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Does the future have a church?

Statistics are tough to handle. Many of us are nervous about evangelists who publish figures of the numbers of people who come forward at their meetings. We are concerned about the ministries that use numerical growth and trends as the basis of assessing their effectiveness and fruitfulness. And rightly so; we are convinced that God alone knows the hearts of men and women, and that a ‘thriving’ congregation can be built on sand, whereas a church of faithful, hard-working, gospel-hearted brothers and sisters can be in terminal decline through no fault of their own.

The other problem with statistical research is that to do it well, and with a reasonable sense of accuracy, it is enormously expensive, and needs to involve large samples of people answering carefully designed questions. Christian organizations rarely have the resources to do this effectively.

There is, however, some value in taking stock of the big picture. Despite the difficulties and concerns about the use of statistics in Christian organizations, there are some general trends that are discernible from the available research—patchy and sketchy as some of it is. The statistics in this article are mostly based on material published by Dr Peter Brierley in a variety of sources.1 What follows is a rough guide to where Protestantism is in the UK, and a look at some particular indicators that suggest several major strategic directions that we need to consider for the future.

The general scene: overall decline

In 2010, for all of those claiming the name Christian in the UK, there were:

  • 48,000 churches
  • 36,000 ministers.

Out of a total population of 62 million people:

  • 5.5 million are church members (i.e. people who say they are definitely attached to a Christian church, equivalent to 9% of the population)
  • 3.6 million attend church on an average Sunday (6% of the population).

But when we compare this with general population trends, we discover that in the last ten years, along with a population increase of 2 million people (+3%), there are now:

  • 400 fewer churches (-1%)
  • 950 more ministers (+2%)
  • 400,000 fewer church members (-6%)
  • 800,000 fewer attendees (-18%).

Let’s think about what these broad statistics might be showing us. Firstly, the small drop in the total number of churches, compared with the massive drop in membership and attendance, indicates that the average numbers in any particular church are shrinking. There may be good aspects to this trend—smaller, closer fellowships have their benefits. The downside, however, is that many churches will increasingly spend their time dealing with the structures of ministry (the trellis), such as managing the buildings and finding the finance to pay their minister, leaving less time and energy to tend the vine of the gospel in people’s lives.

Secondly, the number of ministers has grown. On the one hand, this is encouraging. What has certainly grown in the last ten years has been the proliferation of alternative ministry models in large denominations, where there are fewer traditional ‘full-time’ ministers, and more part-time ministers who hold down a job as well. There have also been growing numbers of paid youth and women’s workers, and apprenticeships. But I can’t help but wonder if the growing number of people in ministry is rising because of an increasing inability of ordinary congregational members to give themselves to ministry roles within the congregation. Does the rise in ministers mask the truth that less ministry is happening overall?

All this, of course, is the big picture. These general numbers include Catholicism, along with many other church traditions that are a long way from being evangelical and biblically based. What does the picture look like when we focus on where this decline is taking place? In some ways it is heartening, in other ways not.

English attendance by ethos graphExamining the statistics more closely by ethos, we find that the liberal/broad-church segment has been the area in which the loss of membership has been the greatest. The squeeze on Roman Catholic churches has also been significant. Projecting this trend leaves us with an expectation that liberal and broad churches are likely to completely disintegrate within the next 10-20 years, and that the more traditionally protestant category will become the largest sector overall.

This growing strength of more traditional Protestants as a proportion of all active church members has been estimated as follows:

  • 2000: 38%
  • 2010: 42%
  • 2020: 49%

For those evangelicals who are fighting to maintain a biblical voice in a denomination that is largely hostile, the strategy may be to just hang in there and wait. The demographics indicate that evangelicals will have a growing voice, and ‘win’ in the end. However, this is a neat spin on a more complex situation. For one thing, the numbers in this segment of Christianity have stayed relatively static over the last decade, in the midst of a population that has grown significantly. This means that attendance rates are not only down in number, but down in proportion of the greater population. Furthermore, Peter Brierley’s research has categorized these churches as a broad group of ‘evangelicals’. This group is, in fact, made up of a number of ‘tribes’ whose interests and theological underpinnings are often quite different. It’s to that complex picture that we turn next.

The tribes of Protestantism

Part of the difficulty in understanding the significance of these statistics is in defining what particular ‘brand’ of Protestant is being referred to. Often the interviews or survey forms that people fill in give them an opportunity to self-select their allegiance. They may tick a box that says ‘Charismatic’ or ‘conservative evangelical’, but they may not share the definition of that particular label with others who use it. Furthermore, this sort of self-description can focus on certain practices without realizing the deeper theological implications of a particular position.

