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 firstname.lastname@example.org