Startling academic research shows widespread Church growth in Britain

By David Goodhew

Cranmer Hall, Durham

 

Sit down, breathe deeply – I have some shocking news to give you. The church in Britain is growing. Yes, I know this sounds mad. The TV and the newspapers routinely depict churches as half-empty and populated by geriatrics. Not a few church leaders and congregation members walk around like Fraser from Dad’s Army, declaring ‘You’re all Doomed !!’ But there is something else going on.

An international team of leading researchers, based at Cranmer Hall, Durham, have just published a study entitled Church Growth in Britain from 1980 to the Present. Here are just a few of the extraordinary statistics that have been unearthed:

–      There are 500,000 Christians in black majority churches in Britain. Sixty years ago there were hardly any

–      At least 5,000 new churches have been started in Britain since 1980 – and this is an undercount. The true figure is probably higher

–      There are one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities

–      The adult membership of the Anglican Diocese of London has risen by over 70 per cent since 1990.

 

Research Endorsed by Bishops and Leading Academics

This research has been endorsed by a range of senior academics and church leaders – from Justin Welby, the new Bishop of Durham, to Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, head of the Roman Catholic Church. Professor David Bebbington, the leading historian of evangelicalism comments: “This is excellent research. It is commonly supposed that the Christian church in Britain is moribund, but the essays in this volume all demonstrate, from different angles, that in the recent past there are signs of vitality and growth.

“Nor is the vigour confined to new churches, for mainstream bodies have also participated in the upward trend here depicted with scholarly care.”

Durham Bishop Justin Welby responded to the research in this way: “Church decline is neither inevitable in prospect nor accurate in retrospect. This book reviews the reality of what is happening in Christian religious practice in the UK. As such it comes at a crucial time, when the Church of England appears to be gathering the will to change, and when an accurate and reasoned understanding of what is really happening, and has done so since 1980, is essential.

 

How can these things be ?

‘How can these things be ?’ you may be saying. ‘Isn’t there lots of church decline going on?’ The media tell me of thousands of churches closing. Many church leaders bemoan shrinking congregations.

The reason for the tension between this research and the picture often painted is twofold. Firstly, media, academia and many church leaders routinely ignore church growth. The growth of new churches and ethnic minority churchgoing has been happening for years – but it flies beneath the radar of most academics, most of the media and not a few in the Anglican Church.

Secondly, evidence of church growth and decline needs to be looked at together. The contemporary British church is both declining and growing. Where you look affects what you find. The real picture for the last 30 years looks something like this:

–      Roughly the same number of churches have closed as have opened

–      Some denominations have seen serious decline – notably the ‘mainline’ denominations – Anglican, Methodist, URC, Catholic

–       Some churches have seen major growth; especially churches rooted in ethnic minority communities and newer denominations

–      Some parts of the mainline churches are seeing growth – Anglican growth centres on the Diocese of London (the one Anglican diocese which has consistently grown over the last 20 years) and new Anglican churches/fresh expressions.

 

Six Lessons for the Church of England

–      Firstly, there is hope. We are bombarded by media (and not a few church leaders and members) who assume that society is inexorably getting more secular, that there is nothing much we can do. A glance at nations such as China, where there has been massive church growth despite very difficult conditions, ought to inoculate us from such fatalism. And the evidence from Britain shows there is large-scale, long-lasting church growth happening in Britain. Despair is both wrong theologically and flies in the face of the evidence.

–      Secondly, church growth often involves people from ethnic minorities. And it is striking that the churches that most effectively harness such people come from outside the mainstream churches. The Church of England may have a black archbishop, but black Christians are much more frequently found outside, rather than inside the Church of England. How can the CofE change to release the gifts of non-white Anglicans ? Perhaps we need to import some leaders and humbly learn from those parts of the wider Anglican Communion that have seen serious church growth ?

–      Thirdly, church planting is the most effective single strategy for growing the church. Every diocese needs a church planting strategy.

