Tuesday 13 April 2010

How many people go to Church

There’s a standard fish ’n chips dwindling congregations narrative for the Church of England. It’s almost childishly simple, and goes like this. Numbers of Churchgoers are falling rapidly and inexorably because:
  1. Most people used to believe in God and go to Church, but since the 1960’s fewer of them have done either due to the inexorable advance of something called “secularization” which means they get what they used to get from religion from science.

  2. (with spiteful glee for relish) the whole C of E is dwindling away because it's not Conservative enough. If it just held firm to what it was in the 1950’s it would be thriving like Churches in the Gobal South.

  3. (with righteous indignation for relish) the whole C of E is dwindling away because it’s not Progressive enough. If it just ditched everything it used to be in the 1950’s it would reconnect with people, like radical non-Denominational Churches do.
These last two points plainly cancel each other out, and probably go beyond strict statistical analysis..

Figures in Church have rarely been collected accurately. There is a varied pattern of some up, some down and always has been. I can only comment on what I see, on the basis of two or three Church registers most weeks from among our 288 congregations in Bucks. Discussing Church attendance with people on the ground, since I started giving any attention to the figures, has led me to question every part of the classic narrative above. Assuming the acuracy of the figures, they’re are all over the place. I’ve seen everythng from decline by up to a third, to a doubling of attendances across a large deanery since 2004.

The grossed up pattern, eliminating places with no return, goes a bit like this: serious general decline in the eighties, accelerating in the nineties, then bouncing along the bottom modestly in the early nougthies, with a modest rise across the board since mid decade. You can find individual examples of anything you like in there somewhere, but there’s no simple linear decline across the board, certainly not the way it was ten years ago.

The fact is that although total numbers of Churchgoers relate to total numbers of attendances, the two are not, in fact, the same thing. People drop out as well as drop in, so apart from the demographics of an aging population which is not replacing itself, churches are running up a down escalator anyway.

Recognizing the distinction, what people characteristically reoprt is that actually more human beings, sometimes many more, are coming to Church. However, the regularity with which they do so collapsed in the nineties (giving rise to rapid decline in many attendance figures), and has become increasingly volatile. Only a very few now come twice a Sunday and every week.

One kind of narrative, as reported: a church where thirty or forty people attended on Sundays ten years ago, but now there were forty or fifty, swinging between 25 and 75 depending on personal factors. However there had been one notable occasion in the past six months where three hundred had shown up for a particular service, not Christmas Day, where years ago the figures were under a hundred. This comes with a very hit and miss pattern of initiatives, most of which have failed to attract new people, but one of which was a spectacular success.

This implies a picture I'd be interested to see empirically disproved, in the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s radical advice “not to be afraid to see what you see.”
It feels like more people are coming to Church, but radically less often and in a far more volatile way. The grossed up result is thus unpredictable, but currently in Bucks, with the balance of everything, it’s gently growing (1-3% annually) across the board. Size of Church of membership is shrinking, but far more stable than that of institutions like political parties, with an increasing number of people acting like consumers rather than stakeholder-members. Meanwhile giving has risen dramatically over 20 years, along with vocations to holy orders — there are now more dog-collars in the county than in 1931 (thank you, Whittaker’s almanac), but a third fewer stipendiaries. Congregations are getting older in line with the national native demographic. Radically fewer children and young people are involved with Church on Sunday, and the Institutional Church’s prime point of contact with them is now through schools or not at all. The big wild card is globalization, and it’s interesting that the thirty odd Churches in our deanery that has doubled regular attendance 2003-8 may be experiencing “the London effect” — the more multicultural a congregation is, the faster it grows.
PS the picture is Counting Sheep by Karen Aune, available here.


Stuart said...

How refreshing and uplifting to read a challenge to the standard Church decline narrative.

I can now see that this narrative is potentially based on a woeful over-simplification.

Thank you.

Erika Baker said...

And still it seems “we” are talking about “them”, or we are analysing the patterns of those of “them” who more or less frequently chose to come to “us”.
It won’t work.
Like everywhere else in church life, things only begin to happen when we talk to each other.
It may of course already happen and be passing me by. Has there ever been proper research asking people about all aspects of their faith and how they express it? Has there ever been proper research asking about their experience with church or their perception of it?
Many of us who seem to have so many certainties about why people don’t come to church or don’t believe in God don’t even seem to have a credible number of non-Christian friends and if they do go out into the world it’s with an eye to converting people.
I’d like to see a genuine indaba process here that truly engages on an equal level and asks questions and listens to the answers.

Stuart said...

In fact, may I request permission to cross-post in full on our blog with a link to you.

No worries if you would rather not, I'll link to this anyway.

