Fresh expressions bucking church decline

(Photo: Fresh Expressions)

Despite evidence of wider church decline, new research undertaken by the Church Army reveals that many churches up and down the country are in fact experiencing unprecedented growth thanks to fresh expressions.

That's according to the findings of their new report, being presented today at the Faith in Research Conference in London.

In addition to fresh expressions of church, the report details how attendance levels at more traditional cathedrals are also in good health.

The fresh expression movement aims to engage especially with those who would not usually consider attending a traditional church, and worship takes on different forms. Some fresh expressions meet in more unusual locations such as pubs or bars, though many use church buildings but take a more informal approach to services.

The new research shows that within the average diocese, fresh expressions make up 15 per cent of the total number of churches, and 10 per cent of the attendance.

An estimated 21,000 people attend fresh expression churches in the 10 surveyed areas of the 44 Church of England Dioceses, and 66 per cent of those churches are either growing in number or maintaining their congregation size.

These figures indicate that the changing landscape of religion in the UK means that churches are having to do things differently by adapting to the needs of their local communities – and it's working.

George Lings, Church Army's Research Unit Leader, said: "It was energising to hear the fresh expressions leaders talk about the growth they are seeing.

"The fresh expressions movement is very important for the future life of the Church of England and now for the first time we have harder evidence to back up that conviction."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby has agreed, praising churches for growing their congregations and noting that "there is every reason to be hopeful about the future of the Church of England".

Archbishop Welby has celebrated the work of fresh expression churches in the past for the way in which they engage with the un-churched.

"If the Church is to meet the challenges of today - not least those that are posed by government funding cuts - we have to have more people on the ground," he asserted, though he also noted that the establishment of new congregations must be well considered and always seek to further the Kingdom of God.

"If fresh expressions is not at its heart involving an encounter with Christ then I'm not remotely interested," he said.

This new evidence for the effectiveness of the fresh expression movement is no doubt an encouraging sign for the Church of England, with figures showing a significant fall in number of people in England and Wales who describe themselves as Christian. According to the last census, the number of believers fell by 4.1 million between 2001 and 2011, a drop of ten per cent.

"We are falling in numbers and there is a change in the attitude to the Christian faith generally across the country. That is unquestionable. We need to be quite realistic about that," the Archbishop told BBC Radio 4's Today programme in December, before commending fresh expression churches for "behaving differently [but] carrying the same message".

The research revealed today will also show that fresh expressions are incredibly diverse in nature.

"There is no one way to do them," notes the Church Army, perhaps indicating that their success lies in their adaptability.

On the other end of the spectrum of tradition, however, cathedrals are also reporting a season of growth, especially in midweek attendance.

Overall, weekly attendance has grown by a staggering 35% between 2002 and 2012, underlining the notion that different kinds of services are needed to appeal to the broad range of people in Britain.

"There is no single recipe for growth; there are no simple solutions to decline," notes Professor David Voas, quantitative sociologist of religion and Professor of Population Studies at the University of Essex, who was part of the team that carried out the research.

"The road to growth depends on the context, and what works in one place may not work in another. What seems crucial is that congregations are constantly engaged in reflection; churches cannot soar on autopilot," he stressed.

In response to this new growth from within different areas of the church, Archbishop Welby has commented that "the Church is – more than it has been for the last 60 years – demonstrating how essential it is to hold together our society".

He attributes the new growth to the grace of God, noting that everything is in his hands.

"God is faithful. He has shown that in Jesus Christ, and He shows that to us every day in our lives - and in the lives of our churches together. But He calls on us to be his feet, his hands, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, who listen to and serve and love the people around us, who above all witness to the reality of the love of Jesus Christ."

Church Army's research concludes an 18 month systematic and multi-method study into growth in the Anglican community, but Church leaders have promised to continue looking into how the Church can best serve its communities, and how it can continue to grow its presence across the UK.