–      Fourth, church growth happens most often along the ‘trade routes’ of Britain – places where there is population growth, immigration and economic dynamism. Thus, towns along the East Coast mainline – like London, York and Edinburgh – are more likely to see growth than elsewhere. This doesn’t mean church growth only happens along trade routes, only that it is more likely there. It is easier to grow churches in Kensington than Cumbria. We need growing churches everywhere. But leaders in areas suffering population loss and economic decline shouldn’t beat themselves up when they find the ground resistant to growth. Conversely, we need to identify the ‘trade-routes’ as seedbeds for church growth, just as St Paul worked along the trade-routes of the Mediterranean to reach the ancient world.

–      Fifthly, the Diocese of London is the centre of Anglican church growth. This is not comfortable news for other dioceses – and no cause for pride in London. Nonetheless, the wider Anglican family needs to ask why London has bucked the trend and others have not. In particular, it is striking that it was under Archbishop David Hope that London changed from decline to growth – what is it about what he did that we all can learn from ?

–      Sixth, we need a theology of church growth. We need to articulate plainly why growing the church is what God wants – and let go of the fatalism that wider Western culture has insinuated into the hearts of both individual Christians, congregations and church structures.

 

Hope for the Church

Church Growth in Britain offers hope to local churches. It echoes and reinforces the work pioneered by Bob Jackson a decade ago. The ‘secularisation thesis’, which assumes western countries are inexorably getting more secular, is simply not true. Moreover, church leaders and members need rescuing from the despair that this thesis encourages. We have developed in many parts of the Anglican Church a kind of ‘eschatology of despair’ that feeds into an ecclesiology of decline. When we think English churches are doomed to shrink, we behave accordingly – and then they do shrink. But the evidence shows that substantial church growth can and is happening in contemporary Britain.

This is a bracing, but hugely exciting challenge for the Church of England. We can stop moping round like Private Fraser. Instead of an eschatology of despair, we should grasp an eschatology of hope, which leads into a theology of church growth. Jesus remains such as magnetic as he was 2,000 years ago. The Holy Spirit is just as widely at work – if we have eyes to see him. Research into church growth in contemporary Britain shows that when people step out in faith God uses that faith to grow churches and bless communities.

 

To find out more:

Church Growth in Britain from 1980 to the Present, has just been published by Ashgate and is available from bookshops and online booksellers. It will be formally launched at Church House, Westminster on Tuesday 19 June, 5-6.30 pm. This is followed by a conference at Cranmer Hall, Durham, ‘Church Growth in the North’, on 2 July. For more information, contact Esther Kisby, via e.j.kisby@durham.ac.uk

22 Responses to "Startling academic research shows widespread Church growth in Britain"

  1. Pingback: Startling academic research shows widespread Church growth in Britain » Sandy Matheson

  2. R.E.Richardson   16/06/2012 at 08:18

    Marvellous news… In a crisis Churches are full and most people want a religious funeral of some kind even if only as an insurance-policy-to-hedge-one’s-bets ….. More C of E Churches should use rousing, used-friendly songs / hymns / carols as singing does attract, and keeps, people… Try those used in ‘Songs of Praise’ on BBC…. ‘worthy’, ‘traditional’, and now little-known hymns are a real-turn-off however good they are…. After all, both Charles Wesley and William Booth knew this very well and look at the then popularity of Methodism and the Salvation Army…

  3. Pingback: Church Growth and the state | Will Cookson's Blog

  4. Matthew Frost, Tearfund   19/06/2012 at 10:16

    Our research has been telling us this too, and we’re finding that local churches which serve their community are growing both here in the UK and around the world. Having spent the last 40 years working through local churches in some of the poorest communities around the world, we’re hearing great stories of the transformation that comes when churches grasp the holistic nature of mission and seek to show the love of God through demonstration as well as proclamation.