If you don't publish this comment then I'll know you'd rather not.



Benita said...

Thanks for the thought provoking blog. We are indeed in changing times with church attendance. The 'macro' evidence is that the rapid decline seen in previous decades has halted, and that we are now in a period of relative stability.

However, as you say, the nature of church attendance is changing and this can make the 'macro' picture misleading. The type of church census conducted by us at Christian Research in the past, which counted number of people on pews on a particular Sunday morning, would only give a part of the picture. It is still an important part, but we need to be thinking about overall engagement with the church - looking not just at different frequencies of attendance, but the various channels of engagement (including online). It's an interesting challenge for those of us researching the church.

As you point out, within the 'macro' there are many 'micro' stories of growth and decline. Growth is more evident when we do whatever we do (in terms of churchmanship) really well, and make it relevant. Of course, it's easier to tailor and be relevant the more defined the group you are communicating with (the case with ethnic minority focused churches?) - but then there is the danger of exclusivity!

In response to Alison Baker, at Christian Research we have a passion for asking and trying to find answers to the questions you raise. Our project at www.faith-journeys.com is one example of how we are trying to listen to and understand the ins and outs of faith journeys, learning about what encourages and discourages. I'm just finishing off an analysis of comments made about who discourages people most on their journeys of faith and how. If we all stopped and thought about how influential we might be on others journeying around us, in terms of both active and passive discouragement, then we might act differently. There is certainly a need to open our ears and eyes as well as our mouths!

Si Hollett said...

There's lots of factors at play - the cultural norm of going to church died out a long time ago, and the last generation to have that is dying out now as they get old.

High house prices exacerbate the older people problem in Bucks - in many areas, young adults are few and far between and this younger generation (18-30) is more interested in church than the generation above (30-50).

Busy lives and inconsistency has been mentioned. Suburbia (eg South Bucks) is really bad for that.

There's also the problem that wealth and possessions and so on give the appearance of fulfilment, so people in suburbia care less about things like church.

Add to that the European uniqueness - secularisation (which doesn't mean what you said it means, though the people that hold it may say something like that). Since the 60s there's been education from state, culture and media that religion doesn't matter, that practising it doesn't matter. The culture has, in the last few years, changed its stance to "religion is dangerous". Top that off with the post-modern ideal of not holding things tightly, and you can see that it is not the cultural norm to go to church, even culturally unacceptable.

You then have people realising that at liberal churches (which isn't the same as not not going back to the 50s) are teaching the same thing as a Zeitgeist, just 10 years behind. People realise that they can just look at culture/media and get the same things as the sermon and they don't have to go out on Sunday. The problem is simply that they don't have anything different to say and people would prefer a lie in, a round of golf, or something else than going to church.

As far as I know, the 'progressive' free churches that are growing fast are only progressive in style, in theology they are counter-cultural, holding on to the Bible, holding onto the gospel and (and this is the important bit) have it as central. They treat mission as important, so are reaching out to the world.

It is worth noting that outside of the generation that's dying out, things steeped in tradition, but difficult to get into (KJV bibles, BCP services, Latin choral pieces, organs) are lost on most of those under 30, if not 50. The beauty can be understood, but the substance is more tricky (and of course, hymn books are full of duff hymns that should have been lost to the sands of time, just as today's stuff is - some great, some OK, some bad. Worse still are tunes that don't fit. Add them together and you get the funeral dirge singing of hymns that were so full of symbolism that you had no idea of what you were singing, sung simply as the organist had a thing for late 18th Century hymns - like I had growing up).

I'd say that for a church to be growing it should reach out, but stay rooted in the gospel (and become so rooted in the first place if it isn't already). It should be trusting God, not cunning schemes to grow the church. After all, it's not about bums on seats - it's about making disciples, growing a nurturing people, bringing them into relationship with Jesus, getting them caught up in the love of God and having them born of the Spirit.

UKViewer said...

It is strange to me, when I hear church numbers are in decline.

I regularly attend any of the 5 churches in our Benefice, where attendance appears to be up, rather than down.

Even early Sunday BCP communion, has seen increasing numbers in recent months, despite losing one or two who have died or moved away.

I also go to other churches regularly as part of a vocation discernment and find their attendances appear to be stable or increasing.

Perhaps reporting is either flawed or not being used in the right way.

Sure commitment to institutional church might be on the wane, but I believe that those churches which are either Fresh Expressions or are closely involved and integrated into their communities are flourishing.

Is my experience isolated? I can only speak for myself, but I doubt if it is.

Erika Baker said...

