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Pulling out of the Nosedive!

By Peter Brierley.

In the seven year period 1998-2005, half a million people stopped going to church in England, but in the longer period (nine years) 1989 to 1998, 1 million stopped.  So in this latest period we have seen fewer stop than might have been expected.  It appears that we are pulling out of the nosedive!

This is the main finding from the fourth English Church Census which took place in 2005, the results of which were published in September 2006 in a book called, appropriately enough, Pulling out of the Nosedive. For those interested in the detailed figures, especially at county and Local Authority level, there is an associated volume, Religious Trends No 6, 2006/2007, also published in September 2006. Both books are available from Christian Research on their website

An excellent response

In May 2005, there were 37,501 churches in England, and information was received from more than half of them. That is an excellent response rate, much better than normally seen from mail questionnaires. Only 500 churches opted to complete the form electronically. If your church was one of those which replied, not only is Christian Research grateful for your participation, but trust that the emerging results will more than compensate for the time and trouble involved.

The response was helped by the blaze of publicity created by the BBC making it their first news item on the 7.00am news on 8th May, and repeated in subsequent bulletins. It also featured on the Sunday programme that day.

One in every 16 of the responding churches was Baptist, and they gave the best response of all denominations: 67%!  All this gave a mass of data which has taken 16 months to analyse and prepare for publication.

The numbers are still declining

While it is true that more people were going to church in 2005 than expected, the actual number attending on a Sunday has decreased from 3.7 million in 1998 to 3.2 million in 2005. This covers all denominations, and represents 6.3% of the population. If midweek attendance is included the proportion increases to 6.9% of the population.

This is quite a drop from the 7.5% seen on an average Sunday in 1998 and if the rate of decline continues, even at a reducing rate, the percentage attending in 2015 is likely to be under 5%.

Why are we losing people? Are people not being brought to faith? Aren't Alpha, Emmaus and other similar courses working? Yes, they are working and people are coming to faith both inside and outside such courses. We estimate that some 250,000 people came to faith in the 7 years ending 2005. There were also some 100,000 babies born to churchgoing parents in the period, giving a rough total of 350,000 people who have started coming to church, equivalent to 50,000 a year or 1,000 new people every week. That sounds great, but it is spread across 37,500 churches!

However, approximately 300,000 people died (more deaths than conversions!), probably 250,000 stopped attending altogether, and we lost the equivalent of 350,000 who now come less often, giving a rough total of 900,000 who have stopped coming to church, equivalent to losing 2,500 people a week. 

A gain of 350,000 and a loss of 900,000 makes up the 550,000 drop seen in the total figures (3.72 million in 1998 less the 3.17 million in 2005). The picture is confused at local church level by half a million people having moved around the country or from one church to another in these seven years, with perhaps 10% not finding a church where they could settle offset by 10% coming back to church after perhaps 8 or 10 years away.

Why do people stop or come less frequently?  Partly the sheer pressure of life (Sunday is a much more competitive day for activities than it was) and partly because for many the church seems irrelevant. 

Against this somewhat sombre background, nevertheless the Census found that a number of exciting developments are taking place.

1. Some denominations are growing

The decline in numbers has not affected every denomination. The Pentecostals, Orthodox and the rather miscellaneous group of "Smaller Denominations" all grew. The Pentecostals grew primarily because of the black churches, the large majority of which are charismatic, and the Smaller Denominations grew because the various Overseas National Churches, mostly non-charismatic, grew. However, those of a different spirituality, like the Quakers and the Orthodox, also saw some growth, although small.

The Roman Catholics decreased most in numerical terms, their Mass attendance of 890,000 (just higher than the Anglican 870,000), is a result of a decline of 300,000 people. It was the United Reformed Church (URC) which dropped most in percentage terms, declining 53% over the seven years to just under 70,000. Both the URC and the Methodists have 47% of their attenders aged 65 or over. 

The Baptists, which grew slightly between 1989 and 1998 (from 271,000 to 278,000) failed to do so between 1998 and 2005, dropping to 255,000 people. As has already been reported in the Baptist Times, this was partly because of a serious drop in the number of young people.

2. Ethnically diverse churches are growing

Black churchgoers now make up 10% of all English churchgoers. They have grown very rapidly, especially in Inner London, where there are more black people in church than white (44% to 42%), despite there being several very large mainly white landmark Anglican churches in the capital's centre. 

Churches with nationals from other parts of the world have also seen growth - Chinese, Korean and Indian churches, for instance, have all grown, and in 2005 amounted to a further 7% of all churchgoers overall. Churches fed by immigrants from Europe, such as Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swiss, have grown too, especially since the turn of the century.  Seven new Croatian Catholic churches started between 2000 and 2005.

