‘Onward Christian Soldiers: Churches Resurgent’ proclaims the headline in Jonathan Wynne-Jones’s article in today’s Sunday Telegraph, referring to the case advanced by Christian Research over the past three months that the relentless decline in churchgoing may be coming to an end, at least for now.
The Church of England was also in upbeat mood when it issued a press release last Wednesday (15 December) about the outcomes of this year’s Back to Church Sunday (BTCS), which was held on 26 September. See:
BTCS is an initiative for churchgoers to invite people they know who are no longer attenders to return to church. It was started in the Diocese of Manchester in 2004, spread to the Diocese of Wakefield in 2005, and has grown steadily ever since. Nine Anglican dioceses participated in 2006, 20 in 2007, 38 in 2008, and all 44 in 2009 and 2010.
Other denominations have latterly become involved, including (in 2010) congregations from the Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed and Elim Pentecostal churches; Congregational Federation, Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion and Salvation Army; the Church in Wales, Baptist Union of Wales, Presbyterian Church of Wales and Union of Welsh Independents; Churches Together in Scotland; and the Church of Ireland and Methodist Church in Ireland.
All told, around 3,500 places of worship took part in BTCS 2010, one-third of them for the first time. Collectively, they welcomed back 51,000 people, bringing the total of church returners since 2004 to more than 150,000, ‘enough to fill Wembley Stadium and the Emirates Stadium put together’, as the Anglican media folk put it.
However, what we are not told by them is that, despite a fair amount of publicity (including local radio advertisements), BTCS 2010 was evidently less successful than BTCS 2009, for which the equivalent press release last year announced 82,000 returners, including 53,000 in the Church of England alone.
A good many of these ‘prodigals’ inevitably fall away. Research by the Diocese of Lichfield after BTCS 2007 showed that, six months after the event, between 12% and 15% of returners had become regular worshippers. The Church of England considers this to be a high retention rate; others may feel that it represents quite a leakage.