It’s now just over a week since the latest annual statistics for the Church of England were released. They were an example of how even the church finds it difficult not to spin out figures to paint the best possible picture. The headline news was that ‘Overall in 2012, on average 1.05m people attended Church of England churches each week showing no significant change over the past decade. Figures for all age average weekly attendance show around 1 in 5 churches growing, and just over this number declining with 57% remaining stable.’
Compared to the massive decline in church attendance over previous decades that is certainly an improvement of sorts, but stating that there has been no significant change in attendance is perhaps over-egging things slightly. Rev David Keen who regularly crunches these figures on his Opinionated Vicar blog, puts the decline in attendance at about 12 per cent between 2003 and 2012. Even allowing for improved methodology in the most recent report we still find a 4 per cent decline in the last 4 years which equates to about 37,000 adults. Of the 44 C of E dioceses only five grew over that period. One was static with the other 38 declining. Whichever way you look at it, church attendance is still heading in the wrong direction. Social commentators wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that the Church of England – and most of the rest of the church in this country too – is just crawling towards the edge of the cliff of oblivion rather than running at it.
So the current state of play isn’t utterly depressing, but it’s not exactly rosy either. There is, though, little point in spending too long mulling over what has happened in the past. We can’t alter that now, but we can change the future. And that really is the question that needs to be asked repeatedly – Where do we go from here? If the Church of England hasn’t changed dramatically in the last ten years, will that still be the case between now and 2024? Putting on a prophetic hat, my gut feeling, which is based on a mixture of evidence and intuition is that things are going to start looking very different. This is how I see the future of the Church in this country panning out over the next decade. It is written from Church of England perspective, but much of it will apply to other denominations too.
Let’s start with the impending crisis that is due to aging clergy and church leaders. According to the most recent Church of England report, 23 per cent of full-time clergy are aged 60 or over compared to 12 per cent under 40. The average age of the 3113 self-supporting clergy (unpaid) is 60 with only 2 per cent under 40. Up until now the C of E has managed to get away with managing with older clergy being heavily reliant on those around or beyond retirement age, but in the next ten years at least a quarter of full-time clergy will retire and more than half of other current clergy will be over 70 by 2024. Even though the numbers of younger adults being accepted for ordination is finally on the rise it only represents a small fraction compared to those who will be getting too old to continue. This disastrous policy of recruiting so few younger people into ministry coupled with the slowly declining attendance figures will profoundly change the way the Church of England operates. Increasing the number of churches a member of the clergy is responsible for will be ineffective. Many are already being stretched increasingly thinly and finding it almost impossible to do their job effectively as a result. The parish system will begin to break down, especially in rural areas which tend to have more dwindling elderly congregations, with most younger clergy also being attracted to more urban environments. This will cause a major headache as the C of E seeks to find a manageable way forward. Paradoxically it will also provide more opportunities for church growth. Too often the attitude towards churches working beyond their parish boundaries, has been ‘not in my backyard’ from others with churches very protective of their geographical patch. Church planting into new areas by growing larger churches will become more common.
There will be an increased divergence between growing and dying churches. Growing churches will grow more quickly and those that are are treading water or declining will struggle to turn things around. Much of this will come down to churches attitude towards pioneering mission. Any church that is not consciously investing time and energy in mission and evangelism is likely to fade away. These churches will see their congregations age and fall away. The more churches realise that they are now placed in a post-Christian environment, where they are seen as largely irrelevant unless they prove otherwise, the better their chances of having a future. Focusing only on internal issues is a recipe for extinction. Ajmal Masroor, a Muslim iman in London wrote this in the Standard yesterday:
‘I believe the real reason why Christianity is doing so poorly in fast-moving, materialist, secular Britain is that it has failed to fill the spiritual vacuum in the lives of British people… Christianity has lost the heart and soul of people.’
Churches have an amazing message to share, but have failed miserably over the last few decades to articulate and demonstrate it. Chris Russell, Justin Welby’s adviser for evangelism put it like this during an interview in the most recent Christianity Magazine:
‘Evangelism needs to be at the forefront of every church’s priority. It is not an optional extra. The Church is, by definition, for other people… as Martin Luther said, ‘The definition of a sinful heart is a heart curved in on itself.’ The definition of a sinful church is a church curved in on itself. Because of who Jesus Christ is and because of what he has done, it is absolutely paramount that we live for other people.
‘Not every Christian is called to be an evangelist, but everyone is called to be a witness.’
‘The archbishop wants to encourage every single Christian person that Jesus Christ wants to use their lives to draw other people to himself, through his life in them.’
To be effective at reaching out, churches and Christians will need to become increasingly missional minded , going back to the experiences of the Early Church, being a light to a world that has very little prior understanding of the Gospel message. In a YouGov poll carried out last year, 56 per cent of 18-24 year olds have described themselves as having no religion at all and exactly the same number say that they have never attended a church except maybe for events like weddings and funerals. Expect that figure to be even lower for those coming up behind them. If the church is to survive in any meaningful way it must learn to engage with younger generations. The majority of young people have next to no understanding of what the Christian faith is all about and reaching them to share the Good News of Jesus will require new forms and fresh expressions of church. Fiddling with service structures is not even going to come close to attracting them. Much more creative methods will be needed.
Younger generations have little time for tradition and ritual especially when it makes no sense to them. Fewer and fewer adults have any interest in going near a church, but if they are brought to that point, they will need to find communities which they can relate to with others including leaders of their own age if they are going to feel at home.
Lord Carey’s widely reported comments in November ring true:
“So many churches have no ministry to young people, and that means they have no interest in the future. As I have repeated many times in the past, we are one generation away from extinction. We have to give cogent reasons to young people why the Christian faith is relevant to them.”
They may be pretty clueless when it comes to making sense of religion, but studies have found that young people and adults are more spiritual than their parents’ generation, they just don’t know how it all ties together and unless churches and Christians reach out to explain their message, what hope have they of finding it themselves? There is a spiritual hunger amongst the young, but being preached at or sitting through lifeless services won’t cut it with them – they want to have a tangible spiritual experience of God in some way. Those churches that look to grow disciples, who encourage an intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, who turn a desire to serve and demonstrate God’s love into practical action and who have a confidence to share the Gospel have a future that will most likely see their numbers grow significantly. Radical Christianity remains hugely attractive to those wanting to find a deeper meaning to their lives. Take a look at the tens of thousands of teenagers who gather to passionately worship God at the Soul Survivor festivals in the summer and you will taste a great hope for the future of Christianity.
As churches continue to engage with their communities, especially with the poorest, their standing in society will continue to grow as it sees Gospel values and commitment being played out in public. A confident Church speaking out effectively against injustice in a way that other institutions fail to do will continue to gain credibility that will give it the opportunities to explain the faith behind its actions.
The church will continue to go through its long winter over the next few years with much dying still to come, but at the same time the shoots of spring that we see even now if we know where to look will grow stronger and become more obvious. This new emerging church will look very different in places, but God will be in it and His Spirit will be free to move more powerfully, drawing many to Him with society being affected in the process as well.
It very much feels that these words of Jesus are for this season the Church is going through in this country. We need to sit and listen at His feet and then respond accordingly with faith, wisdom, hope and courage:
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (John 15:1-8)