Pentecost Postponed? Prospects for Churchgoing

A post on the Christian Today website reports on the talk given recently by Dr Peter Brierley of Brierley Research at the third annual Pentecost Festival in London. In it he painted a gloomy picture of the prospects for church attendance in Britain during the coming decade, based (it would seem), not on any new primary data, but largely on forward projections from the church censuses for which he was responsible when Director of Christian Research.

Brierley anticipates that all the main denominations, except Pentecostals, will decline in the next 10 years, with the Church of England set to experience the sharpest drop in attendance. Whereas in 2000 there were 3.5 million churchgoers, the number today is said to be 2.9 million. Brierley forecasts that, if present trends continue, church attendance in Britain will drop to 2.6 million by 2015 and 2.3 million by 2020.

A study of individual English counties in the last 12 years puts some flesh on these bare bones. While, in 1998, all but five counties had a churchgoing population (on an average Sunday) of at least 6 per cent, today there are only 12 English counties with that figure, and there are seven counties with a churchgoing population of less than 4.5 per cent. Brierley predicts that almost all counties will have a churchgoing population of less than 4.5 per cent by 2020.

He attributes the drop in attendance to various causes, including less evangelism. In 1990, Brierley claims, there were an estimated 120,000 conversions and 60,000 deaths of churchgoing Christians, but in the last year there were only 80,000 conversions and 120,000 deaths.

For Brierley, the most alarming statistics relate to the young. Whereas 60 per cent of British people overall do not attend church at all, the proportion is thought to be around 80 per cent among the under-15s and 75 per cent for 15 to 29-year-olds. 59 per cent of all churches in England have no members between the ages of 15 and 19. Brierley also voices concern about the number of 30 to 44-year-olds leaving the Church, as the presence of the over-65s in church continues to increase.

A major and related challenge for the mainline denominations is identified by Brierley as the ageing of the clergy, since previous research has found that ministers tend to attract congregations of a similar age. ‘The problem is that the ministerial age matches the congregation but not the people they need to reach.’

Black majority and other ethnic churches are the one part of the Christian scene not in decline, according to Brierley. By 2015, he anticipates that around one-quarter of churchgoers in England will be from non-white communities. Brierley explains their success because their members are inviting friends and neighbours of similar ethnic origin, and because they are friendly churches whose pastors offer good sermons.

Alongside the aggregate decrease in Christianity, other religions in Britain are set to grow, particularly Islam, with Brierley predicting the number of Muslims in Britain at 3 million by 2020. This seems a very conservative estimate, since there are probably some 2.5 million now, with Eric Kaufmann projecting almost 7 million by 2029 (in his new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?).

With thanks to the original Christian Today post at:

Since Brierley gave his talk to the Pentecost Festival he has published a short article entitled ‘Decline Continues’ in FutureFirst, No. 9, June 2010, p. 2. This provides maps (for 1998, 2010 and 2020) showing the percentage of the population in each English county attending church on an average Sunday.

The article also contains new aggregate forecasts for English churchgoing, revised to take account of the latest Roman Catholic mass attendance figures. The 2010 average weekly Sunday attendance for England as a whole is given as 5.5% of the population, with projections of 4.8% in 2015 and 4.1% in 2020.

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