  5. GAJP   19/06/2012 at 13:45

    Diosese of London and church growth, do you really need to think about this? One word…ALPHA

    Probably a third of our congregation came through the Alpha route. I’m so looking forward to our next course in September to see what God will do through the course

  6. Dr John N Sutherland   19/06/2012 at 18:59

    This is my experience in Scotland too. The church grows where the population changes: St Andrews, Glasgow, Inverness, etc. The mainstream (liberal) churches are in terrible decline but dominate the media due to their pretend membership numbers. (Pretend in that this is not a measure of commitment but of paper membership.) The exception may be the RC church and the Free Church of Scotland.

    Independent, evangelical and charismatic churches are the centres of growth across Scotland. Spirits are up and hope is high up here too.

  7. Oliver Nicholson   20/06/2012 at 15:25

    More to the point, look at the popularity of chant as part of people’s spiritual lives. There is a real future for plainsong – perhaps more so than for the mores shallow easily outdated sort of ‘worship song’.

  8. Barney Barron   22/06/2012 at 15:48

    This article doesn’t raise anything new just picks out stats that sound good but don’t really offer much hope when put under proper examination. The danger of this article is that it allows us to bury our head in the sand pretending everything is alright really, ignoring the real issues and opportunities for the church in Britain. To briefly answer the points raised.

    – There are 500,000 Christians in black majority churches in Britain. Sixty years ago there were hardly any
    This may be true, however the black majority churches are thriving on the immigration of Christians and not the evangelisation of Britain. The black majority churches have been largely unsuccessful in reaching the indigineous British population and are struggling to keep their own second and third generation once they become westernised.
    – At least 5,000 new churches have been started in Britain since 1980 – and this is an undercount. The true figure is probably higher
    This figure is misleading because at least as many churches have closed if not more.
    – There are one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities
    Again this is mainly growth from the immigration of Christians but not helping the evangelisation of Britain.
    – The adult membership of the Anglican Diocese of London has risen by over 70 per cent since 1990
    The London figures are not representative of the whole of the U.K. and over-inflated by the black majority churches.

  9. David Goodhew   27/06/2012 at 20:57

    Dear Barney,

    Thank you for your comments – may I respond.
    – 500 000 black majority Christians: yes, they are largely due to immigration (although there is evidence of significant outreach, too), but why should that be discounted ? Most British muslims owe their origin to relatively recent immigration – yet they are recognised as a significant part of society.
    – 5000 churches: Peter Brierley’s most recent figures (which have only just come out) suggest my estimte of 5000 churches is deefinitely an undercount. I would now suggest 7000 churches have been opened in Britain since 1980. That is close to the number than have closed. Since 2005, more churhces have opened than closed in Britain.
    – one million Christians from black, asian and minority ethnic communities. Yes, they are mainly immigrants – but many will live long term in this country. As Church Growth in Britain shows, they are already swelling the number of weddings, baptisms and confirmations in cities such as Edinburgh. Just as ‘Irish immigrants’ rejuvenated 19th century catholicism, so these people may rejuvenate 21st century churches.
    – The Anglican figures for London do not include black majority churches – they are not Anglican. You are right to say that the diocese of London is not representative of Anglicanism. But it is a pretty big exceptionn ! However, when these figures are put together with the many other signs of growth (black, aisan and minority ethnic churches; new churches, growth on ‘trade routes; limited growth in mainline denominations), it is clear that London cannot be sidelined. Moreover, cultural change has a habit of happening in the capital and then spreading outwards – so it may be that church growth in London now will translate into growth elsewhere.

    Yours,

    David

  10. Anthony Bellasario   14/09/2012 at 12:53

    That is good news. It just proves that religion is still relevant to people’s lives. Thanks for the update.

  11. Chris Enwerem   09/05/2013 at 11:36

    This is a good news ! It gives us hope that things are not as bad as media portraits it to be. As regards to the Black minority outside Church of England – One of the reasons I feel cause this,apart from the historical story of discrimation is,some find it hard to relate our spiritual teaching into their day to day activities. CofE Evangelical and Charamatic arm has a potential to reach the black minority.

