Friday 11 April 2008

Church — Six Buckets of Sick

Interesting Comment by David Keen on this week’s annual Social Trends figures for the UK. He’s also noted a growing number of Church leavers based on recent work by Richter and Francis. Like all social groups, churches face accelerating churn rates, some higher than others, with more complex and diverse reasons for dropping out.

The Barna Group researches American religious attitudes and practice. It’s Evangelical, with a high commitment to excellence and accuracy. Last year I read its serious work on the black hole opening up in 18-30 US discipleship demographics. Members of this age group, including those within the churches, report six overwhelming turn-offs about the Church:
  1. Hypocritical
    fuelled by some well-known scandals, there is increasing scepticism about inauthenticity among Evangelical Christians
  2. Too focussed on gaining converts
    Many people, including those who have been members of Evangelical Churches, feel they are not taken seriously as people, but rather prized as converts
  3. Antihomosexual
    Barna takes a Conservative line on homosexuality itself, but notes popular disgust at the way American Evangelical Christians appear to look down on gays and lesbians, with bigoted fixations about them. Simply announcing they are not bigoted does not dispel the overwhelming impression they are.
  4. Sheltered
    Old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality, with a preference for shallow solutions over searching spiritual and moral questions.
  5. Political
    Motivated by a right wing political agenda, including support for the Iraq war, and Conservative social policy
  6. Judgmental
    Swift to judge others, dishonest, and fixated on rules rather than people
I suspect there is significant difference in the UK, partly because the public face of religion is less protestant Evangelical, partly because UK politicians “don’t do God” and our right wing agendas are far more secular. However localised versions of these factors doubtless do turn people off Christianity in the UK — it’s worth reflecting which ones in particular, and how...

One thing’s for sure, bearing in mind recent discussions of church size. To the extent that people are accepted and respected as they are Churches seem to flourish qualitatively within their contexts. Pushy sectarian ones (whether they do it for “Evangelical” or Social clique-serving reasons) gather birds of a feather up to a point by being distinctive and driving hard, but plateau within a niche with eclcetic congregations along with a high and increasing churn rate. A small residual core of heavies reinforce their own sense of righteousness by ranting and bearing down hard on others, but with diminishing self-awareness on their way to the ghetto. The Crass utilitarian welcome and the tale their leavers tell says it all..


Tim Chesterton said...

Very interesting. I've not read the research in question (American statistics are usually of limited usefulness here in Canada - our societies are very different), but I would have a couple of questions:

1. When these 18-30 yr olds leave, where do they go? Do they stop going to church altogether, or do they move over to a different style of church?

2. Has anyone done similar research among Anglicans in the same age bracket? What causes them to get fed up and leave? And when they do, do they stop going to church at all, or do they join evangelical churches?!

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Tim, many thanks for two key questions. I don't know the Canadian picture at all, but it would be very good if somebody out there does.

From a UK perspective, the Barna work focussed on "born again" people in broadly Evangelical churches. The intro gives a good picture of how subtle and complex it is to do this kind of work well. The two facts with which they started were that there is lower take-up by that age group that was the case ten years ago and, worryingly, that when phase one of the research yielded the six negative perceptions, they were as strong and stronger in young people who were in the Church as outside — a kind of double whammy.

There may be some UK information in the Leslie Francis book I'm getting next week, and if so I'll say. I suspect the work just hasn't been done as rigorously this side of the pond, or North of the US border yours. Another very confusing factor here is that many UK Evangelical Churches are Church of England! I'd be really interested in Canadian work to describe how things pan out there...

David Keen said...

Alan Jamiesons 'A Churchless Faith' researched church leavers in New Zealand (I think), but from evangelical and pentecostal churches.

My copy of 'Gone for Good' arrived yesterday - the stats tables don't break things down by denomination, so it looks like you have to do quite a bit of digging around to find Anglican-specific information

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, David. I'm working away from base this weekend, but it sounds as though my copy of GfG will be waiting for me when I get home. I remember the Jameson NZ book, indeed I think it's still sitting in the hallway! Perhaps all these studies will reveal a certain similarity across cultures, in that they all refer to a young population which is post-denominational anyway; I wonder if Church of England leavers have more options of alternatives within the Church, and that skews things. It sounds as though we'll have to read the tealeaves as carefully as the tables in Leslie Francis' book. I anticipate more people leaving because it's not definite enough than leaving because it's too dogmatic... Well, let's see.

Tim Chesterton said...

I'm guessing that here in Canada location would make a lot of difference. For instance, if you were annoyed with ultra-conservative Anglicanism (not that we have much of that here!) and lived in a city, you could easily find a more liberal church. Those who were wanting to move in the other direction would not have so many options, as so few Canadian Anglican churches are 'evangelical'.

However, if you lived in the country (and remember that here in western Canada towns and villages can be fifty miles apart), you wouldn't have so many options and would probably (assuming you wanted to find another church) switch to non-Anglican.

But my limited observation would seem to suggest that a lot of people who leave churches do so because of interpersonal hurt, and that they don't find a new church but just stop going altogether. I don't have the statistics to bear that out, but the contacts I've had with former church members are certainly slanted in that direction.

Steve Hayes said...

I posted an article on an Anglican newsgroup that I picked up on another blog, as I thought it was an interesting example of effective evangelism.

I was surprised by the vehemence with which it was rejected by an Anglican in the UK and one in the US. They thought that the very idea of evangelism would drive people out of the church, rather than brining them in, and said that it sounded like an Anglican Taliban.

Are English Anglicans really as opposed to evangelism as all that?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Steve, thanks for the link to the Virtue Blog. Thing is, effective evangelism is very specific to culture — as the early Church showed in Acts. I knew a guy in Reading 20 years ago who did a 1+1+3 programme at one of the local free churches. I'm sure it helped all sorts of people. Church got to 200 and plateau'd. Have you tried it in SA? If so, how did you go? If not, why not?

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