Researcher anticipates further church decline in 2010s

A leading church researcher today painted a gloomy picture of church attendance in Britain in the coming decade.

Peter Brierley, former head of Christian Research, told Christians at Pentecost Festival today that all the main denominations, except Pentecostals, would decline in the next 10 years, with the Church of England set to experience the sharpest drop in attendance.

In 2000 there were 3.5 million churchgoers, a number which has fallen to 2.9 million in 2010. He warned that if present trends continue, church attendance in Britain will drop to 2.6 million by 2015 and 2.3 million by 2020.

He painted a harrowing picture of the decline in attendance across English counties in the last 12 years. While in 1998, all but five counties in England had a churchgoing population of at least 6 per cent, today there are only 12 English counties with that figure and there are seven counties with a churchgoing population of less than 4.5 per cent. He predicted that almost all counties would have a churchgoing population of less than 4.5 per cent by 2020.

He said the drop in attendance had come about because there was less evangelism. While in 1990, there were 120,000 conversions and 60,000 deaths, in the last year there were only 80,000 conversions and 120,000 deaths.

He said the most alarming statistics could be found among young people. While 60 per cent of British people are not in the church, that figure rises to around 80 per cent among the under-15s and around 75 per cent among 15 to 29-year-olds.

“The loss of young people is especially serious. In the 2020s, many churchgoers will die out,” he warned.

With 59 per cent of all churches in England having no members between the ages of 15 and 19, Brierley said it was becoming as important for the church to keep young people already in the church as it was to reach new young people outside the church.

He also voiced concern about the number of 30 to 44-year-olds leaving the church, as the number of over 65s in the church continues to increase.

He said some people in the 30-44 age bracket were attending less frequently or dropping out altogether because of the pressures of modern living, which often means taking care of the home, raising children, and having both parents at work to manage the mortgage. The church, he noted was the only optional in the week, and was therefore the easiest to reduce in frequency or opt out of altogether.

“Today people are simply going to church far less frequently,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they are non-churchgoers – they may come once or twice a month or at Easter or Christmas – and it doesn’t mean that they won’t come back if invited,” he said.

Brierley suggested that churches hold midweek activities, as research indicates that churches with activities going on during the week have a higher proportion of younger people attending their Sunday services. He added that churches with more than one style of music were less likely to decline.

One area of the UK church not in decline, he noted, was the black majority church and other ethnic churches.

By 2015, around one quarter of churchgoers in England will be from non-white communities. He said many of these churches were growing because their members were inviting friends and neighbours of similar ethnic origin, but also because they were friendly and offered good sermons.

“People like their energy and relevant preaching. It’s forward and strong stuff sometimes, but it’s appreciated!” he said.

While Christianity is likely to continue declining, other religions in Britain will see growth, particularly Islam, with the number of Muslims expected to grow to 3 million by 2020.

He warned that ageing clergy posed another challenge to the main denominations, as research has found that ministers tend to attract congregations of a similar age.

“The problem is that the ministerial age matches the congregation but not the people they need to reach,” he said.

“Ministers tend to attract members their age so to attract younger people, you need a younger minister. Youth workers can’t do everything.”

He said that strong leadership, vision and friendly congregations were necessary to turn around the fortunes of Britain’s main churches.

He concluded: “There is so much mess and change but there is another element too. God is working his purposes out as year succeeds to year.”