On Sunday May 8th, all 38,000 churches in England were invited to complete a form regarding both the number of people in church that day and the number attending in an average week. The results of this census are not due until September 2006 and we do not know if the results will show any changes in the general decline of church attendance.
Ascertaining the state of the church, however, is not limited to such exercises. Many numbers have been in the public arena for some years and can be projected forwards using normal statistical methodology. This of course assumes that present trends will continue—something that is almost never true!
Suppose we project existing church trends fifteen years into the future. What will the church in the UK look like in 2020? And can we learn anything from doing this? I believe we can.
While the apex for church membership in 1930 in the UK topped ten million people (29% of the population), by 1980 the number had dropped to 7.5 million people (just 13% of the population). In the interim, overall population in the UK had increased by ten million within the same period of time.
If we are to follow this trend, the total decrease from 7.5 million in 1980 to 4.6 million in 2020, and from 13.4% of the population to just 7.2% leads to an average rate of decline of 1.2% per year (see Table 1). Because of the extraordinary growth of the black church community within Pentecostal churches, free churches are decreasing at only half (0.7%) the rate each year as Anglican and Catholic congregations (1.6%).
Church Membership (1980-2020)
There were just over 50,000 church buildings or congregations in 1980, a number which is projected to drop to under 44,000 by 2020. This remains one of the more stable elements in the years ahead, with new congregations replacing old ones. Methodists are currently closing as many churches each year as all other denominations put together. The numbers are likely to change considerably, however, when failing finances cause many rural Anglican churches to close.
In 1980 there were 36,000 ministers in the UK, the majority full-time “stipendiary” (paid for their work). By 2020 the number is projected to drop to 32,000, a decline of 0.3% per year. This, however, hides the changing face of the church; today, more women, part-time persons and non-ordained individuals are serving. These changes partly reflect financial stringency, but they also reflect the ethnic minority vitality, as more black churches are using part-time staff.
Church attendance is where the greatest changes are expected. Denominationally the pattern is likely to be similar to that of membership. Church attendance figures, however, have one advantage over church membership (which is defined differently for each denomination). Church attendance is similarly defined across all denominations and can be broken down by age and gender. For this article, we will look at age.
The UK church has been losing young people for quite some time. During the 1990s half a million children under 15 dropped out of church. This has great implications for the future of the church (see Table 2).
Church Attendance (1980-2020)
45 & over
While the average rate of decline, 2% per year, is higher than any figure assessed thus far, the rate varies largely by age-group. Younger persons under 20 are declining at a rate of 5.2% per year. This must be reversed if the church is to survive and thrive. Those between the ages of 20-44 are declining by 2.9%.
The oldest age group, 45 and over, is decreasing by only 0.5% per year, but the problem is that those over 45 went from being 39% of the total in 1980 to 73% by 2020. If three-quarters of churchgoers are over 45 by 2020 the image of the church as being “an old people’s club” will be reinforced almost irrevocably.
This brief glimpse into the possible future of the church, if present trends continue, should lead us to do everything we can to ensure these statistics do not become a reality. The following are four steps the 2005 church in the UK can take.
First, we need to be concerned with the lack of young people in our churches. It is absolutely imperative that we find out why they are “bored with church,” and be willing to make changes that will make the experience more meaningful. We will devastate the church if we only satisfy older members. We must nurture young people, and as appropriate, give them leadership experience and identify future key leaders for senior church positions.
Second, we need to look at the vitality and success of ethnic minority churches that are expanding and starting new churches all over the country. Church planting works and we need to capture both the enthusiasm and the risk-taking needed.
Third, we need to provide practical training for clergy in vision-building and change management. We need to make the switch from a maintenance-mode to a mission-mode.
Finally, we must wait and trust upon the Holy Spirit for an outpouring of Pentecostal power.
If any reader would like more information and details about these trends, they are available in “The Future of the Church, Religious Trends.” Christian Research. No 5, 2005/2006 and can be ordered from http://www.christian-research.org.uk/.