  12. Chris Enwerem   09/05/2013 at 11:41

    This is a good news ! It gives us hope that things are not as bad as media portraits it to be. As regards to the Black minority outside Church of England – One of the reasons I feel cause this,apart from the historical story of discrimation is,some find it hard to relate our spiritual teaching into their day to day activities. CofE Evangelical and Charamatic arm has a potential to reach the black minority.
    Thanks for the update,
    Chris

  13. Mike Stewart   12/07/2013 at 22:20

    Good to hear the facts.

    Everywhere I go in Britain I hear the same thing; churches growing, working together, serving an increasingly fearful society. Not always the same denomination, but wherever hearts are open and folk are learning to look to Jesus rather than the media.

    I hope I live long enough to see the nation-wide upset of our prophets of doom. It will be rather like the you-tube clip of Susan Boyle’s wonderful discomfiture of the judges.

    The Holy Spirit cannot be kept down.

  14. MikeNZ   15/11/2013 at 21:10

    We’ll see.
    Bodies in church, taking part in services don’t necessarily equate as truly Christ’s. I know I was one for years.
    As long as you’re “geographically set” you’re static and bound like a standing army.
    The Church was never meant to be a standing army but a guerrilla force able to move at will.
    MikeNZ

  15. Dyed   21/11/2013 at 19:43

    Who is Archbishop David Hope?

  16. David Austin   25/11/2013 at 19:04

    Encouraging news David – especially in the inner cities.

  17. Femi   13/02/2014 at 15:41

    PLAIN TRUTH.
    1. It is interesting to read all these views and opinions. I grew up Anglican, but had to shift has the church in the west lost it’s grips in following clear-cut Bible doctrines. The fact is when people need God, they know where to get Him… in the Evangelical and Charistmatic stream of the Church, and that’s why they are growing! When others need some other kinds of gratifications. . …they know the also know their way to the various social clubs! When the Chinese restaurants stop producing Chinese meals, they’ll close down! Any Church that stop adhering to the truths of the Bible will simply go down.
    Church growth trends clearly tells you where the growths are!
    2. Ministerial formation: The CoE needs to establish Schools of Ministry for her ordinands. Let those who want to major in theology spend time in the Seminaries. Most of the courses does NOT prepare the ordinands for ministry, but as theologians.
    3. Use lay members, let them do the work of ministry. EPHESIANS 4:11-13.

    Thank you

  18. Femi   13/02/2014 at 15:48

    PLAIN TRUTH.
    1. It is interesting to read all these views and opinions. I grew up Anglican, but had to shift has the church in the west lost it’s grips in following clear-cut Bible doctrines. The fact is when people need God, they know where to get Him… in the Evangelical and Charistmatic stream of the Church, and that’s why they are growing! When others need some other kinds of gratifications. . … also know their way to the various social clubs! When the Chinese restaurants stop producing Chinese meals, they’ll close down! Any Church that stop adhering to the truths of the Bible will simply go down.
    Church growth trends clearly tells you where the growths are!
    2. Ministerial formation: The CoE needs to establish Schools of Ministry for her ordinands. Let those who want to major in theology spend time in the Seminaries. Most of the courses does NOT prepare the ordinands for ministry, but as theologians.
    3. Use lay members, let them do the work of ministry. EPHESIANS 4:11-13.
    Thank you

  19. Pingback: Startling academic research shows widespread Church growth in Britain – Church Resurgence

  20. Pingback: Cardinal Nichols is soft on immigration because his Church benefits from it – Telegraph Blogs

  21. Pingback: Rowan Williams ignorant of church growth in UK - Christian Forums

  22. Pingback: The Anglican Church Is Growing In The UK….Surprised? You Shouldn’t Be