Scottish churchgoing sees dramatic fall, further decline predicted

A dramatic drop in churchgoing in Scotland has been revealed by figures in the latest Scottish Church Census, conducted in May 2016.

The census showed Scotland now has around 390,000 regular churchgoers, down from 854,000 in 1984. Around 42 per cent of these are aged over 65, around twice the figure for the general population.

Parishioners at Cardross Parish Church on the banks of the Clyde near Helensburgh release balloons, with a message of fellowship attached, at 8.30 am on Easter morning.Church of Scotland/John Young Media

The number of evangelical churchgoers is up at 35 per cent of churches compared with 26 per cent in 1994, while another third (32 per cent) were Catholic, with 16 per cent Broad/Liberal, 13 per cent Reformed and four per cent Low Church.

However, while numbers have continued to decline, the rate of decline has slowed significantly. Lead researcher Peter Brierley said in his analysis that the figures were 'better than expected' and that it was not a 'pessimistic story of inevitable decline'. Some denominations and regions have shown signs of growth, partly due to an influx of immigrants and partly to the growth of Pentecostal-style churches. Numbers attending midweek services are increasing.

Furthermore, while they were outnumbered by churches that closed, some 300 new churches have been started since 2002 attended by around 12,000 people. Brierley said: 'Many of the new churches have the characteristics of being led by local lay people, often without theological training, informality in worship, sometimes food, certainly a warm welcome, full fellowship, enterprise, borrowing of premises, with a deep concern for reaching out to others and making sure the worship service is relevant and in the appropriate language.'

If trends continue, numbers could fall below 300,000 by 2025. 

Reverend Colin Sinclair, Chair of the Scottish Church Census Steering Committee and Moderator of the Presbytery of Edinburgh, said: 'Whilst there are a number of challenges facing Christian churches in Scotland, including a broadly aging demographic and ministering in an increasingly individualised culture, these are similar challenges facing society at large both in Scotland and across Western Europe.'

He argued attendance at 'mass cultural activities', such as the cinema, was generally falling.

'Indeed, in an atomised society to be part of a formal community worship is unusual and countercultural,' he said. 'Yet, the fact that many people stay and frequent the same church for over 20 years is an indication of the stability they bring to a community. As well as being sacred places of worship, our churches act as hubs for the community to come together and provide vital social capital to the wellbeing of our society.'

The Church of Scotland referred in its response to 'green shoots of growth' in churches across the country. Rev Norman Smith, convener of the Church's Mission and Discipleship Council, said changes in working patterns, leisure activities and family life had all contributed to decline, as had increasing secularisation and the loss of family churchgoing traditions. He said the Church's response to the situation was 'not driven by numbers' but by the Great Commission of Jesus.

'The primary task of the Cchurch has not changed throughout the ages but the way we tackle that task continues to evolve,' he said. 'In the midst of decline you can find growth and in the midst of growth you can find decline. That is how it has always been.'

The census report contains tools to help congregations respond to the challenge of decline.