Churches are dying out – but it’s not all bad news

Is your church growing or declining? Or maybe it’s stable (which might otherwise be described as stagnant!)?

It is hard sometimes to work out what is really happening with overall church growth or decline in the UK. Church statistics researcher John Hayward has recently published his thoughts on the state of church attendance which makes for very interesting reading and seems to confirm anecdotal evidence across the Affinity network of approximately 1,200 churches.

Figure 1: Annual change in membership of UK churches 2015-2020 [Source: https://churchmodel.org.uk/2022/05/15/growth-decline-and-extinction-of-uk-churches/]

Overall, the decline in church attendance within the last century is startling. Nearly all the historic church denominations founded before the twentieth century are declining steeply (Affinity member, The Free Church of Scotland is a notable exception). If the decline continues, there is the real possibility that well-known national denominations such as the Church of England or the Methodists could be virtually extinct within 20 years.

Some of this must be the shake-out of nominal Christians – people who attended church because it was a cultural tradition but no longer feel the need. This is also seen in the decline in so-called ‘Christian’ weddings and funerals.

But is there something else going on with the churches themselves? Hayward takes a closer look and proposes that broadly, the declining churches are those with what he calls ‘Progressive Ideology’ – by which he means the abandonment of biblical Christianity and taking human reason over God’s revelation and cultural norms over biblical principles. He uses a crude but plausible metric for defining a progressive church as their approach to same-sex marriage and here it gets interesting.

Figure 2: Annual change in membership of UK churches 2015-2020 by attitude to same-sex marriage. Date of adoption of SSM indicated. [Source: https://churchmodel.org.uk/2022/05/20/uk_church_decline_and_progressive_ideology/]

Apart from the Roman Catholic church (which whilst conservative on morality, has many other areas where they depart from scripture) all the churches in decline are all those who could be described as progressive, with a lukewarm attachment to confessional Christianity.

Meanwhile, none of the growing churches have adopted same-sex marriage. Rather, they are positively affirming marriage as between a man and woman only – the historical church and Biblical position. Contrary to some opinions, churches becoming more ‘inclusive’ does not attract more people.

The Church of Scotland is a case in point, where they recently adopted same-sex marriage as part of a long process of abandoning the authority of the Bible and yet in the last 60 years, they have lost a million members.

An encouragement to keep going

We sometimes get the impression from the media that the church is dying but behind the headlines is the reality that God is still working to save people from within and outside the church and in fact he is especially honouring those who are honouring him and his word, as seen in the growth of evangelical churches.

God is at work and these statistics should spur us on to greater enthusiasm for evangelism. The need is still great, there are vast numbers of people in the UK who are ignorant of the gospel. There are also now large numbers of ex-church attendees who have given up on liberal denominations and are no longer attending any church. Of course, it is only the Lord who brings about growth but we must do our part to be an evangelising church, reaching the lost communities around us.

These statistics are a challenge to us all, that we must take care to stick closely to the truth of the Bible or we too may find ourselves in the declining part of the graph.


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