So, for example, someone may consider themselves to be a ‘Charismatic’ because they love to raise their hands when they are singing, but in all other respects be a five-point Calvinist who ticks all the solas. They view themselves as Charismatic, but theologically speaking they are nothing of the kind.

The following information groups the relative strengths and the growth trends of seven different brands of protestant Christianity. The terms used might be unfamiliar to Briefing readers, and the information is the tentative conclusion drawn from a wide range of surveys that used different criteria for self-selection. Even so, this is the best attempt available at working out what is going on among the tribes of Protestantism in the UK.

‘Tribe’

% of total

Publishers/ conferences*

Key thinkers/

influencers*

Growth trend

Conservative non-separatist evangelical 8% IVP, The Good Book Company, Evangelicals Now, New Word Alive. John Stott, JI Packer, Keswick Convention, Proclamation Trust, Oak Hill Theological College, UCCF Up
Conservative separatist evangelical 11% Evangelical Press, Day One, Banner of Truth, Christian Focus (CFP), Sword & Trowel Puritan writers, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Westminister Theological Seminary, Wales Evangelical School of Theology (WEST) Stable
Open/Traditional evangelical 27% Scripture Union, Third Way, www.emergent-uk.org Trinity College Bristol, Ridley Hall (Cambridge), St John’s College Nottingham, Fulcrum (Anglican), Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, NT Wright Down
New churches 12% Charisma (US), Sovereign World Arthur Wallis, Smith Wigglesworth, Terry Virgo, Gerald Coates, Roger Forster Stable
Charismatic 16% New Wine, Renewal magazine (now merged with Christianity), Prophecy Now, Sovereign World David Watson, David Pytches, John Wimber, New Wine Down
Pentecostal 23% Joy, Direction, Keep the Faith Gordon Fee (theologian), Smith Wigglesworth, Colin Dye (Kensington Temple), Matthew Ashimolowo (KICC), Tayo Adeyemi (New Wine), John Glass (Elim) Up
Emergent 3% Greenbelt, www.opentheology.net, emergingchurch.info, www.emergent-uk.org Brian McLaren, Stanley Genz Up

* Please note that publishers, conferences and influencers may have a much broader appeal and focus than the groupings we have listed, but are generally regarded as particularly appealing to this particular tribe.2

Conservative non-separatist evangelical

This term refers to those who are conservative theologically, and who want to work together in a generous unity with those with a broadly similar theological perspective. This is likely to be the category that applies to the vast majority of Briefing readers. If I had to choose a specific church that typified this approach, I would suggest All Souls, Langham Place in central London.

The interesting thing to note here is that we are a relatively small percentage of the whole. We can often feel very confident because we have some flagship churches that appear to be doing extremely well, and there is a growing trend towards church planting and innovative ministry. But we remain a small part of the whole, even if we are growing.

The actual growth rate is difficult to be certain about, but it has been estimated at somewhere in the region of 2% per annum. Again, this is a positive sign, as this group is one of the few parts of the visible church that is growing in the UK, but when the overall population growth of the country is factored in the actual proportional growth is negligible.

Conservative separatist evangelical

This grouping refers to more traditional conservative churches, mostly free church, who would typically be members of Affinity. They are churches that have a deep love for the Bible, and a concern to remain faithful to the truth.

The interesting feature here is the relative size and stability of this sector. There’s no numerical progress, but neither is it fading.

Open/traditional evangelical

This, the largest grouping, refers to the churches that are broadly evangelical but may not adhere to specific conservative doctrines. They preach from the Bible and believe it to be very important, but may not hold so strongly to the sufficiency and ultimate authority of the Bible. They might have a more tolerant attitude to women in positions of leadership authority in the church. Many of them have a history of being conservative, but have moved ground more recently.

There are many small and medium-sized Anglican and Baptist churches in this category, and, I suspect, a large continuum of belief and practice. At one end, they may be indistinguishable from the last group. At the other end, they may present to some evangelicals as thoroughly liberal!

This is the sector of evangelicalism that is declining very significantly, by 8% a year in some estimates.

New churches

This category is difficult to distinguish from the following ‘charismatic’ group. It certainly includes networks like Ichthus in London, plus a whole variety of independent community churches around the country. They were the new thing in the 80s and 90s, and are now stable, but not growing.

Charismatic

This group includes a large number of Anglican, Baptist, and free churches that define themselves more by their theology and style of corporate worship than their congregational model. The interesting thing to note here is that this type of church is also slowly shrinking, although it is the model of church that the media defaults to portraying as ‘typically evangelical’.

Pentecostal

This is the real growth story in the Protestant sector. This group comprises not just traditional British Pentecostal churches, but also a huge number of new churches established by and for newly arrived immigrants to the UK, often from Africa or the West Indies. The largest churches in the UK are part of this tribe, for example Kingsway International Christian Church in London.

