Church of England's digital reach grows as service attendance continues to fall

(Photo: Church of England)

Record numbers of people are seeking Christian contemplation and reflection through the Church of England's apps and social media platforms, but service attendance continues to struggle, new figures have revealed. 

Apps that allow users to pray the ancient 'Daily Office' of morning, evening and night prayer were used 4.2 million times on Apple devices alone in the last 12 months, up by 446,000 on the year before. 

In addition to the apps, millions more are engaging with prayers, reflections and other posts from the Church of England through social media.  

According to figures in its 2019 digital report, the Church of England now has an average monthly reach on social media of 3.6 million. 

The Church of England's Alexa skill, which was launched in May last year, has also proved popular, having so far been asked more than 100,000 questions by Christians and people exploring the faith.

Also out from the Church of England is the Statistics for Mission 2018 report showing that 4,400 churches are running courses like Alpha and Pilgrim to explain the Christian faith, and 3,200 churches, are regularly hosting youth-focused activities to cater for children and teenagers aged 11 to 17.

Despite the growing reach through digital platforms, the latest figures show that the Church has lost regular attenders at services.

The Statistics for Mission 2018 report reveals that on average last year, 871,000 people attended Church of England services and acts of worship each week, 2.6% lower than in 2017 when the figure was 895,000 people. 

While in 2017, the overall regular worshipping community at CofE churches was 1.14 million, this fell last year to 1.12 million (around 2% of the population), reflecting a wider trend of steady decline. 

Similarly, the usual Sunday service attendance fell between 2017 and 2018 from 722,000 people to 703,000. 

Numbers attending Easter and Christmas services at CofE churches - seasons which typically enjoy far higher turnouts - also suffered a slight dip in the same period, with Easter attendance falling from 1.25 million to 1.21 million and Christmas attendance dropping from 2.68 million to 2.42 million. 

The report said that factors like the weather and the day of the week on which Christmas Day and Easter fall could play into the figures.

Engagement with the Church's companion social media campaign for Advent and Christmas, #FollowTheStar, remained strong, increasing by 1.14 million to 7.94 million people in 2018. 

"The Worshipping Community of regular worshippers at Church of England churches has been almost unchanged from 2014-2018, falling by 2% over this period," the report reads.

"Over recent decades, attendance at Church of England church services has gradually fallen. These trends continued in 2018.

"Most key measures of attendance fell by between 10% and 20% from 2008 to 2018.

"The overall pattern of gradual decline in attendance masks differences in experience in individual parishes over the past 10 years. In 10% of parishes Usual Sunday attendance has increased.

"In 40% of parishes attendance has decreased. In 50% of parishes there is insufficient evidence to form a clear conclusion about the trend." 

Reflecting on the success of the Church of England's digital engagement, the Bishop of Ripon, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, said: "The digital figures show how people are using apps, smart speakers and social media to explore and engage in the Christian faith wherever they might be.

"Christians have been praying the morning and evening offices for centuries and it is inspiring that this is available through new platforms and devices to meet the way people live now.

"The significant uplift in visits to is showing the interest people have in attending churches for weddings, christenings, funerals, services and when travelling.

"The Church's digital innovation is enabling people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways that weren't previously possible alongside regular Sunday worship and at significant moments such as Christmas and Easter.

"It is also really striking just how many churches are running courses in the basics of Christianity. This shows a readiness to explore the Christian faith."

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, one of the founders of the Pilgrim course, said: "Questions about life and faith are as deep as they ever were. There is a huge appetite to learn and explore. Our churches are welcoming people in, offering courses that make no assumption about what people already know about the Christian faith.

"The sheer number of courses run by churches is a sign of how much people want to explore the big questions about the meaning and purpose of life. We are called to be a deeper church: a church that can help reshape the world."