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Leader comment: Why did the terraces fill up again, but not the pews?

by
09 December 2022

ANOTHER week, another round of worrying statistics. After last week’s news of the fall in numbers of professing Christians, the C of E statistics for 2021 have fewer worshippers, too. The first thing to say is that no conclusions can be drawn about long-term decline from this week’s figures. The pandemic effect was still all too clearly felt in October 2021, when the year’s attendance figures were gathered. Although Covid restrictions had been completely removed in July of that year, the C of E kept a residual warning going, and in early November again counselled caution in response to rising infection rates. It would be unfair, therefore, to expect church attendance to have bounced back instantly from the disastrous months of anxiety and alienation.

Or would it? The comparison of churchgoing with football has often been made. For many years, attendance at church often scored highly over attendance at matches. The fact that we no longer hear the comparison suggests that the balance has tipped. Be that as it may, it is instructive to compare the two sorts of weekly mass gathering. To keep things simple, who better than Stoke City, dependably middle of the Sky Bet Championship table? In the 2019-21 season, they finished 15th; in 2021-22, they were 14th. Supporters at Stoke are regular and loyal, and the club’s three league games in October 2019 drew an average attendance of 21,974. Two years later, October 2021, when churchwardens were diligently counting worshippers through the doors, a similar thing was being done at the Stoke turnstiles. Over the three home league games in 2021, average attendance was 20,848. Thus while church attendance (all-age average weekly) fell by 29 per cent, 2019-21, a typical football crowd fell by five per cent.

There are, of course, dissimilarities. Football is an outdoor activity; the outcome of each match is an uncertainty; a great part of the attraction is the spectacle (even at Stoke); and the experience cannot be reproduced at home in solitude. None the less, the comparison ought to worry the Church’s strategists, especially if the anecdotal evidence for 2022 is correct, and attendance remains depressed.

This might not constitute a crisis in faith: many aspects of Christianity can be accomplished at home. It is, though, a crisis for a Church modelled on corporate worship if this is now deemed to be conditional by those whom it seeks to attract. As many rural communities can attest, a church that does not meet becomes invisible and, in a very short time, ceases to function as a church. An elderly, vulnerable churchgoing population was always going to be more cautious about returning to weekly gatherings than were robust football supporters; but the eagerness to return exhibited by sports fans ought to have been at least as apparent in congregations, surely. Perhaps, for too long, too many churches relied on habit and duty. The pandemic blew those away. Now clergy and PCCs need to face the question honestly: why should people want to come to our church?

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