This upwards momentum mirrors the astonishing growth of the Pentecostal church around the world, particularly in Africa, Latin America and Asia. However, some of the researchers involved in gathering this data question whether this is genuine ‘conversion growth’. The increasing numbers could well be largely fuelled by immigration—a form of international ‘transfer growth’. Belonging to one of these churches is a little slice of home for many first-generation arrivals, and the evidence suggests that there is an equally dramatic drop-off rate in church membership and involvement among their UK-born children and grandchildren.

Emergent

Again, this is a diverse category of new churches that are built around the themes of worship, mission, and community. They are often small and relational, and often connected to very specific subgroups. Some congregations have grown out of specific missions to marginalised people, others from experiments with new forms of casual church in coffee bars or clubs. They are also theologically very diverse: from overtly Roman Catholic through to liberal through to strongly conservative. This remains a very small group in the UK, but it is slowly growing.

Demographic trends

Much of what we have seen in these figures is a reflection of demographic trends in the country. The generation for whom church-going was part of their culture is dying off, but the church is missing an ability to replace the dying saints with new ones. So let’s turn to look at what is going on at the other end of the age spectrum. This is where the stats for all UK churches present a truly frightening picture. Take a deep breath and read on!

  • 39% of churches have no-one attending under 11 years of age
  • 49% of churches have no-one attending between the ages of 11 and 14
  • 59% of churches have no-one attending between the ages of 15 and 19.

The loss of young people is particularly serious graphThese figures paint a dark picture for the future of the UK church. There has been a 90% decline in the numbers of young people under 20 attending church over the last 20 years. As that works its way through the system over the next 50 years, the likelihood is that it will lead to a steeper decline in the size of Christian congregations as the older generation move on.

Bear in mind the other oft-quoted statistic: the average age of conversion is around 17 years of age (although it is rising, slowly). The easiest time to reach people (statistically) with the gospel is when they are under the age of 20—three-quarters of people who are now Christians in the UK became a believer before the age of 17. Now read those statistics about the lack of young people in UK churches again. A huge part of our Christian growth over the last few decades has been through young people coming to know Jesus, but there simply aren’t that many young people coming through the ranks any more. This has serious implications for the future.

Think about your church for a moment. If you look at the demographic make-up of your church, and less than a third of its membership is under 20, then your congregation is on a long-term downward slope. Of course, this does not allow for local variance and people transferring from outside your area, but in general we could say that your church is contributing to gospel decline if it does not have a thriving youth and children’s ministry. Yet often youth and children’s work is under-resourced.

The journey to faith

Much of the evangelism of the past generation was about bringing the gospel to people who already had major building blocks of biblical understanding in place. Today our culture is becoming increasingly ignorant of even the basic facts about Jesus, and evangelism will need to involve more long-term teaching and exposure to the Bible’s message before people are in a position to put their faith in Christ.

I guess I am typical of that older ‘Billy Graham’ era. I was sent to church as a kid. I got disillusioned as a teenager. I joined a great youth group (mainly for the girls) and heard the gospel articulated for the first time. It was new to me, but my years in Sunday school gave me a bedrock of understanding. I can put a time and date on the moment I said ‘yes’ to Jesus—23 April, 1973, at 11.15pm, lying in bed on my right hand side while reading a copy of Journey into Life (thank you Norman Warren—you were the spiritual midwife to a whole generation!).

But I am increasingly rare now in knowing this. In the 1960s two-thirds knew the date of their conversion; in the 1990s only a third did. We do not have any up-to-date figures for the UK, but it would be surprising if it had not decreased even further.

In the 1990s, the average length of time it took for people to come to convinced faith from first hearing the gospel was around four years. Again, this has huge implications for the way we think about our evangelistic strategies and practice. Conversion must now be seen more as a journey than an event.

Two big demographic challenges

To finish this brief survey, it might be stimulating to look at two demographic features of modern Britain that present particular challenges to UK churches.

Cohabiting couples

There has been a huge upswing in the numbers of cohabiting couples in the general population. In 1996, just 8% of over-16s were cohabiting; this more than doubled to 19% by 2003. More recent figures are not available, but some estimate that it could be as high as 25%. But this family grouping trend seems to be completely absent from the church in general. Again, no accurate figures are available, but in one large church surveyed in 2008, just 2% were cohabiting, a general figure that is backed by a bigger 2001 survey which showed the same percentage. This is, of course, understandable: Christian churches encourage marriage. The upshot of this stance means, however, that even if Christians are warm and welcoming personally, there can be something intrinsically unwelcoming about our church culture. So attending a church regularly is difficult for those who are cohabiting.

(Now I say this, but a friend who recently moved to serve at a church with what he thought was a decent evangelical tradition discovered that half his church council were cohabiting!)

