What we should do about the decline in church attendance?

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 08.16.45This is the text of an article I wrote for Premier Christianity blog last week.

New figures have been released showing that attendance at Church of England services dropped below 1 million for the first time in recent history in 2014. Although the figure is a little arbitrary (not least because the population of the country is changing), it seems to many like something of a landmark.

Before jumping to too many conclusions, there are some details worth bearing in mind. Firstly, there has been a change in the way that the figures are calculated (measuring attendance is more complex than you might imagine), and so the change from the previous figures (of 2013) is probably not that significant. The more important issue is the trend—which does appear to be continuing downward, as it has for the last 100 years.

Secondly, it is worth remembering that this measure is of Sunday attendance. One commentator (in the Spectator) scoffed at the idea of including attendance at weekday events—but with changing patterns of work, and more and more other things happening on Sundays, midweek events in churches are becoming increasingly important.

Thirdly, as recent analysis in the Economist has highlighted, it is no longer realistic (and hasn’t been for some time) to measure the Christian presence in our country by looking at Church of England attendance alone. The C of E remains the largest single denomination, but ‘new’ churches and Christians amongst the immigrant are growing in importance in the national scene. Alongside this, the shape of the Church of England is also changing; as one person put it, ‘We are not seeing the end of Christianity in this country, but we are perhaps seeing the end of nominal Anglicanism.’

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that there is nothing sudden about this decline—it is part of a long, complex process in the context of massive changes in British culture. And it is part of Western secularisation; church attendance is diminishing in every part of the wealthy West. There are profound changes taking place in the way in which British people are thinking, believing and behaving, and no-one really knows where this is leading.

So what should be done by the church? There is a strong voice arguing that we need to close the cultural and creedal gap between Church and culture. The Church is out of step with society (so the argument goes) and that makes it harder for those outside the Church to take it seriously. The main problem with this approach is that all observers are agreed that, in important ways, contemporary culture is ‘less Christian’ than it has been in the past. So keeping in step with culture is never going to be a long-term solution.

Within the C of E, there is a push to make better use of management decision-making in thinking about planning, training and selection of leaders, and strategy. That’s probably not a bad idea. One of the greatest challenges facing the Church is the decline in clergy numbers, and that has come about through not much more than very poor planning. But this approach on its own is mostly about avoiding mistakes rather than delivering growth—you cannot treat the Church as if it were a religious retail company.

Others think that there is good grounds for focussing on the distinctives of Christian faith. Historically, the church has grown when it stands out from society, rather than blending in. So, the argument goes, we shouldn’t really be concerned about how others see us or whether we are being ‘effective’. We should simply focus on being what God called us to be, and trust him to do the rest. Perhaps we should even stop analysing attendance figures at all.

But this raises two problems. First, didn’t Jesus say ‘I will build my church’? If we are not growing, if we are not reaching people with good news, then something has gone wrong somewhere. And taking notice of numbers offers important feedback. Christians appear to be as good as anyone at deluding ourselves and avoiding facing up to reality—and taking a good long look at the numbers gives us reality in spadefuls!

Healthy plants grow—they cannot help it. They don’t need to be told to grow, but they do need help to keep healthy. If we are not growing, then it is important to ask whether our churches are as healthy as they should be. In the first days of the church, the believers met together, attended to the apostles’ teaching, shared their lives together, blessed others, and when asked gave a good reason for the hope that they had. Strategies, planning and management techniques will have their place, but I am not sure much will change without our practising the same things as these early followers.

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20 thoughts on “What we should do about the decline in church attendance?”

  1. I think there is a shedding of nominal believers which has been taking place for many decades, and, as you say, many elements of the church outside Sunday morning CofE congregations are actually seeing growth inc midweek congregations, black and minority ethnic churches, fresh expressions of church and even cathedral congregations.
    Thanks for your thoughts. I am posting a link to your piece from my blog too.

  2. Ian,

    I think that there’s a way, without sacrificing creedal integrity, for us to close the needless cultural gap which exists between the CofE and the communities it is pledged to serve through Christ.
    The recently released findings of the Everyone Counts 2014 Survey reveals a Church in which attendance is largely unreflective of the wider society’s ethnic composition. This glaring disparity is especially pronounced in city and conurbation areas. In the latter, the Church’s proportion of ethnic minorities (~17%) is just over half what it is in the wider community (~32%).

    In keeping with previous research, the survey also reports that the average age of Anglican churchgoers varies from 53 in cities to 58 in towns, So, I’m not surprised to see both youth and ethnic minorities either looking elsewhere for spiritual nourishment.

