Where will we be in 2024? – Setting out a vision for the future of the Church

Future ChurchIt’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)

Categories: Church, Faith in society

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20 replies

  1. A very well-researched, thoughtful, sensitive blog, as always, Gillan 🙂 Your ending with the wonderful words of our Lord Jesus really gladdens my heart.

  2. Reblogged this on ST BARNABAS and commented:
    Here’s something to put our parish into a bigger context…

  3. I left the mainstream ‘church’, precisely because I got tired of being told what to think by a post (just) Victorian age institution. Jesus has already defined and modelled church to us; it is well documented in scripture and completely ignored by most denominations. Whilst we continue to insist on ignoring Him, we will continue to see decline and slip further into our post-gothic irrelevancy. We quote scripture at each other to bolster our weak arguments and preach our version of truth right up to the point that our (and others) lives depend upon it. Then we back away from the bible and rest on our own doctrines, and flawed understanding. I have no doubt of the faith and sincerity of most Christians agonizing over the slow painful death of their beloved religious middle class institution. But Christ and His body are and were always intended to be agile and responsive. Sell all you have and give to the poor….. Won’t happen, but you would change the world, literally, overnight. There in lies the difficulty; ask God about institutions, He’s not that keen on them……

  4. Brilliantly insightful! As one of my church’s “youngsters” it brings me up short to face the reality that I am 52. In ten years (God willing) I’ll be thinking about planning for my retirement!! In twenty years I’ll be retired!!! Where will my church be then?
    It’s striking that difficult balance between respecting the past, but not getting hung up on it. We do need to engage better with children/young people, you are so right.
    God bless you in your mission.

  5. If a local congregation is living in and expressing the Life of Christ in the power and presence it will flourish. Life begets life. If it does not multiply, it will die as it should, like any other man made institution.

  6. I totally agree. Especially the bit about young people needing a tangible spiritual experience. We had quite a heated discussion about this in our Bible study group this week. The majority opinion was that it was OK for the Holy Spirit to work in subtle, gentle ways and we didn’t need Him to show himself in more dramatic physical experiences. But the English can do it! Go to a football match or a pop concert. I’m 51 but I have taken my daughter to concerts where people are getting really excited, jumping up and down and waving stuff in the air, all for four rather ordinary young men. People, young and old need to worship, need to experience God and he is ready to let us have those experiences. The difference is that young people will simply vote with their feet. Us oldies will put up with a lot more dullness. I belong to a big Church in Surrey that is good at reaching out to new people. But it is wary about moving to the next level of spiritual engagement. I am going to pray again for God to really break through in our services. See what happens…

  7. I’m not sure you’re not entirely fair to how much the Church of England has been changing in response to the challenges you identify. Beginning with the 90’s decade of evangelism and more recently fresh expressions, mission-shaped church and pioneer ministry, the Church is acutely aware of the issues and is looking for solutions. The Church has also been doing many of the things you talk about – working with the poor, speaking up for injustice, engaging with communities, radical youth work (Soul Survivor) – over the period of its decline, suggesting that these very good things do not by themselves bring growth (unless what we need is simply more of them of course).

    Having said that, your main point about this being a season of pruning would seem right.

    • Thanks Will. You are right that there have been some good initiatives over the last 20 years or so and there are plenty of people at the top who are aware of the issues. My experience though, is that this understanding and promising work has been too detached from most everyday church goers.

      There are some fantastic examples of churches doing amazing things, but as a proportion of the entire activity of the Church of England they represent a very small number. There are still a vast number of churches who have moved on little in the last couple of decades. This is a big challenge to get mission engrained in the majority of congregations rather than a minority. That is a big ask and one that most likely only God can initiate.

  8. Maybe as an alternative vision the Church of England could divorce its links with Government? There is so much more to the UK Church than the Church of England. Sometimes, naive as I am, I look at the Chinese Three Self church and I wonder how much it really differs from the Church of England. Sometimes it even seems that to be successful as a Christian it is best to attend a Church of England church. I know that this thought must be wrong because it is very much more complicated than all that and it must just seem that the successful, famous Christians just happen to join the Church of England.

    But I really am naive (and ignorant of many things) because I also wonder how the BBC differs from any country’s state broadcaster.

    Of course these things must be entirely different to other countries because we live here and all educated Christians know that the Three Self church is entirely different from other established churches and the BBC is entirely different to other state broadcasters. I should learn to keep these thoughts to myself as it is Christ’s church and the excellent BBC Comedy ‘Rev’ shows us that Christ thinks that Church of England leaders are the true heroes.

  9. So apposite to close with the pruning promise, Gillan. Recently a couple of known prophetical voices have confirmed what one individual I know received about an axe doing the job – as spoken of by John the Baptist (Matt 3:10).

