*** DEBUG END ***

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

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?

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)