    A shameful 3 percent of clergy is drawn from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. General Synod’s minority ethnic representation isn’t much better. In fact, the current ethnic and age composition of the CofE has become the infrastructure which supports a cultural hegemony born of unconscious racial bias. Modern and diverse British communities have no truck with an ethos which smacks of neo-colonialism and is very much at odds with their values and priorities.

    This ethos, which patently refuses to discern significant spiritual calling of participation, representation and ministry among ethnic minorities, is far more responsible for declining attendance than the shedding of nominal believers. Why attend a church which finds it difficult to identify among our number, those who are ‘who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3)

    If the CofE wants to improve attendance, it’s up to every vicar, PCC, lay member and DDO to answer (or refuse) the urgent call to diversify its outreach and ethnic participation.

    For the CofE, the modern-day equivalent of the Holy Spirit’s cry to ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us!’ remains a hitherto largely unanswered plea.

    My hope and prayer for the CofE is that these damning statistics will change for the better; that clergy and laity alike will take personal responsibility for emulating St. Peter’s miraculous realization: “how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right..(Acts 10:34, 35)

    • David

      Although I completely agree that the CofE should be a church that is inclusive of non-White people, I think we also need to recognise that many of these -a higher proportion than white people- people are Christians, they are just going somewhere else.

      is it right to try to attract Christians away from other churches to bolster the CofE’s numbers? I know that is not what you were saying, but I think the priority should be to outreach to people who do not yet know Jesus – including/especially non-White people.

      • Pete J,

        I can take a response straight out of your play-book

        To paraphrase your argument: ‘although I completely agree that the CofE should be a church that is inclusive of LGBT people, I think we also need to recognise that many of these -a higher proportion than straight people.. are just going somewhere else (Quakers, URC, etc.)

        is it right to try to attract LGBT Christians away from other accepting churches to bolster the CofE’s diversity?’

        You can work out the rest, can’t you?

        • David

          You are misunderstanding what I am saying and you have taken a partial quote out.

          I fully agree with racial equality and making the church a welcoming environment for all, especially those currently underrepresented.

          I was merely making the point, perhaps clumsily, that because non white people are underrepresented in the CofE does not mean they are not Christians! I think we should be in the business of growing Gods church – ie all of it – not growing the CofE. If a gay person defected from the URC to the CofE that might be great for their personal spiritual life etc, but it isn’t growing the church.

  3. David’s comment is occasioned by the neglect of evangelism. IE the sharing of the Good News with people outside of the church, Even when “evangelism” is “taught” the emphasis is still almost entirely on reaching people within the existing social groupings of church members. Count the percentage of job adverts for “Evangelist” to get the message clearly.

    • Paintingman,

      I couldn’t agree more with your insight on CofE ‘evangelism’ and I wish there were more people who felt able to speak as candidly as you have on this!

      you know, I’m as ready as anyone else to say what the church has got right. However, I find this neglect and even the relative paucity of response to my comment here inexcusable.

      Despite this, I’m aware of the tacit justifications that will encourage connivance at this disgrace: from the tough funding decisions that prevent the Church from doing as much as it would like; to the notion that the spiritual needs of minorities are probably better served by newer churches, where people of my persuasion/extraction/ilk (?) predominate; to the importance of aligning the Church’s mission with the current ‘ethos’ of each parish.

      The thing is that the early Church had far more than all of these issues to deal with…and coped. A far stronger dose of yielding to the Holy Spirit would be just the right remedy for current cultural inertia and apathy!

  4. Imagine if we were butterfly conservationists monitoring the wellbeing of the Adonis Blue on the Surrey Downs. We would pick three sample sites, for example Denbies Hillside, Hackhurst Downs and Newlands Corner. And before we do anything else, we will sit down in the pub, sometime in March, and make sure that the chaps counting at Denbies Hillside and Hackhurst Downs are using the same methodology as the girl counting at Newlands corner.

    Now suppose we find in 2016 that the Adonis Blue is up +500 at Denbies Hillside, down -300 on the Hackhurst Downs, and up +200 at Newlands Corner. Then we will say that Adonis Blues are up +400 in the Surrey Downs as a whole – a good year.

    Now, if we want to know the progress of the Jesus movement, first we will pick some sample groupings, eg Independent churches, Anglicans and Catholics. And before we do anything else, we will sit down together to make sure that the people who do the counting are using the same methodology as each other. And now suppose that in 2016 we find that the independent churches are up +50000, the Anglicans are down -30000, and the Catholics are up +20000. Then Jesus is up +40000 – Hallelujah!

