The church is “not dying,” and this message needs to be understood by Christians and the rest of society.
That’s according to Benita Hewitt, director of Christian Research, who has released a series of statistics that point to an apparent end to a decline in church attendance.
Hewitt said that while the figures stop short of signifying growth, “there is now enough combined evidence to state confidently that decline is over.”
She pointed to the rise in attendance at Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) churches, from 148,835 a week in 2002 to 153,714 in 2008.
The numbers attending weekly Mass in the Roman Catholic Church have been stable since 2005. In 2008, there were 918,844 attending Mass, an increase from 915,556 the year before.
The Church of England had seen a slow leveling off, with 1.67 million attending services each month in 2008, compared with 1.71 million in 2001. This contrasted with a sharp decline in the 1990s and does not include many of the people who have joined Fresh Expressions of churches.
While a number of commentators expressed some caution regarding the figures, Hewitt said the image of an irreversible decline – uppermost in people’s minds after years of falling attendances – was no longer valid.
As such, the news should “help to reposition church within the minds of Christians, churches and the rest of society.”
“It’s no longer a dying institution but a living movement,” said Hewitt. “It is here to stay.”
Two major factors had contributed to the slowing of the decline, she told The Baptist Times. First, the church had adapted over the last decade to changing contexts and was not simply expecting people to come on a Sunday morning.
She cited the BUGB’s Crossingplaces initiative as a particularly good example of this.
Second, there was evidence of people looking for more meaning in their lives. In tough times, people also reverted back to their past – a possible explanation for people returning to churches.
Peter Brierley, Hewitt’s predecessor at Christian Research and author of “Pulling Out of the Nosedive,” which found signs of hope in the United Kingdom’s churches, noted that attendances at the Church of England and in the Catholic Church had fallen over the last decade – while the BUGB figure failed to reflect a decline in membership – despite an overall increase in attendance.
The Church of England numbers mask the fact that Sunday attendance is falling. “What is actually happening is that Sunday attendance is dropping, especially with children and young people, but that midweek attendance is increasing,” he told The Baptist Times.
Clive Field, of British Religion in Numbers, said there are “lots of caveats to be considered.”
“It is far from certain that a modern-day revival is just around the corner,” he wrote. “The dragon of secularization is still not slain.”
Rev. Darrell Jackson, director of Nova Research Centre and lecturer in European Studies at Redcliffe College, said it would take a “brave person” to claim this was conclusive proof of a reversal of a decline.
Nevertheless, while there are nuances behind the figures, a “restrained cheer” is in order. “It cannot be denied that they indicate a significant slowing of decline over the last four to five years,” Jackson said.
Graham Sharp of Sharp Focus, a market research organization, made a similar point. Deciding when a true trend starts “can be tricky and even subjective” but there has been a distinct “leveling off,” he said.
He also pointed out the growth in black and evangelical churches, and the fact that church is changing.
“Any objective commentator would agree that the heavy declines are a thing of the past and the doomsday predictions of a few years ago – that are still regularly cited by journalists – now seem wide of the mark,” Sharp said.
“If we continue to talk about an irreversible decline, people will think it’s happening and it’s not the case,” she said.
“Yes, we have an issue with the age profile, but I’m really encouraged by these figures. Church is not a thing of the past.”
This article appeared originally in The Baptist Times of Great Britain.