Back to Church Sunday, 2011

An extra 77,000 people attended UK places of worship on Back to Church Sunday (25 September) this year, according to a Church of England press release on 25 November 2011, with congregations increasing by nearly a quarter at participating churches as a result of personal invitations to former and potential worshippers. See:

Back to Church Sunday began in the Diocese of Manchester in 2004 and had extended to just under half of all Anglican dioceses by 2007. 2008 was the first year in which other denominations became involved, although the Church of England still accounts for three-quarters of participating churches and the same proportion of new attenders. 

Reflecting this Anglican dominance, the initiative remains centred on England, with only 7% of participating churches from Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland appears to have been untouched by the movement in 2011). The 4,118 places of worship taking part this year represented just 8% of the UK total calculated by Peter Brierley for 2010. Even for the Church of England it was no more than 19%.    

Although the number of participating churches in 2011 was the highest to date, and 2011 also recorded the largest figure for new Anglican attenders (58,000), new worshippers were 5,000 fewer in 2011 than in 2009 (82,000). In 2011 each place of worship attracted an average of 18 new attenders, compared with 12 in 2008 and 15 in 2010. 

The press release claims that ‘nearly 230,000 people have come back to church’ since 2004, but this seems to be inaccurate. Adding the numbers reported in the press releases for 2008-11 inclusive produces a total of 247,000 for these four years, so the cumulative statistic from 2004 must be approaching 300,000.

Little research has been conducted by the Back to Church campaign into the long-term retention of these new attenders, but it is very probable that there will have been a high rate of attrition. It is therefore questionable whether the campaign has made quite as much difference to the UK church growth scene as is claimed.

More generally, it would be extremely desirable to know more about the inflows and outflows of church members and attenders. Most denominations simply report net figures (stocks, the numbers at a particular chronological point), which gives no sense of the underlying dynamics of church growth and decline (flows).

The Methodist Church in Great Britain is one of the rare exceptions to this data-reporting generalization. It suffered a net decline of 87,400 members between 2001 and 2010, of which some of the major flows were, on the losses side, 77,700 deaths and 47,100 persons lapsing; and, on the plus side, 37,500 new members and 12,700 restorations to membership.

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