Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Lies, damned lies and church decline statistics

‘The UK church is in decline’: today’s truism. You’ll see it breezily stated by tabloid editors. You’ll hear it complacently croaked by Professor So-and-so and Doctor Doodah on Radio 4 phone-ins. It’s tweeted, Facebooked and blogged. It’s all over the media – often with that thinly-veiled, quasi-secularist tone: ‘We-knew-it-all-along-how-could-anything-as-silly-as-religion-last-in-our-superior-age’.

‘The UK church is in decline.’

And yes, the published stats on UK church attendance are – let us say – not encouraging for church enthusiasts. Not heartening for those of us who contend that the church just might be good for more than providing pretty buildings in which to tie the knot. Not promising for those of us who posit that Christian faith might just have something to say to the UK beyond the utterances of cranky, phobic, UKIP-at-prayer types. (Though, goodness knows, the media always seem to find airtime for these odious individuals. Not in my name, I wince at the radio.)

In 2005, just under 6 million people in the UK were members of a church. That figure was projected to decline by one and a half million to 4.5 million by 2025. In 2010, this rate of decline seemed on course. But now, not so, says the forthcoming second edition of UK Church Statistics.

Future First, a Christian stats newsletter, summed up the situation thus: ‘The rate of decline has lessened significantly and the membership levels previously anticipated for 2020 will now most likely not be evident till 2025’.

I grant you, this is not yet a reason to hang bunting from every spire between Land’s End and John O’Groats. We’re talking delayed decline, not sudden growth. But what interested me was the analysis of the reasons for this change of fortune.

The first was the increase in black and other immigrant churches (shh, nobody tell the aforementioned ecclesiastical right-wingers). It remains to be seen what lasting change this will bring to the spiritual landscape of the UK. Personally, I welcome the spiritual vigour such churches inject into our nation’s bloodstream, but am wary of modernist messages in a post-modern society – and alarmed by some of the (im)moral and (un)ethical messages I hear coming out of Africa. Subject for another post, perhaps.

Cartoon from Future First
But what particularly interested me was the second reason for arrested decline: ‘the increasing success of new gatherings often called ‘Fresh Expressions’, which is becoming a generic name for all kinds of usually fairly informal gatherings like Messy Church, pub groups or café churches, mission-minded churches...’.

Not decline, so much as a change of direction. Traditional church attendance is giving way to smaller, mission-minded groups meeting, befriending and helping people on their own turf, forming and fostering community, engaging with and salting their neighbourhoods? Sounds like good news to me.

Could it be, dashing those radio 4 secularists’ hopes, that the church has an ability to morph and adapt, to regenerate? (Christians’ word, that one. I reclaim it forthwith.) That the church may be inhabited by a creative spirit (indeed, by the Creative Spirit) that will not die?

I relate these thoughts to my own church experience. Our whole church, with its emphasis on community and engagement with society’s fringes, might be termed a ‘fresh expression’. Nevertheless, in our short (45-year) story, we’ve reached something of a hiatus. Growth has flatlined, our residential community all-too-often feels over institutional and is not currently attracting many new generation members. But missional, relational (why do so many current buzz words and in 'al'?) groups are springing up at our grassroots. They carry life and imagination. They’re growing (though rather less obsessed with measuring such growth than in previous times). They’re flexible and people-friendly. They are, I believe, the future.

But they’re not only the future. They’re also the past – no, not the halcyon days of the 1950s, when everyone went to church before their roast beef. I mean the ancient past, when the church met from house to house, and enjoyed the favour of the people, and shared with glad and generous hearts, and met in his house and her house, and multiplied greatly.

So don’t believe everything Professor So-and-so and Doctor Doodah say. The church has a future, even if it needs to shed some skins to get there. It’ll be about love, about people, about community.

There’s life in the old God yet.


n0rma1 said...

For instance: https://twitter.com/AndyHath/status/473423839570194432/photo/1

Aidan Ashby said...

"Even if it needs to shed some skins" Ha! Jesus talked a bit about wine and wineskins too.

Each renewal seems to renew one big thing. Luther's reformation brought us back to the content of the gospel (sola fide) but left church structures mostly untouched. The pentecostal/charismatic renewal revived the power of the gospel, but maybe a new reformation of how we 'do' church is on the horizon? Mike Breen seems to think so too: http://bit.ly/1pC9pMC

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of church is happening outside of structure, there is certainly an important place for structure, but we need to find ways of encouraging rites of passage and the development of sacred ritual outside of it too. My experience is that there is still plenty of belief around, but an increasing ambivalence towards institutions that are seen as irrelevant.

n0rma1 said...

How do you approach that situation, Simon, as a chaplain and church planter? What style of 'church' do you adopt?

Dave said...

Oh my word... I think you've got it. Perhaps you had it all the time. Wot a great post James, thanks.

O'rion said...

I don't go to church any more. It's too much of a business. The institution's foundation is a worldly business model, supported on the backs of its members. It expects people to come and visit the Jesus in the box every week and go through a bunch of rituals which are all a waste of time, energy and resources. It's a big production. I doubt the institutional church will ever completely die but I really don't think church leaders get it as to why people like me are leaving. The institutions dependency on money has corrupted theology and teachings for its own self preservation. Personally, when I listen to sermons online and ask the questions, "What is the point." and "Why are you preaching me this?" I find wrong institutionally supporting motives that are not exactly biblical and institutionally self serving. This is on the subject of attendance, membership, serving and giving. I'm not going back to church because of the institution that has pressured pastors to preach a corrupted message. So yea, people like me are leaving and not going back. The church can continue to experiment with other business model tactics but I see right through them. A person doesn't need the institution to be the Church