‘Alongside the phenomenon of church decline there has been substantial church growth in Britain since 1980. That growth is focussed in London and amongst black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and amongst new churches. But such growth extends across much of Britain and across a range of churches.’
So concludes a new book on Church Growth in Britain, 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew, Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, Durham (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012, xiii + 265pp., ISBN 978-1-4094-2576-2, £17.99 paperback, also available in hardback and as an ebook), and targeted at both academic and church leadership audiences.
The volume is ‘a mosaic of micro-studies’, comprising fourteen important examples of growth during the past three decades as experienced in three contexts – mainstream churches, new churches, and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – together with an introduction and conclusion by the editor. The full contents list, introduction and index are freely available at
For a book about church growth BRIN readers may be surprised at the (superficially) relative absence of statistics! Just one figure and two tables appear in the whole work. Lynda Barley’s essay on Anglican cathedrals is one of the most quantitative.
Moreover, several of the chapters adopt a purely qualitative approach. Nevertheless, plenty of numbers can be found interspersed in the text, the most interesting of them being local or congregational.
The case studies are preceded by Goodhew’s overview of church growth in Britain since 1980 and followed by his conclusion boldly entitled ‘The death and resurrection of Christianity in contemporary Britain’.
While Goodhew is undoubtedly right to critique the excesses of secularization theory and to highlight that ‘the notion that all British churches are in inexorable decline is a myth’, he could be challenged for his equally loose talk of resacralization.
He is also shaky in his understanding of the longer-term historical context and over-simplistic in accepting the 1960s as ‘the key decade of secularization’ and the late 1970s as the beginning of some kind of Christian ‘fight-back’. The book’s commencement point of 1980 is rationalized on this basis.
Goodhew tends to be rather dismissive of the value of national statistics: ‘all national figures concerning churches need to be taken with a pinch of salt’, he writes, illustrating the argument by what he believes to be ‘initial data for the 2011 British Census’ (no results from which have yet been published), but which are actually from a large-scale opinion poll.
However, the point about national statistics is surely that they are net figures (‘stocks’), the balance of both gains and losses (‘flows’). Growth and decline have pretty well always co-existed in the numerical life of the Church.
So, identification of pockets of growth does not necessarily alter the prevailing net direction of travel, which – on most performance indicators – continues to be downward. As Goodhew observes, ‘there is no place for any ecclesiastical triumphalism’.
The essential ‘problem’ with a case study approach (‘church history written “from below”’, as it is described here, as if social historians had not already been doing that for several decades) is that it is possible to assemble an alternative set of case studies pointing to exactly the opposite conclusion.
For instance, Steve Bruce, the eminent sociologist of religion who comes in for some criticism from the authors of this volume, is doing precisely that in what will be a massive forthcoming book looking at local restudies of religion in Britain since 1945.
Although not all the case studies are purely local or regional (thus, Ian Randall and George Lings write about Baptists and Anglicans respectively from a national perspective), the volume’s focus is acknowledged to be on congregational growth.
Accordingly, there are omissions which make for an unbalanced macro-level picture of growth. In particular, the pioneers of British church growth and some of the key aspects of its history are rather rushed over. Examples include the lack of systematic treatment of:
- the British Church Growth Association, formerly the Church Growth Unit, which published Church Growth Digest between 1979 and 2003
- the research and writing on church growth of Peter Brierley, during his long career at the Bible Society, MARC Europe, Christian Research and, now, Brierley Consultancy
- the various interdenominational initiatives in evangelism over the period, from the Nationwide Initiative in Evangelism (1979) and Mission England (1984) at the start to Back to Church Sunday and the Big Welcome in contemporary times
In sum, the book offers an extremely useful series of case studies (often based upon original research, including oral history and participant observation), but it perhaps falls short of a comprehensive appraisal of church growth in Britain since 1980.
It provides a necessary antidote to the ‘eschatology of decline’ and ‘ecclesiology of fatalism’ which has consumed some academics and church leaders, yet it occasionally runs the risk of overstating the opposite, editorial case.
And, in picking the volume up, BRIN readers should be prepared for a relative paucity of what they would consider hard quantitative data.