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Stories behind the statistics: The Church is growing

In an article published by Premier Christianity, Bishop Ric Thorpe and the Revd John Valentine propose that while some statistics show a decline in church attendance, the picture is far more nuanced than the headlines might suggest. Many new churches are starting, existing churches growing and churches throughout the nation are having an impact on their communities through initiatives of love and kindness.

The Church is growing

Fran Carabott is in the construction trade.  He took a handful of friends from his church in Southsea, Portsmouth, and started a new church in a poorer part of the neighbourhood.  In the last 3 years it has grown to become a viable church in its own right, and has become a place of hope and life for local people.  Fran is now going to be ordained, and the church he started is set to begin another church in the neighbourhood later this year.

Janie Cronin moved with her husband from London to Rochdale to start a new church.  She could not get the statistic out of her mind that there is no-one under the age of 18 in any of the churches in Rochdale.  The church is now up and running, in spite of lockdown, and is known in the area as ‘the red hot church’ because it meets in the premises of an old ‘red hot chilli restaurant’.  It is early days, but it is attracting young people, and many who were not previously going to church.

Diane Grano heads up the Rural Resource Church in Red Lodge, part of a network of new churches in rural Suffolk.  She is aware that there are many fine churches in Suffolk, but there are many people who do not come to worship on a Sunday, even in the beautiful ancient buildings.  She and her fellow leaders, none of whom are ordained, open cafés hosting a variety of ministries in strategic rural locations.  Particularly in these difficult days of Covid, these churches, known as Lightwave, are places of comfort, hope and community for the areas they serve, and they are seeing people coming to Christian faith and joining these new churches.

I was interested in the recent article in the Daily Telegraph on 9th January 2022, lamenting the seeming decline in church attendance.  Like its authors, Gabriela Swerling and Ben Butcher, I am saddened that numbers in churches on Sundays are going down, but I also see many positive signs that churches are actually growing, not declining – like the churches started by Fran, Janie and Diane.

There are notable examples of congregations increasing.  Cathedrals, for instance, are showing record levels of attendance, especially at Christmas.  Weekday attendance is also rising sharply, from an average of 7,000 in 2000 to 18,000 in 2017.  Research shows that smaller churches are actually growing at a faster rate than larger ones.  On a larger scale, some parts of the country have actually seen a rise in church attendance in recent years.  London, for instance, saw a rise in Sunday attendance of 15% between 1991 and 2007.  Once mid-week attendance was also factored in, that amounted to about 3.7% of the population of London.  Although the picture is not uniform throughout the country, a more nuanced picture than that of universal decline emerges – there are some churches and some parts of the country where the contrary is true – the church is actually growing.

Growth in new churches and initiatives

Then, there are all kinds of new initiatives.  Messy Church, for instance, is a movement of new congregations, founded in 2004, which is a way of being church aimed at families and others, based around creativity and celebration and hospitality.  By 2019, there were 2,800 Messy Churches, registered in England.  So called ‘fresh expressions of church’ are having a substantial impact – it is estimated by Jonny Baker, a leader in the fresh expressions movement in the church and director of mission education at CMS, that, on average, one new community of Christian disciples is being started each week around the country.  The Church of England commissioned a study into church growth – one aspect of this report looked at fresh expressions of church in 10 dioceses in the Church of England.  Put together, the numbers of people attending these new churches amounted to the same as in a whole new Anglican diocese.  So called ‘church plants’ are more and more regular parts of local life.  Research in 2013, showed that in London, 1 in 7 churches started a new church between 1992 and 2013, and that trend is accelerating.  ‘Resource churches’ are becoming a staple of nearly every Anglican Diocese in England.  In 2012, there were just a handful of such churches.  In 2020, there were over a hundred.  By 2030, there may be 300.  These are large churches that have the aim of starting or revitalising many other churches in their towns and cities and regions.  Many of them are now attended by several hundred worshippers, many of them young people, who the Church of England has not been successful at involving in church life of late.  And then there are Estates Churches, churches on England’s poorest estates, new ventures to reach and serve and work with some of the most deprived people in the nation.

So, although there is undoubtedly decline in the church, there are also striking instances of the opposite – new churches starting, existing churches growing, churches having an impact in areas of our national life where help is most needed.  It must be acknowledged that Covid has had a profound impact on all churches, and made life, let alone growth, challenging for most.  The growth of some churches at such a time is all the more remarkable.

A new factor to notice is that the patterns of church attendance are changing.  An increasing number of people go to churches or church groups mid-week and not on Sundays, when there are all kinds of competing demands on people’s time.  And even Sunday attendance is different – it is less regular, say once a month, rather than every Sunday.  So, the numbers ‘attending church’ are likely much higher than the bald statistics might indicate.

Initiatives of love and kindness which can’t be measured

Something else which statistics cannot measure is the impact of churches.  St Dionis church in Parsons Green in London, for instance, partnered with their local NHS to pack and deliver PPE at the height of the pandemic.  They also contribute to a West London foodbank, help people in debt, work with families and children who are struggling, and provide support and care for those with mental health issues.  Or, in Pimlico in central London, a new mission initiative called Heaven’s Gate, meets on the Churchill Gardens estate to reach out to local people and youth.  Or in Brixton, St John the Evangelist church works closely with their local council and other churches and charities to deal with knife crime in their area.  Or the Love Your Neighbour national network of churches and charities serve an estimated million meals a month, support 16,500 people with debt advice, and last Christmas delivered three quarters of a million Christmas boxes.  The list of such initiatives of love and kindness could be replicated in nearly every church in the country.  Numbers cannot really capture such a force in the life of our nation.

So, even though there is decline in church attendance, the picture is far more nuanced than the headlines might suggest.  What is striking is that churches of all kinds are growing – the more traditional churches and the new kinds of churches.  This is the so-called ‘mixed ecology’ of church in action.  There remain huge challenges in these times to communicate the message of the love of God in Jesus Christ more effectively.  But there are also many signs, some of them dramatic, that the church is alive and growing and having an impact.  Reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

This article is by Ric Thorpe, Bishop of Islington, and the Revd John Valentine who is Theologian at Large for the Gregory Centre. Read the original article at Premier Christianity Magazine.