Pulling out of the nosedive

This book is aimed at making sense to ordinary humans of the mass of data collected and published as a result of the 2005 English Church Census. It does it well. The particular strength of the census and of this title is that it compares the 2005 figures with those for the two earlier Christian Research censuses, in 1998 and 1989. We therefore have reliable indicators of all kinds of trends in churchgoing over a period that is long enough to draw sound conclusions from. Not only this, but the period covers the decade and a half or so during which our society and its religious expressions have morphed at their most rapid from the modern to the post-modern.

Peter Brierley presents a wide range of church attendance findings from the census, analysing them by denomination, churchmanship, environment (city/rural et al.), ethnicity, age and gender, frequency of attendance and size of congregation, age and gender of ministers, growth and decline, midweek activity and mission initiatives. As an evangelical and a missioner, I found the most interesting chapters were those on churchmanship, age and gender, growth and decline, and the denominational (not just Methodist!) analyses.

The excellent index enables readers easily to find all the references to, for example, Methodist churches and attenders. Much of the information on Methodist churches is in effect an update of what we already know from the Methodist Church Life Profile (Churches Information for Mission, 2002). But the new data shows that we are now the third fastest declining denomination after the Roman Catholic and United Reformed churches, and Methodist attendance will by now have been overtaken by Pentecostalists.

Presentationally, the book is very clearly written. It includes a host of tables and graphs, which is either a weak or a strong point depending on whether you get on with these! Some of the tables are a little abstruse, even to the practised reader, and some of the most presentationally and visually striking do not appear in the book but in a slideshow downloadable from the Christian Research website.

One of its main strengths, as with earlier Christian Research titles, is a concise summary in bullet-points, at the close of each chapter, of main findings and broad conclusions. Inexplicably, some of what should be headline findings are tucked away in the detail, such as that half of all churches are growing or stable now (one-third in 1998), with one in three churches growing (one in five in 1998); and that, as total attendance is still declining, although less rapidly (hence the book’s title) the clear message is that more churches are recovering, but many of the other half have gone into free fall.

Its weaknesses however start to show when it goes beyond the data and into interpretation, with a number of bees in the bonnet and a failure to engage with the sometimes different findings and often different interpretations of other major surveys. It also falls into the extrapolation trap of forecasting the future on the basis of the past which, no matter how statistically based, is somewhat of a distraction from the exceptional value of the 1998-2005 findings.

Readers can quite easily identify what types of church, leadership, churchmanship and so on are making out well as against those that, like liberal churchmanship’s 30% decline since 1998, are falling off the cliff in large numbers; with care, this can be a good, but not infallible ‘rough guide’. The book is at its weakest in its material on remedial initiatives and pointers to ways forward for churches wishing to turn around. Therefore I find it more useful to read it alongside a title like Robert Warren’s The Healthy Churches’ Handbook, which is also reviewed in this issue.