I have just read the latest issue of Future First where Martin Camroux compares the membership of the six largest URC (United Reformed Church) churches in 1975 (the year he was ordained) with today:
|Cheam, St Andrews||915||83|
|Bournemouth, Richmond Hill||647||156|
|Chelmsford, Christ Church||630||93|
|Monkseaton, Whitley Bay||551||113|
|Eastbourne, St Andrews||528||60|
|Coventry, Warwick Road||515||Closed|
Although not every denomination in the UK has suffered such a collapse, nonetheless almost without exception the church is in major decline. Indeed, the Aberdeen-based sociologist Steve Bruce in his 2002 book God is Dead: Secularization in the West wrote:
Unless it can find the secret that has eluded it for 50 years of decline or negotiate a reunion with the Church of England, the Methodist Church will finally fold around 2031. The Church of England will by then be reduced to a trivial voluntary association with a large portfolio of heritage property. Regular churchgoers will be too few to show up in representative national survey.
We see this decline in the 2019 census. There the number of people in England and Wales calling themselves Christians is only 51%. In the words of a headline in The Times on 18 December 2021: ‘Losing our religion, Christians poised to become a minority’.
To make matters worse, churches now have to wrestle with the impact of Covid. On average church attendance is down by 30%, and it seems likely that many former churchgoers will not return.
The only way to stem the decline is for churches to make new converts. However, that is proving challenging. Between 2014 and 2022 the Church of England aimed to create 89,375 “new disciples” by investing £176.7 million in “strategic development “ grants with a view to creating 89,375 new Christians, However, only 12,704 people have been converted. Indeed, according to a report which came out in March of this year, there were no new worshippers recorded in 2020 and 2021. Under the headline, ‘Converts cost ailing CofE £6,000 each’, The Times on 12 March 2022 noted that:
If the target figure of 89,375 new disciples had been achieved, it would have cost the church £834 rather than £5,864 per convert.
I confess that I am a little surprised by the so-called ‘costs’ involved. I presume that they relate primarily to plant and personnel. However, I have always believed that the key evangelists in any church are the people. In the first place, it is not the preaching which will encourage non-Christians to visit a church, but rather the invitation given to them by their friends. In that regard we need to listen to David Voas, Professor of Population Studies at the University of Essex, who wrote in a Church of England research paper: “The most direct route to growth comes from members inviting and welcoming family, friends and acquaintances”. He went on: “Inviting friends to church does not come easily to most English people, which is partly why it is helpful to have non-threatening halfway house events like carol services as a draw. A corollary of the social difficulty of extending invitations is the reluctance to refuse them. Ours is a culture in which asking is a powerful act: it is hard to do but correspondingly hard to decline.” (From Anecdote to Evidence: Findings from the Church Growth Programme 2011-2013.). His findings effectively repeated a 2007 Tearfund report, Churchgoing in the UK:
What can churches do to attract infrequent and non-churchgoers? There is no simple answer, but this research reveals that a personal invitation or encouragement from a family member or friend is much more powerful than anything else.
Of course, ministers too have a role to play in mobilizing their churches for imaginative evangelism – as also for ensuring that their services are accessible to non-churchgoers, their preaching is attractive, and that there are courses such as Alpha, Christianity Explored or Pilgrim, into which ‘seekers’ can be integrated. But if their people fail to bring friends, then whatever churches put on will fail to stem the tide of decline.
Even in today’s increasingly secular culture, I believe that many non-churchgoers will respond to an invitation. When I was minister of a local church, my custom was to encourage my people to invite five friends to one of our many carol services, in the expectation that three would accept the invitation. My experience was that many would respond to such an invitation. Indeed, on one occasion I said from the pulpit that I would give £5 to anybody who found that not one of their five friends would accept an invitation – but nobody came to claim a fiver!