The Church of England's Statistics for Mission report is rather more interesting this year than such things often are. This is because alongside the usual doom and gloom – which is certainly there, with further falls in weekly attendance by adults and children – there are other indications that the trend is not all one way. Figures for the 'Worshipping Community' – a wider category for those who attend some kind of service at least monthly – have actually risen slightly and have been stable for the last three years; while Christmas attendance keeps on rising. Social media engagement has doubled, too.
It would take a quite extraordinary amount of optimism for anyone to feel actually cheerful about what's revealed in the Statistics – since 2007, average Sunday attendance in CofE churches has fallen by a whopping 15 per cent. And that's just the adults: for children, it's 24 per cent.
Nevertheless, the CofE has some advantages that might yet pull it through. Here are a few of them.
1. That 'Worshipping Community' figure is quite significant. While it may include people who used to go every Sunday now going less frequently, it may mean more people are coming within the Church's orbit and exploring the edges of faith.
2. More people at Christmas is a good thing. Perhaps it's because of high-quality services at cathedrals or other 'beacon'-type churches, or perhaps there's a quiet revolution against the tawdry commercialism of the season. When merchandise appears in October, it's time to take to the barricades.
3. It's also a good thing that the Church is doing so much more, and more creatively, on social media. It's the Church's shop window, and the encouraging signs might be because more people are buying.
4. The CofE has around 16,000 parish churches. At one level that is a monstrously heavy administrative and pastoral burdern. At another, it's wonderful, because they are – at least in theory – widely accessible. If someone's looking for God, Google Maps can help.
5. It's also a very broad church, unlike more monocultural denominations. Not far from me there's a church offering an early morning Prayer Book service. Also not far is a church where any kind of book is seen as hopelessly out of date; pixels rule. And this is important, not just in terms of styles of worship but in terms of the whole philosophy of church. Is it ultra-inclusive, focusing on non-judgmentally 'welcoming everyone'? It may be so vacuously content-free that there's nothing actually to belong to. Is it more 'sound', teaching the Word and making it very clear who's in and who's out? It may be building walls, to keep the insiders in and the insiders out. But different people need different things at different stages of their lives – and one or other CofE church is likely to be able to provide it.
And it's this variety of expressions of the CofE that might – alongside a seriously thoughtful attempt to retain its children – save it yet. Because any attempt to define 'what people want' from religion, as though it's just one thing and all we have to do is identify it, create a template and impose it 16,000 churches – will fail. Not everyone wants 'community'. Not everyone wants 'intimacy'. Not everyone wants 'to feel loved by God'. Some are perfectly happy in the 17th century, others want to be a little more up to date. Some want to 'get stuck in to evangelism'. Others want to light a candle or listen to a fugue. No doubt everyone needs to be challenged to be better than they are, and perhaps different; but wise pastors will work with the grain of congregations and individuals, rather than against it.
In the end, it is the small stories that will renew the church, of whatever denomination, rather than the grand designs of ecclesiastical strategists. The best they can do – and it's a very necessary best – is to give churches the tools and let them get on with the job.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods