‘Statistics do not provide a complete narrative about the health of the Church. Headline figures must be treated with caution and understood as only limited measures of Church activity. The use of figures in isolation from wider contextual information can lead to unfair or inaccurate assumptions.’
So says the risk assessment at the beginning of the latest triennial report Statistics for Mission, 2008–10 which has been compiled by the research team of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, with analytical assistance from the Church of England Research and Statistics Department.
The report, which will be considered by the forthcoming Methodist Conference, meeting in Southport from 30 June to 7 July, can be downloaded from:
At 42 pages, this triennial report is much fuller than many in recent years. It will be supplemented in due course by additional data on the Church’s website, which should go beyond the connexional and Methodist district totals contained in the Conference document.
It is evident that a great deal of effort has been devoted of late to enhancing Methodism’s statistical capability and the effectiveness of the annual October count. Online data-gathering is now routine, additional one-off questions are being asked of churches, the response rate has risen to 96%, and more information is being published.
At the same time, it has to be admitted that many of the key performance indicators of Methodism point to ongoing decline. Over the triennium (2007-10) the number of churches fell by 4%, membership by 10%, the community roll by 12%, baptisms and thanksgivings by 7%, marriages and blessings by 12%, average adult Sunday attendance by 7%, and average adult midweek attendance by 11%.
The good news stories included some growth in work among children and young people, notably increases in average midweek attendance by the under-13s (20%) and 13-19s (18%). However, Sunday attendance by these age groups was down by 9% and 6% respectively, so much of the apparent growth was through displacement.
1,257 Fresh Expressions were also reported in 2010, albeit 62% of them were still church-based, as well as 1,829 expressions of community chaplaincy.