    But will we (Anglicans) say Hallelujah? No, we won’t. Partly because of the -30000. But mainly because we never really believed in our hearts that the Independents and the Catholics are batting for the same cause, and so we never bothered to sit down with them in advance to coordinate our efforts, and therefore any consolidated ‘result’ is meaningless.

    Jesus said ‘I will build my church.’ He didn’t say ‘I will build my churches.’

    • Jamie,

      (Following on from your analogy,) You may be aware that the Arch-lepidopterist of Butterfly Conservation, England convened an extraordinary general meeting in 2013 to debate a tabled motion to address the perceived decline in Hackhurst Downs and propose a way forward.

      Reps from Denbies and Surrey Downs claimed the problem was blown out of all proportion). however, it was put to vote and to address the matter a Working Party was commissioned to conduct a two-year study of butterfly populations throughout the country. Its 2015 report, which was laid before last year’s AGM, revealed that, while climate change continues to pose considerable threat to the survival all species, there remains much cause for optimism, citing those regions which you’ve mentioned.

      The Working Party also made 23 specific recommendations, including an initial capital injection of £2.5M and annual funding of £100k to establish a proposed Butterfly Research facility (the Chrysalis project) with a promotional web-site and phone app for improving information sharing among members across all regions.

      When last I heard the debate on these recommendations had been shelved until 2018,…owing to the considerable backlog of other conservation business!

  5. “Historically, the church has grown when it stands out from society, rather than blending in.”

    The church has always been shaped by surrounding culture, from the early church incorporating neoplatonism, to adopting pagan holidays and language, to dropping its pacifism as soon as a Roman warlord took up the faith. Yes, it’s benefited from distinctive elements, but only elements.

    And, of course, the church’s most effective tool was coercion. Christendom wasn’t voluntary. From the 4th century on, people didn’t have a choice. This was only dropped when, in the wake of the reformation, the bloodsoaked wars of religion made the cost too high.

    Churches need to be selective about cultural change, based on its merits. There shouldn’t be a blanket approach to “culture.” Few if any are suggesting that churches need to incorporate every aspect of contemporary culture, such as neoliberalism (although ironically, management techniques are particularly popular among evangelical leaders who preach about resisting culture!), but when it’s a justice issue, such as gay rights, or gender equality, for which the reasoned arguments against are extremely weak, cultural change shouldn’t be dismissed just because it’s new.

    • ‘cultural change shouldn’t be dismissed just because it’s new.’

      Agreed. Yet, while gender equality is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. LGBT organisations have yet to make a case for granting the full rights of marriage to same-sex couples, rather than civil union recognition.

      Even if civil unions are recognised in 26 of the 50 EU states, same-sex marriage per se is only granted in ~13 of them. And the distinctions are primarily in respect of parental

      So, perhaps, the CofE will accept such cultural change, once a rational argument succeeds before the ECtHR. One that displaces the distinction recognised by that Court that marriage differs from all other forms of civil union recognition by being ‘geared towards the fundamental possibility of parenthood’.

      Of course, I understand the desire, despite this key difference, of same-sex couples to participate in the emotional resonance that marriage holds.

      As one writer put it:

      ‘Marriage represents a form of inclusion within society belonging to a cultural group and buying into values seen as respectable and acceptable.’

      ‘The language of marriage carries a social weight that civil partnership does not.

      Yet, for all the semantics in the world, many will remain unconvinced by the sheer sophistry which would even seek to pass off what everyone knows to be a bicycle as a two-wheeled car!

  6. The church has been in decline my whole life. Hardly any of my peers go to church. The only way to turn it round is evangelism, pastoral care and discipleship. I also think it would be a good idea for churches to put effort into understanding why people are leaving. I suspect most of the decay is due to death, but the EA released a report recently suggesting – I think – about a quarter of all young Christians had had to leave a church because they were hurt. This sort of thing seems fixable!

  7. Oh and I think decline has nothing to do with cultural differences since the cultural differences will only impact a tiny minority of the population.

  8. I like James Byron’s middle paragraph. It explains the comment that “Europe has NEVER been evangelised”. We need to make a start BUT there is a huge paucity of genuine Christian experience. Even leaders can’t pass on an experience that they never had (so we have teachings like dispensationalism and cessationalism.) Fortunately there is now a rise of experience of signs of God’s kingdom as well as rediscovery of Bible teaching which supports this.

    • Paintingman,

      Again, spot on. DDOs and Bishop’s Advisory Panel expect candidates, among other things, to be able to:
      ‘Show a personal commitment to a relationship with Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord’

      ‘Have an understanding of, and a commitment to, the key beliefs of the Church as expressed in the scriptures and the creeds’;

      ‘Talk about Jesus Christ and the good news of the Kingdom in a way that is exciting, accessible and attractive’

      ‘Communicate well in language which people with different levels of knowledge can understand.’

