The Tide is Turning

Produced by Peter Brierley of Christian Research, and recently 'on tour' around the regions of England under the title 'Turning the Tide?', The Tide is Running Out presents and analyses the results of the 1998 English Church Attendance Survey, and is based on a return by over 12,400 churches - a third of all churches in England. The survey sought to discover both the present facts and some possible future trends of church going, worship attendance and frequency, also noting age profiles, theological positioning and regional differences.

'Lies, damned lies and statistics' (Mark Twain)

For some church ostriches this latest report merely confirms their belief in Twain's quote and for them all such reports are rejected under the misguided belief that 'things are not really as bad as all that' or 'these people will be back - it's all a cycle'. However if we take this work (and others over the last 10 years which have pointed in the same direction) seriously then the Church in England is in trouble. Denial of cold facts, statistical dancing to make things seem better (Methodism take note!) or some vague hope that things will somehow change in the future do not serve us, or the gospel we profess well.

'The church is in trouble and doesn't know it' (Mike Riddell)

The figures overall are sobering. In 1979 11.7% of the population attended weekly worship; in 1989 it was 9.9% and in 1998 it was down to 7.5%. There are of course regional differences; in my own South Yorkshire the percentage in 1979 was 8.2% and by 1998 had dropped to 4.5% - the lowest in the country! The drop suggests the rate of decline is increasing, and whilst the number of churchgoers of 65 years and over is increasing, worryingly for the future two churches in five reported no youth work of any kind. The 1990's saw 1,000 children under 15 leave the church every week, and also during that decade there was a definite decrease in the number of those aged 30-44 (a key parental age group) coming to church. Mainstream denominations and those churches of a broad, liberal or catholic churchmanship are declining fastest, and sadly the Methodist Church leads the way in most regions of the country, down 40% in 20 years, at an increasing rate of decline. Whilst the decline is least in the suburban South East and multi-ethnic London, where the black churches have seen growth, this is more than made up for by rapid decline in other regions. Looking ahead, Methodist respondents expected 1 church in 6 to close by 2010. At this rate Methodism faces another 30 years of life, however it reorganises its administration. The report itself notes that 'Those whose work at church headquarters in London cause them to live in the South East may not realise the seriousness of church life in other parts of England' (p.56)

'I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it' (Jesus Christ)

However, remembering the Jesus promise, what positive and encouraging signs and lessons can be learnt from this report?

FIRSTLY, churches of an evangelical theology have declined least, (-3% as opposed to the -30% of all non-evangelical theologies described) with mainstream evangelical churches growing. Again this is patchy - there are figures of decline in Yorks/Humberside and the South West mainly due to Methodist churches who described themselves as 'Broad Evangelical'. But generally an evangelical faith and practice is leading either to a much smaller percentage loss, or indeed in some denominations and church groupings, considerable growth.

SECONDLY, that while weekly attendance at worship has declined to 7.5%, the results pointed to nearly another 9% of the population who attend church on a Sunday at sometime during the year (especially fortnightly and monthly) - a total of 8 million of the population of England. In addition to Sunday worship there is a growth in mid week worship opportunities, which are attracting folk unable or unwilling to attend on a Sunday. If you add on special mid week or Saturday youth worship, then another 1% can be added. Overall 11.1% of the population goes to worship sometime during one month. That's not including those attending Alpha who do not yet attend worship, and the 1.9% of the population who do not attend church, but watch Songs of Praise each Sunday. For a variety of reasons a weekly routine is becoming less usual. Rather than relying on 'special services', attractive and relevant worship offered week by week for those who may drop in at any given week into our church life is important. As is creatively developing other worship opportunities during the week for more of our local community to access.

THIRDLY, churches that are growing tend to be those who are welcoming in nature, flexible in structures and creatively engage with the community, responding to their spiritual, physical and emotional needs. Being a missionary or 'inside-out' church, with a proper view of themselves as an evangelistic concern does bring results - but just how many Methodist churches have taken this challenge seriously?

FOURTHLY, the number of over 65 year olds is increasing, maybe (as the report suggests) as those 'Sunday Schooled' in their childhood return to the church at a more reflective time of their life. The Methodist Church is growing in this age group. Here is an age group often looking for a place of 'belonging', is still open to the gospel message, and in an increasingly active and mobile old age can still offer useful resources and life skills into the church.

'Wrestle in the desert - don't hide your head in it' (Ian White)

I believe that there are important signs for discerning and brave churches contained within these figures, which I encourage Headway members to read and reflect on with others (see below for the resource list). Whilst national Methodism should rightly be confronted by the sobering figures contained in the report, much of its contents can encourage those who are 'committed to prayer for revival and witness to the evangelical faith'. However complacency is a killer wherever it is in the Church, and we need to have the humility to hear God's voice through all these figures - and be challenged by them. A clear evangelical witness; worship available throughout the week; ability to react and respond appropriately to changing local and national culture; greater flexibility within church structures; more emphasis on appropriate and creative forms of welcome; allowing a time of 'belonging' before an insistence on correct 'believing'; evangelism as a priority and as on going work within the church; many more resources risked into children's, youth and family work. These are some of the responses that this report calls the church to; a report that is worth wrestling with (Jacob), not hiding from (Ostrich). 'We need leaders and lay people of energy and vision who can implement strategic cultural change in the church for a vibrant 21st century impact' (Peter Brierley)