Pulling Out of the Nosedive

Peter Brierley and Heather Wraight of Christian Research are touring the country, to publicise the results of the 2005 English Church Census. CMS, along with Tearfund, are one of the principal sponsors, so we are leading workshops at each of the venues.

The census points to exciting growth in church going, such as in London and among ethnic minorities, but queries the relevance of church to modern society and points out the lack of young people and adults in their twenties and thirties in most churches. The overall result of the census is that the overall decline in attendance of English churches has slowed, probably as a result of action to halt the decline stimulated by Peter's previous surveys.

Change of behaviour may produce modest improvement, but it seems to me that in many places we are just looking at how to “do the same things better,” rather than “doing better things.” The survey focuses on attendance at worship, whilst radical Christianity is discovering new ways to form Christian Community and to meet the social needs of local people. It's not all about counting “bums on pews,” but nevertheless the information is useful – Peter and Heather having worked hard to interpret the data usefully

A couple of things shocked me in Peter's presentation:

The largest drop-off in church-going between his censuses has been of people leaving the 15-19 age group, i.e. as they move to independent (non-) church-going.

Of those in the 20-29 age group, something like 60% of them go to church in London, and 50% of the remainder go to a small number of very large churches. This means that the majority of churches in England will have between 0 and 1 people in that age-group, which is clearly not enough for “critical mass.”

I had been excited about CMS participating in the tour, having attended the previous one about five years ago, however attendance is poorer this time round (but better quality!?) with around 20 people at each event. A message that “the problem has reduced” does not seem to draw audiences!

For the workshop that I have been running, the eight people who attended engaged enthusiastically with the issue of connecting with and learning from other Christian and non-Christian cultures in our country and elsewhere. This is partly about excitedly being part of what God is doing in his world-wide church, and partly about escaping from a Euro-centric view of what following Jesus is about. As we discussed the way in which Church often does not seem relevant to many people, someone commented – perhaps with striking insight – that “people can't see Jesus in the church.”

Today saw the final one of the three sessions that I have attended, this one at Yeovil, and it seemed to flow particularly well. On this occasion cultural issues had already been broached by stimulating input from the “visiting academic” Dr Helen Cameron from Oxford (a theologian and sociologist)..

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