Thank you for the weblink. It looks like an amazing project and I shall be investigating the site more closely. But on first glance it is not what I had been talking about, because it asks people about their Christian faith journeys.
What I’m interested in is the general man and woman in the street. Do they think about faith? Do they have any faith? How does it develop, what stimulates it, how is it expressed? Is it important to them? Is there a particular reason is is/is not expressed in a formal faith setting?
You know, really general baseline stuff.

And then, looking at Sy Hollet’s post, we should make a start at understanding our own various Christian groups better. I have been attending a liberal church for 15 years and I certainly do not recognise the description that it is just the same as secular society was 10 years ago. We may have different ideas of what it means to hold on to the gospel but I’m not terribly happy with the slur that liberals don’t bother with it.
My own prejudice would be that people are more likely to be put off by certainties and by the kind of traditional language that Sy advocates as the solution to the problem.
But his prejudice and mine are just that – prejudice. Because I, for one, genuinely do not know what about our package attract and what repels, or what attracts and repels which kind of person.

Steve Hayes said...

"the more multicultural a congregation is, the faster it grows"

So much for Donald McGavran's "homogeneous unit" principle of church growth!

Benita said...

The faith journeys project has actually been designed to be relevant to the 60-70% of the population who would at least nominally call themselves Christians. In time, given the right resources, we hope to expand the coverage to a much wider group.

My main motivation to be here at Christian Research is to conduct research with 'the general man and woman on the street'. We know that 3 in 4 people are looking for more meaning in their lives, and that they generally do not look to the church to find meaning. Most people do have a faith of sorts, and many pray but they do it in a vacuum - not many people are comfortable talking about their faith, and that includes a lot of active Christians.

It's a fascinating subject to research. There are people out there with needs, and at its best, the church can meet those needs. We need to find a way to bridge the gap, a safe place for people the two to meet.

We conducted a research project where we sent non-churchgoers into various churches to 'try them out'. At the end of a discussion afterwards, they said 'you have something very special in churches that ought to be shared, because people need it. Why don't you share it?' Why not, indeed!

Ann Memmott said...

When my team researched the stats for Oxford Diocese for the last few years, the most accessible churches showed the strongest growth in numbers, no matter whether they were big modern warehouse sorts or tiny traditional 'inaccessible' ones next to a farmer's field somewhere. Ones that put effort into announcing they are there for everyone find 'everyone' turning up.

Sometimes it's the most simple things that are overlooked.

Erika Baker said...

thank you for your reply. This is really good stuff - is your research published?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Friends, many, many thanks for opening this discussion up in such an interesting way — Stuart, I think you've got the key — stats don't get us anywhere, unelss we have some notion of what they actually mean, even assuming their accuracy (another question)

Erika, I often wonder what people make of a lot of what happens to them in Church. You're right — why don't we get to know them, and listen with respect to them as they are?

Benita, thanks for being part of this thread. Your Xn Research project seems to be asking the right question, and I hadn't heard of it before. When I get a moment in the next few days I will swing by your site properly. Qualitative awarensss seems more important than marketing ploys to swell the quantity of worshippers, I can see that.

Si, I agree with much of your local analysis. I can think of any places that exhibit exactly the demographic challenge you mention. fastest growing congregations in England have, of late, been Cathedrals and Black led... not sure how that squares with your other comment. I take ERika's point about that. For what its worth, fastest declining congregation in the Oxford diocese over past five years is actually (no names no packdrill) Charismatic Evangelical. Fastest growing two are Liberal Catholic and Village mixed-economy... but there are also one or two very fast growing conservative Evangelical parishes. By and large there isn't however a stong link between churchmanship and growth.

UKV, your experience chimes in well with that of others round here.

Erika, I'm with you, we need to understand faith journeys of people on the outside as well as inside of the Churches. It's funny how what repels one attracts another, but there are, I think, common community and focus traits about engaging "sticky" Churches.

Steve, I think the homogeneous unit approach is machine age rather than contemporary... shades of Si’s ten year overhang

Ann, I am sure you're right. A Church which is genuinely positive and accepting about people will grow.

I also want to exprress thanks to NZ Liturgy and Scott Gunnn for picking up this discussion and running with it elsewhere. Little did I know a simple head count would stimulate such helpful questions! Benita, Im following your project particularly closely...

Benita said...

Just back from hols, flew back yesterday with (incredibly) just a 15 minute delay!

Thanks for taking an interest in our project Alan. We are in the process of refreshing it at the moment, making it easier to join, to tell and share stories, and improving some of the reporting. We're hoping to have this ready in time for CRE in May when we'll be encouraging people to take part. The more people join the project, the richer our understanding will become.

Erika - it's too soon to publish anything formally, but we have started to release news on the Faith Journeys website and write articles for our bi-monthly newsletter (Quadrant).

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