With 400 fewer churches and a drop of 800,000 in the number of churchgoers since 2000, Dr Brierley said “keeping people has become as important as reaching people”.
He was speaking at Pentecost Festival, a five-day celebration of the birth of the church. The event, held in London last week, was put together by Share Jesus International in partnership with local churches and ministries.
While church attendance is falling, Dr Brierley said there were also areas of growth within the church nationwide. Black majority churches in particular are experiencing growth, especially in London where black people now make up 44 per cent of the churchgoing population in the inner city.
Commenting on their growth, Dr Brierley said: “I asked one black church leader why they thought the black church was growing so much and the answer was: ‘We put mission before justice.’
“They [black churches] are passionate, highly charismatic and focused on healing … We need to learn from them,” he said.
The number of growing churches also grew from 21 per cent in 1998 to 34 per cent in 2005, with the growing churches tending to be evangelical. He said smaller churches needed to work with the larger churches wherever possible through partnerships and joint schemes.
Dr Brierley went on to quote some challenging statistics, however. Although the general population has increased by two million since 2000, the churchgoing population has fallen by 0.8 million, and while 120,000 people new members were welcomed into the church 15 years ago, the number of people joining the church in 2005 was 80,000.
“Why are the numbers going down? That’s simple: less evangelism,” he said. “Have we lost our confidence in the Gospel?”
He added that the loss of young people especially was “very serious”, as the church now experiences more deaths than conversions. While in 1980, people under the age of 20 in the church numbered around six million, that figure has fallen to around three million today and is expected to decrease further.
Although research indicates that churches with some form of youth work do better at attracting young people, he expressed concern over the findings of the Resourcing Mission within the Church of England report in 2005 which found that half the Church of England parishes had no work among young people.
“Children’s work is critical for the future – and so are their parents,” he said.
The churchgoing population has aged considerably over the last 30 years, he noted, with the number of people aged 65 or over in 1979 making up 18 per cent of churchgoers compared with 29 per cent in 2005. With higher numbers of older people within the church, Dr Brierley urged churches to take better care of them by running special activities and events like grandparents’ days.
“The percentage of older people is increasing – fast!” he said. “Many of them are grandparents but as churchgoers they often feel unwanted and unappreciated by the clergy. The church needs to think about how it can use the giftings and experiences of the older people more. ”
Dr Brierley said, however, that the greatest weakness of the church today was “the lack of key forward thinking and strategic planning”.
He encouraged Christians to follow the example of Jesus who, even when faced with betrayal and death on the cross, planned ahead by telling his disciples that he would go ahead of them to Galilee.
“Remember, it is not by might or power but it is by My Spirit that the church will grow,” he said, quoting Zechariah 4.6.
“I believe that with a strategic plan, clear vision and of course the help of the Holy Spirit, the future does have a church.”