Non-white churchgoers are younger than white churchgoers, bringing to their churches more energy and more children, as many have families.  What can white churches learn from the black church leaders?  "The need to believe that God can do the impossible," said one when asked.


3. More growing churches

The proportion of growing churches has increased from 21% which grew during the 1990s to 34% which have grown in the period 1998 to 2005. The percentage of declining churches has dropped from 65% to 50%, the remaining percentage being stable (congregations remaining within 10% of what they were). Figure 2 illustrates this.


While this is positive, unfortunately part of the reason for more growing churches is that some people are simply transferring from the declining churches. About half a million people moved church in the seven years to 2005, many doing so because they moved home to a new area.

Christian Research was delighted that some of the responding churches were "Fresh Expression" churches. On average, these proved to have smaller and also younger congregations. While not always easy to continue after the initial rush of enthusiasm, could these be the answer for the declining numbers? They may well be part of an answer, but they are still far too few, despite the continuing proliferation seen on the official website, to combat the extent of the decline.

4. Larger churches are growing

The Census found that the larger the church, the more likely it was to be growing. This is especially true of churches with congregations in excess of 200, and is particularly true of the larger Anglican and Baptist churches. Why do they grow? As other research has shown, this is partly because the preaching is relevant (a very important factor), the welcome received is warm, there are suitable activities for children and adults midweek, and especially because there is likely to be strong leadership with a clear vision for the future.

The Census also found other factors were important as well. The larger the church:

•                   the greater the proportion of those attending who are under 30. Could this be because of suitable midweek activities? Young people also like to be part of larger groups for friendship and interaction.

•                   the greater the proportion of non-white churchgoers in attendance. Could this be because they like to attend "successful" churches which a growing church appears to be? Perhaps they feel more at home because they are less conspicuous and "different".

•                   the greater the proportion who come to church least frequently, that is, less often than once a month. The greater too, is the proportion of visitors. Could this be because of the friendly welcome or because in a larger church there is a greater likelihood for anonymity? This is perhaps especially true of the Cathedrals. 

This means that the larger churches are likely to become increasingly important as the years move on. Some 1% (150) of Anglican churches and 2% (50) of Baptist churches have 350 or more attending on a Sunday; these 200 churches respectively accounted for no less than 10% of all Anglican and 13% of all Baptist churchgoers in 2005. Could these larger churches be encouraged to act as "Minster Model" churches, supporting local churches (presumably of their own denomination) by enabling their leaders and giving practical help as well as providing some financial resources?

5. The challenge of Greater London

In seven Inner London Boroughs, there are over 50 Black Majority Churches, and 13 out of the 18 Inner London Boroughs saw churchgoing numbers increase between 1998 and 2005. In Greater London there are:

•              11% of all the churches in England;

•         20% of all the churchgoers, making London's churches twice as large on average as those elsewhere;

•               23% of all the Evangelical churchgoers;

•               53% of all the Pentecostal churchgoers;

•               57% of all churchgoers who are in their 20s (against 19% of the population).

Such is the strength of London's church attendance. It will find its supreme test in how they can work together for mission with the coming 2012 Olympic Games. Is it possible for the rest of the country to learn from London? The flip-side of London's strength is that other parts of England are relatively weak, especially in having relatively few churchgoers in their 20s. If 131,000 of the country's 231,000 people aged 20 to 29 who go to church go in London, that leaves 100,000 to be spread across 33,000 churches!

As this implies, not everything is good news.  There were some serious weaknesses exposed by the Census as well.

1. The Church as a whole is ageing

The average age of those going to church has increased to 45 against a population average of 40. This is because 29% of churchgoers are 65 or over (and 12% are 75 or over), against almost half that percentage, 16%, in the population generally. This means that we lose many people through being "promoted to glory" as the Salvation Army puts it. Figure 3 illustrates the gap.

It may be seen that the church is comparatively weak among those aged 20 to 44 (the age of many parents) and comparatively strong among those aged 65 to 84 (the age of many grandparents).

Of those aged 65 to 74, which the governments call the "Third Age", one in 13 attends church, the highest percentage of any age-group, and a much larger proportion than the cohort which follows it. This group is likely to remain active, fairly healthy, willing to be involved for up to another 10 years, but after they reach 75+, their energy loss and health problems will force them to do less. How can we best use this significant cluster of folk, 17% of all churchgoers, while they are still able to get involved? 

Some church children are brought up by their grandparents, not parents. A third of grandparents spend 3 days a week caring for their grandchildren, and five-sixths, 82%, of children are cared for sometimes by their grandparents. For 12% of Protestant churchgoers, grandparents were the most significant people in showing what faith is about. Some 3% of children attending Sunday School are brought by their grandparents, and if grandparents go to church, 60% of their grandchildren will go to church with them when they visit.  Grandparents are key confidants, trusted people of influence. If a child's parents break up, their grandparents often have the role of holding the child's broken world together.

