The church in Great Britain faces huge challenges over the next few years, but growth is still possible, according to a leading researcher.
In “21 Concerns for 21st Century Christians,” Peter Brierley points to the continuing decline in many denominations due to people leaving, deaths outstripping conversions, and churchgoers attending less often.
The decision that allowed shops in England and Wales to open for business on Sundays in 1994 was a major factor here, Brierley told The Baptist Times. Known as the Sunday Trading Act 1994, the act of Parliament affected mainly the retail trade in which many women work, leaving less time for family life of any kind.
But Brierley said it is possible to learn from the best practice of growing churches, he said, and reverse the decline.
Some smaller denominations, such as Baptists, are growing; many black-majority Pentecostal-type congregations are growing rapidly.
But outside the southeast, decline is more marked, with the average percentage of churchgoers down to 6.3 percent (down from 7.5 percent in 1998). If the trend continues to 2020, London will be the only area with more than 6 percent churchgoers.
Larger congregations have twice the proportion of growing churches as smaller ones; churches where the minister is in his or her early 40s are more likely to grow than those with ministers in their 30s or 50s.
Brierley also established that midweek attendance is growing, though midweek meetings fail to attract younger people.
Decline in this age-group, he says is “extremely serious,” reflecting a “catastrophic loss of children under 18.” Churchgoers under 45 represent only 37 percent of the total now, down from 57 percent in 1990. It may be 27 percent in 2020.
This downward slope, he says, is largely due to the departure of teenagers in the 1980s and children under 15 in the 1990s.
“Twenty and 30 years later, there is a dire absence of those in their 30s and 40s, and no sign of younger replacements,” he said.
Brierley also highlights the difference between church and secular family structures.
In Great Britain as a whole, 46 percent of people are married; among churchgoers the figure is 67 percent. Only 2 percent of churchgoers cohabit, against 12 percent in wider society; 1 percent are lone parents, against 9 percent in wider society.
Nevertheless, Brierley told The Baptist Times, church decline is not inevitable although clear-sighted and courageous leadership would be required.
“There are seeds of hope,” he said. “Change is possible. We need to look at which denominations are growing and why.
“Another element is leadership. Do they know where they are going? If they don’t, they can’t get there. There is often a lack of church growth because people won’t take risks.”
Brierley also stressed the need for equipping congregations and encouraging them to witness confidently.
“There is a lack of teaching. We no longer know the Scriptures. We are, as a group, less theologically articulate.”
He also said that churches ought to be prepared to rethink some positions.
On cohabitation, he said, “We are beginning to have a whole section of the population in a no-go area as far as church is concerned. If it’s known that a couple is cohabiting, it’s frowned on; if someone is a lone mother, unless their husband has died, it’s frowned on.”
The head of the Baptist Union of Great Britain’s mission department, Rev. Ian Bunce, said that Brierley’s research raised important issues. He endorsed Brierley’s call for confidence in witnessing.
“That’s why we don’t see as many baptisms, because we don’t have confidence as Baptists; and why we don’t see as many conversions, because we don’t have confidence in the gospel,” Bunce said. “We are listening to the negative messages too much.”
Bunce cited initiatives aimed at reaching and retaining younger adults and the fact that 101 churches had been planted in the last five years.
“There are many grounds for optimism,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy about, but we need to come back to the call to conversion and baptism.”
This article appeared originally in The Baptist Times of Great Britain.