Church Growth in Britain since 1980

‘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.


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5 Responses to Church Growth in Britain since 1980

  1. Pingback: A few good links | eChurch Blog

  2. Problems Counting ‘Net’ Church Growth or Decline.

    I am grateful to you, Clive, for raising important questions in this post about the new volume Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present. In particular you argue for the need to relate talk of growth to the ‘net’ figures of churchgoing, saying: “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.”

    However, there are two major reasons why ‘net’ figures require a health warning.

    Tricky ‘Net’ Calls

    First, there are major limitations with our statistics for ‘net’ churchgoing. In particular, they show a pronounced tendency to undercount. There is overcounting, too – but I would argue that the balance is weighted in favour of undercounting (especially when uSa [usual Sunday attendance] is the main measure). Peter Brierley’s recent volume, UK Church Statistics 2005-2015 is especially helpful in showing up this process. Peter Brierley’s work blazes the trail – but also shows how tricky it is to navigate through the figures – and that limits the value of ‘net’ figures.

    – Brierley notes in his recent work that previous uSa estimates were 7% more pessimistic than turned out to be the case, although he sees the overall trend as downwards (UK Church Statistics 2005-2015, 13.8). Brierley also concludes that specific denominations are growing much faster than he had previously estimated. For example, in Religious Trends 7, he concluded that the uSa of English Pentecostalism would grow from 233 000 in 2000 to 289 000 in 2010. In his latest work, he concludes that the figure for 2010 was in fact 326 000, a significant margin of error. A range of other instances could be given.
    – Data for Pentecostal churches, the fastest growing in the UK, is hard to come by (the 2005 English Church census response rate was 30% for Pentecostals – Brierley, Pulling out of the Nosedive, p. 16). A great many growing churches are particularly lax when it comes to statistical records, so we simply do not know what is happening, whereas the declining mainline congregations are generally more assiduous in recording their demise !
    – Data on the number of churches points in a different direction to uSa data. Here I am a fan of ‘net’ numbers. Talk of thousands of churches closing since 1980 belies how thousands have been opening in the same decades (compare Death of Christian Britain, 2nd ed. p.4 and Brierley, Pulling Out of the Nosedive, p. 10). What is even more striking is new data that there are now markedly more churches opening than closing (Brierley, 2005-15, 1.1 – suggests that 1248 more churches have opened than closed between 2005 and 2010).
    – A number of churches are seeing significant midweek growth, which does not feature in the main statistical measure (uSa). For example, as Lynda Barley has shown, cathedrals, measured by uSa, are declining, yet their weekday congregations have more than doubled since 2000.
    – When fresh expressions are counted, Church of England figures markedly rise – George Lings’ recent work on ‘fresh expressions’ in Liverpool diocese, (which has a robust definition of what is a ‘fresh expression’), suggests that a diocese which, by official figures, is declining, is actually stable in attendance if fresh expressions are counted (they are currently invisible in official figures). I do not have data for Methodism, but imagine the same is true there.
    – Data for new and Pentecostal church membership suggests greater dynamism that uSa indicates – thus Brierley projects that English Pent’ism will grow by around 3% in uSa between 2010 and 2015, but than it will rise by nearly 25% in terms of m’ship (see 2005-15, 9.1 and 13.8).
    – More generally, Brierley’s recent work suggests that net church membership in England is much more robust than uSa – holding steaday at between 3 600 000 and 3 700 000. The decline is in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, not England. Again, uSa does not give the whole picture.

    ‘Net’ statistics have value, but the above data is sufficient to show that ‘net’ estimates (especially those based solely on uSa) are significantly flawed, have a tendency to undercount and need to be issued with a health warning.

    Crucial Developments Hidden by the ‘Net’

    The second major flaw in ‘net’ statistics is the way they conceal crucial developments. The most dramatic example of this is the way racial differences are obscured by ‘net’ figures. Broadly speaking church decline is a white phenomenon. Black, asian and minority ethnic churchgoing is rapidly on the rise. It is striking how little racial differentiation has featured in discussions of church growth/decline. Thus, both God is Dead and Death of Christian Britain have very little on non-white churchgoing. Is the reason for such neglect, in part, because ‘net’ estimates dominate analysis ?

    Then there are the huge geographical variations. The arguments for church decline work well looking at much of Scotland, Wales and parts of Northern Britain. But London’s churchgoing is clearly on the rise – the only debate is how big is the rise. For those who say, ‘London is just the exception that proves the rule’, my response is that there are some exceptions that are so big, they require the rule to be, at the very least, qualified.


    Overall, Church Growth in Britain does NOT pretend (despite what one or two pious bloggers claim!) that there is any ‘boom’ in British churches. It is very careful to stress that there is both decline and growth.

    As to whether there is, in ‘net’ terms, more decline or more growth, Church Growth in Britain avoids coming down one side or the other. Partly, this is to ensure that the much neglected fact that there is significant church growth happening in Britain is not obscured. Partly, it avoids commenting on ‘net’ numbers because ‘net’ figures are seriously problematic for the reasons shared above.

    David Goodhew
    Cranmer Hall

  3. Clive Field says:

    Peter Brierley offers some interesting ‘Thoughts about Church Growth’, by way of commentary on the collection edited by David Goodhew, in CHURCH OF ENGLAND NEWSPAPER, 15 July 2012, p. 15. Unfortunately, Brierley’s column is not freely available online, and only available online on a pay-per-view basis for four weeks, via the newspaper’s website. Brierley has had a monthly column (focusing on church statistics) in the newspaper for several years now.

  4. Norman Ivison says:

    David, how can we be sure about growth in (traditional) Pentecostalism in the UK if, as you suggest, the way the data is gathered (only 1 in 3 responding) is much less reliable than the way it is gathered for larger denominations? If you have a congregation which is growing, aren’t you more likely to respond anyway?

  5. Pingback: Church Growth Debated and Other News | British Religion in Numbers

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