Thoughts on Trends in Church Attendance

by Peter Brierley.

The recent debate over whether church attendance has reached a plateau, hosted at the Church Mouse blogThe Guardian and here at BRIN, has been of great interest. As a religious statistician and consultant, and editor of the seven editions of Religious Trends, I’m taking the opportunity to offer additional interpretation of the data.

It is not clear that “Catholic mass attendance has flattened out at 920,000”, as the officially published Roman Catholic mass attendance figures from 2000 to 2007 show a drop of over 8%, down from 1,000,820 in 2000 to 915,556 in 2007. However, it has risen to 918,000 in 2008.

The Church of England official figures for adult Average Weekly Attendance (AWA) fall by 2%, from 941,000 in 2002 to 919,000 in 2008, and their children’s figures drop from 229,000 to 225,000, also a drop of 2%. The Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) adult figures fall from 838,000 in 2002 to 812,000 in 2008, a drop of 3%, and from 167,000 to 148,000 for children (a decline of 11% in 6 years). The Usual Sunday Attendance figures – which would be comparable to Roman Catholic and Baptist measurements – go from 768,000 in 2002 to 718,000 in 2008 for adults (a drop of 7%), and from 151,000 to 127,000 in 2008 for children (a drop of 16%).

What appears to be happening is that Sunday attendance is dropping, especially for children and young people, but that midweek attendance is increasing: up from 103,000 in 2002 for adults to 107,000 in 2008, and for young people (up from 62,000 in 2002 to 77,000 in 2008).

By putting midweek and Sunday attendance together, the drop in Sunday attendance is obscured. The “flattening out” therefore is a mix of Sunday decline and midweek increase.

The question is then whether those dropping out of Sunday attendance are simply switching to mid-week, or whether the ‘mid-weekers’ are new attenders. Christian Research ran a survey in 2004 which showed that the mid-weekers were often new people, but a more recent survey in 2009 run by Brierley Consulting showed that more mid-weekers were formerly Sunday attenders. In reality, the growing number of mid-week attenders is likely to be made up of a mixture of switchers and new people. While the new attenders are obviously welcome, their numbers do not as yet compensate for those dropping out.

Looking at the other denominations cited as exhibiting a plateau – the Catholics and Baptists – neither measure mid-week mass or service attendance separately, and so we cannot say what is happening here. The analysis presented thus far relates more to the Church of England, and assumes that Baptist attendance follows Baptist membership trends – which is not necessarily the case.

While of course it is important to note trends in the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church, it is also important to look at what is happening in the other denominations also. The Presbyterians, Methodists and United Reformed Church are all declining very rapidly; the less rapid decline in the Church of England and the Catholic Church does not offset the general pattern. The only denomination, loosely defined, which can truly be said to exhibit growth is Pentecostalism, courtesy the many black churches.

The 1998 English Church Census showed a further drastic drop in numbers attending church, compared with the earlier 1989 census. The 2005 Census showed a continuing decline, but at a reduced rate. The most recent figures for Anglicans and Catholics (important because these are the biggest denominations) show that while decline continues overall, the rate of decline is lessening. It is important to know why and where that is happening. The analysis presented thus far by Christian Research does not allow this to emerge, but it would be interesting to know – if more data is available than was published.

Peter Brierley is former Director of Christian Research. He compiled and edited the seven issues of Religious Trends, from 1997 to 2008, as well as running the English Church Censuses of 1979, 1989, 1998 and 2005, and the Scottish Church Census of 2002, 1994 and 1984. He now directs Brierley Consulting, which publishes the bimonthly bulletin FutureFirst. Contact: peter @ brierleyres . com.

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One Response to Thoughts on Trends in Church Attendance

  1. Peter

    Thanks for this. I was hoping to come back to the topic, and will do again, but haven’t been able to since the debate.

    I guess the issue is which year to pick as the base year. Your stats pick an earlier year as the base than Benita does when she talks about the flattening out. I also note that the numbers you quote are slightly different from Benita’s – not materially, but slightly.

    So if we take Catholic attendance the numbers in full are:

    1995 1,135,044
    1996 1,111,077
    1997 1,086,250
    1998 1,056,027
    1999 1,041,728
    2000 1,005,522
    2001 993,632
    2002 968,006
    2003 949,869
    2004 928,870
    2005 917,484
    2006 927,154
    2007 915,556
    2008 918,844

    So it looks like things have flattened out since 2004/5.

    For the Church of England the numbers in full are:

    Average Monthly Average Weekly
    2001 1,708,000 1,205,000
    2002 1,682,000 1,170,000
    2003 1,704,000 1,187000
    2004 1,707,000 1,186000
    2005 1,706,000 1,174000
    2006 1,694,000 1,163000
    2007 1,690,000 1,160000
    2008 1,667,000 1,145000

    So from that perspective it looks like things have flattened out since 2001 in terms of Average Monthly Attendance. Average Weekly Attendance shows a small decline, but has been pretty flat over the same period.

    However, the broader point is that this is a change in the long term trend from the 1990s where we were seeing dramatic declines year on year. The charts Benita put on my blog illustrate the point – the era of big decline is over. Whether we are now in a period of small decline or stability is the discussion we are having, but there is no doubt that the trend has changed.

    The challenge now, therefore, is to keep changing it and move into a period of growth.

    As for the other denominations, it looks like your numbers above are a little old (latest is five years old at 2005), so we’ll have to wait for Christian Research to pull those together for a fuller analysis. I understand they are working on that right now.

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