2018, down 2.7 per cent on last year.
A further 175,000 people attended services for schools in Church of England churches in an average week in October 2018, down by 11 per cent on the previous year but up from 126,000 in 2013. In total, over the decade, baptisms have fallen by 30 per cent, marriages by 33 per cent, and funerals by 29 per cent.
Attendance at Christmas was also down nine per cent in 2018 (compared to the previous year), having risen steadily since 2013 (News, 14 November 2018).
Churches report high levels of involvement with schools. A total of 44 per cent of responding churches reported that a member of their church ministry team led an act of worship in schools once a month or more during 2018.
An annual report from the Church House digital team, also published on Thursday, reported that its social media content was seen more than 3.6 million times each month and that the A Church Near You website had received more than 38.5 million page views in the last year. Of visitors to this site, 80 per cent were new.
The Alexa Skill resource had been asked 100,000 questions (News, 25 May 2018) and by the end of the year 2000 churches would have received day-long digital training.
The verdict from parish priests
The Revd Angela Rayner, Curate of St Margaret with St Nicholas, King’s Lynn
“I'm encouraged by Christians attending enquirers groups.We all need to review the basics to stay fresh. Enquirers' groups provide a place to invite friends. If they remain outward-looking, they can draw in people on the margins of our communities.
“At King's Lynn Minster, our study group is experimenting with facilitation. Our small-group leaders don't need to be experts in the Bible, just ordinary Christians prepared to learn. We're using good resources to give us confidence to ask new questions. We want everybody to know how to open the Bible and share their faith.
“Christians have to avoid making growth an idol; we are called to share the Gospel regardless of results. We trust that God will grow the Church in virtue, kindness, mercy, and gentleness, as well as adding to our number. I am encouraged by the Statistics for Mission because I think they highlight our areas of weakness. When we know we are weak, we can get on our knees before God. Through prayer, we share in God's life, and become excited about sharing God's love. The task of mission is immense, but it is God's mission, and our privilege to share in it.”
The Revd Dr Jason Roach, Curate at Christ Church, Mayfair and the Bishop of London's Adviser on Policy and Strategy
“I think that the general trend of decline is undoubtedly true. But it masks many other factors. I am privileged to do have done a lot of missional work both on housing estates and in the City of London. My observations over the last ten years are that many are spiritually hungry but more confused on the one hand and more wary of institutions on the other. Both these factors mean that it takes longer for people to move from a place of being positive about Jesus to anything like regular attendance at church. Three years is not unusual.
“In my work in estates, where regular attendance at courses is difficult at the best of times, I think a more useful metric is: ‘How many non-Christians each week are in relationships with members of the Church where Jesus is discussed? We aim for about 50. The Talking Jesus survey (News, 6 November 2015) revealed that one in five non-Christians would welcome a conversation with a Christian friend about Jesus. In keeping with this reality, I know that the focus in many Evangelical churches has very much moved towards encouraging dialogue with individuals rather than relying on crowds attending courses. A key context for this is hospitality. I’ve found that sharing life with people at various stages of their spiritual journey has been a powerful apologetic for the Gospel.
“In an age of increasing secularism, I also wonder if some of the decline partly reveals people who were nominal Christians, going along Sunday by Sunday because that was ‘the done thing.’ That is no longer the case. The future may lie in strengthening the convictions of those who do follow Christ, so that they might live distinctive lives and dialogue with winsomeness with those they find themselves connecting with.”
The Rector of St Mary, Nantwich, the Revd Dr Mark Hart
“The attendance decline continues at the same rate and no diocese is growing. Perhaps it's still too early to expect the Renewal & Reform programme to be making any difference. More likely, we will soon have to think more deeply.”
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