Church membership in the United Kingdom is set to continue its century-long decline in the next decade, but there is enough evidence to show churches are “not fossilizing” and in many instances are still “vigorously active.”
That’s according to veteran Christian statistician Peter Brierley, who said that while membership will drop to below 10 percent of the population for the first time by 2020, the slow pace of the fall shows a number of areas where the church is growing.
Three key features in churches experiencing growth were a heart for mission, willingness to try the new, and flexible denomination structures.
Church membership will be virtually unchanged in England, with most of the decline happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Pentecostal and new churches, such as Newfrontiers and Ichthus Christian Fellowships, are responsible for the biggest increases in England, while the Methodist Church is the fastest declining denomination there.
Baptists are set for a marginal decline.
The trends and figures are featured in Brierley’s latest publication, “UK Church Statistics 2005-2015,” which has just been released.
It shows that total United Kingdom church membership is estimated to see a 6-percent drop by 2015 to 5 percent, which is a loss of about 185,000 members.
The 2010 membership total was more than 5.5 million, itself a 6-percent drop from the more than 5.8 million figure of 2005.
The 2005 total equates to 12.3 percent of the population; in 2010 that figure is 11.2 percent, and is expected to drop to 10.3 percent in 2015. If the trend continues, it will dip to 9.4 percent by 2020.
Church membership in England is almost static, dropping just 1 percent between 2005 and 2010, and forecast to drop a further 1 percent in 2015 to more than 3.6 million.
But Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will experience 12 percent, 19 percent and 12 percent drops respectively.
The Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland account for much of it.
Although numerically much smaller, the Baptist Union of Wales is one of a number of traditional denominations there to experience quite a fall: it dropped 16 percent to 14,000 between 2005 and 2010.
All the traditional denominations are expected to drop in numbers, although the rate of pace for Baptists is the slowest.
Brierley groups every church with a Baptist affiliation, including Grace Baptist Churches, non-Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) churches, Gospel Standard Strict Baptists and Old Baptist Union churches.
The estimated membership of all Baptist churches in the United Kingdom in 2015 is 192,479, down 3 percent on the 2010 figure of 197,871. The BUGB figure is forecast to fall from 135,536 in 2010 to 133,766 in 2015.
The biggest decline is forecast in the Methodist Church, which is expected to see its membership plummet by almost a quarter to 180,921 by 2015. The Presbyterian Church will experience a similar drop (down 22 percent).
The largest growth is among the Pentecostal Church (up 22 percent to 529,594), and the smaller, new and Orthodox denominations.
Brierley, who collated his data directly from the denominations themselves, expects the estimates to be reasonably accurate: his corresponding estimates for 2005 and 2010 were remarkably close, just 0.1 percent out both times.
He said the analysis shows the “importance of evangelicalism,” and the consequential “drive for mission and starting new groups of worshippers.”
“A heart for mission and a willingness to try the new are the key elements here, along with a denominational structure which allows such experimentation and in effect gives its new initiatives permission to fail as well as to succeed.”
Although Brierley noted the Fresh Expressions drive in the Methodist Church (“these have not yet turned their basic numbers around”), he continued, “In the main the declining denominations simply do not share these features – little desire for outreach or with a structure insufficiently flexible or with people unable to make it work.”
Nevertheless, the picture was broadly optimistic, he concluded. “It is obvious that the U.K. churches are not fossilizing and in many instances are still vigorously active.”
“As usual, Peter Brierley gives us much to think about. I’m not convinced the picture is as bleak as some of these statistics make out,” said Rev. Ian Bunce, BUGB head of mission.
“However, it is a challenge to keep being creative and do things differently. If the church tries to do mission with yesterday’s methods, it is not going to be here tomorrow.”