      Perhaps, these panels could learn a thing of two from the hallmarks of faithful ministry in the NT:

      Full of the Holy Spirit:
      ‘Full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom’ said of the deacons (Act 6:33);
      ‘full of the Holy Spirit and faith’ said of Barnabas (Acts 11:24)

      Fearless of personal cost in declaring the uniquely glorious person and salvation of Jesus Christ:
      ‘men that have hazarded their lives for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 15:26)

      Devotion to the teaching and fellowship established by the apostles:
      ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ (Acts 2:42)

      Gifting to refute error invincibly:
      ‘But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.’ (Acts 6:10)

      Demonstrable ability to pass on apostolic doctrine faithfully:
      ‘And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.’ (2 Tim. 2:2)

      Commitment to put apostolic doctrine into practice: ‘Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice.’ (Philippians 4:7)

      Demonstrable commitment to maintain the purity of apostolic doctrine:
      ‘in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified’ (Tit. 2:7)

      Quite a contrast really!

      • Sorry this is a bit of a tangent. I looked up the last verse of yours because the word “doctrine” jumped out at me – im not used to seeing that word in the bible. Do you mind me asking which version you are using?

        The KJV is similar to yours which makes me think you might be using ASV, for example?

        A lot of the other translations are nearer to the NIV which says

        Titus 2:7 In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness

        So it is interesting how different translations can influence a different theology.

  9. Pete J,

    The quote was from the New American Standard Bible.

    The phrase, hygiainouse didaskalia, translated sound doctrine in the KJV, is used extensively by St.Paul: 1 Tim. 1:10; 1 Tim. 4:6; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3; Tit. 1:9; Tit. 2:1.

    It appears quite incongruous that the NIV translates the word, didaskalia(s), as teaching, in 1 Tim. 4:6 and, as doctrine, in 1 Tim. 4:16. But, perhaps, Ian can elucidate here.

    St. Paul’s intent in using the word is demonstrated in all of the above quotations. For instance, he states: ‘We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.’ (1 Tim. 1:9,10)

    Perhaps, the clearest explanation of why didaskalia means doctrine (thereby connoting binding instruction with divine authority, instead of just teaching) is when in Matthew 15, Christ harks back to the Isaiah’s denunciation of the Jews, while predicting Jerusalem’s first destruction (Is. 29:13).

    He rebukes the Pharisees and scribes for criticising His abandonment of their self-styled unscriptural rituals of hand-washing.

    Christ challenged their rule of Corban (vowed to God), by which Temple donors could reduce their exposure to the claims of their parents for relief to which the latter were divinely entitled (5th commandment and Ex. 21:17).

    The KJV renders the Septuagint passage from Isaiah: ‘“?‘You hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, These people draw near unto me with their mouth, and honour me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’ (Matt. 15:9)

    The Pharisees were imitating the Jews of Isaiah’s day in demanding that their human regulations (entalmata anthropon) should be imposed with divine authority (didaskalias).

    The inference is clear. More than just teaching, didaskalias in St. Paul’s writings connotes divinely authoritative apostolic instruction.

    This is an interesting and welcome ‘tangent’!

  10. What is interesting about your response as well is that you interpret the two translations differently to me…so then that is four slightly different meanings from one text.

    I was interested in the difference between “purity” and “integrity”. Purity seems to put an emphasis on tradition whereas integrity seems to put an emphasis on truth.

    ((as I understand it the 20th century American Standard translations tend to follow the KJV whereas British equivalents and NIV etc do not. Im interested in how this has shaped subtle differences between British and American theology e.g. American theology seems to be big on being against “fornication” and this term is even used in secular TV, yet in the UK I doubt many ordinary people would be able to tell you what it meant.))

    • Pete J,

      It would be worth explaining your own exegesis. Nevertheless, whether translated as ‘purity’ or ‘integrity’, the word aphtharsian literally means incorruptible and is used to describe eternal resurrection. It therefor refers to teaching which is of imperishable worth due to its consonance with the eternal gospel, as revealed through Christ and His apostles.

      As Christ said: ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away’. Matt. 24:35

      • Thanks.

        Im not really sure what you mean by “explain my exegesis” so sorry about that.

        From your explanation of the Greek (thanks) I think “doctrine” is a better word, because it seems to me this is about core gospel messages and not, for example, about whether it is “OK” to get a tattoo or not. It is unfortunate that the phrase “purity of doctrine” has negative connotations of legalism (at least for me)

        But it also seems that “integrity” would be better than “purity” and then “integrity” and “doctrine” don’t really go that well together.


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