Grandparents therefore hold an important position in their families, and often in a church.  Frequently they are asked to help with the Sunday School. Since there are so many of them in most churches, using their energies and family ties in the most strategic way is important. A few churches have experimented with holding "Being an Effective Grandparent" sessions.

2. Less frequent attendance

The Census showed that there were considerable pressures on those aged 30-44, judging by the decline in frequency of attendance shown in Figure 4, 72% of which is among women.  This was a similar finding to that in Scotland in 2002, where Focus Groups showed that this was primarily because of the strains of looking after a home and family while going to work, many having to take jobs on Sunday, partly because many such jobs were available and partly because childcare would be provided by their partner.


The chart also shows that those under 15 are less likely to attend church as frequently as those older. This decline may well be at least partly linked with the frequency decline among those aged 30 to 44, as this is the age-group of most parents with children under 15.  Could it be that the demands on the parents, which make them attend church less often, automatically deprive their children of attending as well?  Or vice versa?

How can churches help alleviate stress and strain on those aged 30-44, especially if they have a young family?  Can services be held for them at more convenient times, either during the week, or even on a Sunday?  One Baptist church switched its morning service from 10.00am to 4.00pm and found its numbers doubled!  

Twice as many women as men have stopped regular church attendance between 1998 and 2005, increasing the percentage of men in the church from 42% to 43%.  One-third of the women stopping were aged 30 to 44.

3. Evangelicals are declining

The number of Evangelicals in the church is fewer in 2005 than it was in 1998, dropping -9% from 1,390,000 to 1,260,000. The decline was least among the charismatics (-5%), but greatest among those describing themselves as Broad Evangelicals (-20%). Figure 4 illustrates the change in churchmanship broken down between white and non-white churchgoers.

  While the Evangelical decline is less than that of other churchmanships, and especially of the Liberals who declined most (-40%), the figures need to be carefully considered. Overall white attendance decreased by -19%, broken down between -17% for Catholics, -17% for Evangelicals and -24% for all others. In other words, white decline was much the same whether it was Evangelical or not.

Among non-whites, however, the overall change was a growth of +19%, made up of +7% for Catholics, +37% for Evangelicals, and -4% for all others, because nearly all the non-whites, such as the burgeoning Black Majority Churches, are Evangelical. So an overall smaller rate of decline among Evangelicals is because of the growth of the non-white church community, not because of the growth of conservative or strongly Evangelical churches which are mostly white. 

4. Midweek opportunities not being taken!

The numbers attending midweek meetings were greater in 2005 than in 1998. However, this was not because more churches were holding midweek meetings, but rather because more people were attending the midweek services that were being held. The percentage of Anglican churches holding a midweek event dropped from 51% to 45%, and Baptists from 45% to 41%, but it increased in other denominations, especially the Methodists, United Reformed and New Churches, so that the overall percentage of 42% remained unchanged.  Almost three-quarters of the attenders at these meetings, 72%, also came on Sunday.

However, only a quarter of churches held a midweek youth meeting (27%). This was partly because there is still a dire absence of young people in many churches:

•                  39% of churches had no-one attending under 11 years of age

•                  49% of churches had no-one attending between 11 and 14, and

•                  59% of churches had no-one attending between 15 and 19 years of age.

These are horrific figures and indicate the huge amount of work that churches have to do to reclaim the lost ground among young people today. We may be emerging from the nosedive, but without the support of more young people, we will never begin the climb back to a safe level, let alone the supersonic!

On the other hand where churches do hold a midweek meeting for young people, they were shown to be particularly effective in helping those aged 11 to 14 to stay connected with a church, the key age-group which research has shown is when many give up going to church.

Some 330,000 young people attended a midweek meeting (more than a third of whom were in Anglican churches), and of these over half, 55%, did not attend on Sunday.  So midweek youth meetings are worthwhile, which is presumably why up to a fifth of churches now have their own or shared Youth or Children's Worker, or both.


It is clear that the Census provides some fascinating material. Details may be found on

Can the church pull out of the nosedive?  YES!  We need either to start new congregations or increase our existing ones, hold more midweek activity and strategically plan ahead!  The newspaper columnist, Andrew Brown, wrote last year, "Almost nothing that's possible is too improbable ever to happen." In other words, "with God, all things are possible."

Peter Brierley

Executive Director of Christian Research

Ministry Today

You are reading Pulling out of the Nosedive! by Peter Brierley, part of Issue 38 of Ministry Today, published in November 2006.

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