    I like how the late Bob Jones puts it in ‘The Coming Promise’ – “God’s opened His armoury to bring out new weapons for a new Jeremiah 50 & 51 action plan – the battle axe! In fact, the first thing He will deal with is the church that’s been withstanding Him.” And of course there’s the other weapon against which the enemy has none to match – love!

  10. Can I give my perspective from a non Church going poiint of view ( please note this is personal and not meant to offend)

    1. Traditional church – just dull, in a tecnological age where I cant even watch a h alf hour tv programne without flicking channels or checking my phone, there is nothing to hold my attention, therefore no reason to go.

    2. Modern church – wishy washy and far to feminised. We live in tough times and that makes tough people. All the arms in the air, happy clappy, love everyone stuff just makes me uncomfortable. If you get men to church then they will bring their families. Also modern worship music is nothing like the music myself and my kids listen to, its just far to cheesy. ( I have listened to stuff from christian metal to hillsong etc, just awfull)

    3. Wasted opportunities – the church has just been given a way to reach people on a plate and as far as I can see has done nothing. The release of the film Noah, will get more people thinking about the bible and god than any church directive yet they seem to have done nothing. I walk past about five churches everyday and not one has anything to do with the film on their notice boards.

    To survive the church needs to stop being 10 steps behind the modern world and seize opportunities when they arisr.

  11. I am (I think) still a “young” person. Well I am still in the age range to join the Young Communist League if I wanted (I don’t) so I figure that makes me young. When I decided I wanted to be Christian I never serious considered CoE because to me it was all women vicars and tea cosies and cake sales and just not “hardcore” and (lets be honest here) “metal” enough for me.

    I looked into Catholicism but all the stuff about Jesus as Social Activist seemed way too mushy and politically correct for me, like people were just patting themselves on the back for having right on opinions and not really engaging with it much more than that.

    In the end I went with Eastern Orthodoxy but the foreignness of it still disturbs me.

    I guess I was never going to fit in anywhere really. I wanted traditional liturgy, radically traditional theology and at the same time not to have to abandon British culture for that.
    But British culture is antithetical to all that sadly.

    I think we need St. Anthony and the Stylites again, something so shocking and unrespectable, but totally focused on God and not modern political fashions and struggles. St. Simeon putting maggots back into his wound saying “eat what God has given you” – something so filthy and repulsive yet magnificent in its show of charity and compassion. Young people love that kind of shocking mind bending action, that makes you feel sick and ask “how could they do that?” – only with Christ could someone willingly be fed upon as Christ is fed upon in the Eucharist.

    • I’m in exactly the same boat. Rather unexpectedly to me, the traditional worship of the Church of England (choral Evensong and all that) is what really caught my imagination. Unfortunately, that isn’t easy to find these days; most churches seem obsessed with being modern, not realizing that society is now post-modern. As sarky expresses above, modern churches seemed rather pointless and dull to me; I wanted something that would allow me to put the twentieth century in the past, and in most places I felt as if I was stuck in the 1970s. With stuff like the Book of Common Prayer, worship simply transcends time and social boundaries, and it’s all completely biblical as well. This isn’t something I can get anywhere else in society, and this is why I go to church.

  12. This is a long and thoughtful piece but it doesn’t distinguish carefully enough between “the Church” and “the Church of England.” Just suppose that the Church of England loses 500000 members in the next decade, and the independent churches gain 1000000 members – quite a likely scenario if my bit of multicultural South London is anything to go by. Has the “Church” gained 500000? or lost 500000?

  13. Until you wrote:

    “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.”

    you were doing fine. However that passage shows you’re still thinking in secular terms. The reality is that the sad sight of the church lining up to condemn whatever it is the latest fashion to condemn ~ last year climate change, more recently welfare cuts, now people trafficking – merely shows that the church is indulging in ‘metoo”ism. Meanwhile on the major challenge of the day – the homosexual issue – it makes a complete pig’s ear of it; an organisation that needs 2 year listening to decide what it believes cannot claim any credibility on other political topics.

    Generally great piece – shame about the crass lacuna.

  14. The church in 2024?

    “What’s that building Grandad?”

    “It’s what they called a church. It’s a place where generally meaning, but nevertheless quite deluded people used to gather to talk to an invisible man in the sky. They would read a book written by fairly ignorant people a long time ago, and pretend that things like talking snakes and millions of animals living on a boat could be real. Fortunately, most people do not believe in that rubbish anymore. Now it’s just a place where bats and mice live.”

    “And what about that building next door?”

    “Oh, that’s a mosque. Unfortunately, there are still some silly people around.”

  15. Large churches such as HTB are planting large missional groups into redundant or nearly redundant churches I know, but what I would like to see is smaller planting into orthodox but struggling village churches. Four or five families coming as a mini community planted in the village would make an enormous difference and provide a nucleus of committed younger Christian families that could both reach out to people and also draw others in. I believe that many country vicars would really encourage this.


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