Saturday, 21 June 2008

Religious Intelligence: Religious demographics: The Greying of Churchgoers

(Ed: The recognition of what Peter Brierley is saying in this important article is what drove the Saffron Walden Deanery Growth Task Group to focus on age-demographics in its preliminary survey of the situation facing us. The report can be read and downloaded here.)

Articles in the past month in The Times and The Daily Telegraph have focused on how the number of Muslims in the UK could exceed the number of churchgoers by, say, 2050, although the comparisons made were not like-for-like. It could also be argued that the number of churchgoers should include weekly attenders and/or occasional attenders (but then, to be, fair, so should the number of Muslims attending mosque).
Religious demographics: The Greying of Churchgoers

It is easy to focus on the level of the numbers and compare one with the other, but the real concern is not how big or how small each number might be, but the make-up of the numbers. Neither of the above mentioned papers looked at this critical issue. Why are the number of people going to church declining? Of course, it is partly because those leaving are not being offset by those joining (3,000 people stop going to church every week in England against only 1,000 a week starting). It is partly because we are seeing people coming to faith in England in the 21st century at only half the rate at which they were in the 1980s.

Many church people are saying they have lost their confidence in sharing their faith, and want more “encouragement” to do so. Maybe Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion have had a more insidious effect than we realise. Are not people coming “back to church”? Yes, they are, but thus far in relatively small numbers – “coming-backers” account for perhaps one in every 300 of our present congregations.

These factors, while important, only tend to confuse the problem, and hide the real issue. Are people leaving because they find the church “boring”? Well, yes, some do, but it’s a small percentage. Are people leaving because they “can’t find a church they like” especially if they move house? Well, yes, some do, but it’s a smaller percentage still. The key reason why numbers are declining is, simply, that church folk are dying! They are, as the Salvation Army memorably puts it, “being promoted to glory”. Read more
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