I suggest that, whatever the reason, this overall failure to engage with cohabiting couples represents a massive missed evangelistic opportunity. The percentage figures represent perhaps more than 5 million couples and their children who are unlikely to hear the gospel other than through family or casual friendships.

The challenge is this: how can we maintain our belief in and commitment to marriage, yet remove barriers to those who might spend time in our communities hearing the gospel?

Single-parent families

Single parents can feel similarly excluded, but for different reasons. Perhaps 10% of all households are currently single-parent families, a figure that is estimated to rise to 13% by 2016. That is 1.5 million adults and their children. Again, the proportion of single-parent families in the population is far, far higher than in the typical local church.

Typical suburban evangelical churches have many families with both parents, even if only one of them is present. This presents a cultural norm that implies that deviations from that norm are, in some way, ‘sub-standard’. This is a different thing to teaching explicitly against cohabitation regarding God’s view of marriage, but the feeling of exclusion can be just as strong. Our challenges regarding both of these significant groups are: How do we reach them? How do we incorporate them into church life in a way that does not leave them feeling marginalized and rejected? How do we hold on to them long enough for the gospel message to sink in and bear fruit?

Conclusions

We’re not as big as we think

The institutional church in the UK looks big. There are church buildings everywhere. There are bishops entrenched in the political system. There are the echoes of Christian thinking and philosophy embedded in British law and society. But the number of evangelical Christians is actually quite small. Even if you count all those who identify themselves as evangelicals, we are only about 2% of the population, and the proportion that is actively promoting evangelical doctrine is significantly less.

The decline is not as big as the media portrays

As the figures at the start of this article showed, the decline in overall church attendance is catastrophic. Some denominations seem to be in terminal decline, especially the Methodists and the United Reformed Church, who are shedding membership like autumn leaves. But many Protestant churches, especially conservative evangelical churches, appear to be holding their own—at least numerically.

We’ve got a lot of work to do

There are some positive effects to the trends. The church in the UK may be getting smaller, but the evangelical portion is growing in strength. Perhaps the loss of the liberal wing will sharpen the perception of the Christian message in the rest of the culture. The major downside is, however, that we are starting a lot further back with most people; there is much less general awareness of the Christian message than a generation ago. There are many more hurdles of suspicion to get over before we can gain a hearing for the gospel.

Could it be that we are living in a time much more like the 1st century than any other of the last 15? When we look out at a world that has never heard the gospel, which rejects Christian morality, which thinks of Christians and churches as weird, then we’re looking at the world Paul, John, Peter, and the first churches looked at.

What did they do? They were grieved over the ignorance and superstition, and they did something—they talked to all sorts of people about the gospel. And what happened? Many sneered, some listened, a few turned to Christ. May God grant us the same grief, the same gospel hearts, and the same result.

1Material taken from God’s Questions: Vision, Strategy and Growthby Dr Peter Brierley, ADBC Publishers, Tonbridge, 2010. Peter gave a talk based on this material at the Evangelists Conference in 2010.

2Some of this information is from an article by Andy Peck, ‘Evangelicals United’, published in Christianity Magazine, January 2008.

7 thoughts on “Does the future have a church?

  1. Thanks for a very comprehensive and useful article. Nevertheless it continues the habit of defining church by institutional membership or attendance. However there is a growing body of relationally networked disciples of Jesus who have no, or at most on tangential connections with gathered, institutional churches of any kind, and who therefore almost never appear in the statistics or groupings covered by this article. In my view this is good news of the future church. To neglect the existence of a positive and increasingly influential but hidden body, with different connectivities, is to miss a significant part of the developing picture.

    • It depends on what you mean by “relationally networked disciples of Jesus” as to whether this movement is good for the church or not. People streaming live a good sermon with their cohabiting partner without encouragement or accountability would
      not be good news for the church. Most studies show spiritual growth is best achieved in a group setting
      with a “live audience”, not just an “audience of One” (or 2).

  2. LOL. If cohabiting couples and single parents are a “massive missed evangelistic opportunity”, when are evangelicals going to start incorporating gay men and women into church life in a way that does not leave them feeling marginalized and rejected?

  3. I think this article is fascinating, but somewhat misleading. It claims to be speaking about the UK, but really it is speaking about England. The categories that Thornbourgh speaks about, and their distinctives, are essentially English, not Scottish nor Northern Irish. It would be fascinating to see the same exercise done in N.I. and Scotland. One thing that is good to see is the steep decline, hopefully into extinction, of the theological liberals.

  4. Pingback: Does the future have a church? | The Briefing | Keloù Mat

  5. The decline in church attendance among the young may be linked to the increase in militant atheism. The media and education system report a godless attitude to Creation and the Scriptures. it is open season for creationists who promote the whole of the Bible.

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