Christian research confusion

I feel for Benita Hewitt, the Director of Christian Research, and indeed currently their only full time person. She seems to have found herself in the middle of a media storm about apparently conflicting statistics on her organisation’s newly published Religious Trends 7.

Ruth Gledhill reproduces some tables from this publication giving a clearly shown estimate of church attendance in England in 2050 of 718,100. But this page on Christian Research’s own website, reproducing a March 2008 magazine article supposed to be summarising the figures in Religious Trends 7, gives a figure for church membership in England in 2050 of 1,898,000. That is a discrepancy of over a million! Are these supposed to be members who don’t attend? Even on the higher figure the predicted decline from 3,554,200 attenders or 3,764,000 members in 2000 is worrying, but by no means as catastrophic as the figure quoted by Ruth in The Times, and disputed by me and many others, yesterday.

So, what is going on? Even in the magazine article the final table suggests a total for “churchgoers” in Great Britain (not just England) in 2050 of 0.9 million, which agrees with Ruth’s figures. It also suggests that a mere 3% of those churchgoers will be under 30 – but on what basis are they predicting the habits of people not yet even born?

It seems to me that Christian Research has got its figures mixed up, or else there are some explanations of them in the full report which have not been picked up by newspapers or bloggers. This also illustrates the dangers of extrapolating current trends for long periods in the future

But, as David Keen writes in his take on the situation:

no complacency, the picture is still one of decline, and there’s no reason for folk to pat themselves on the back and reassure themselves with the knowledge that the Titanic isn’t sinking as fast as we thought.

0 thoughts on “Christian research confusion

  1. Pingback: Do the numbers add up? » Steve Addison’s blog » World Changers

  2. Thank you for your concern – I am a little busy at the moment! Let me explain the conflicting statistics. The set of numbers on our website, taken from the March edition of our publication Quadrant, is based on “membership”. The definition of “membership” is, of course, different for each denomination. The set of numbers published by The Times is based on “attendance” on a typical Sunday morning, as measured by our various church census projects. Both sets of numbers give a picture, but neither of them give the full picture as Lynda Barley points out. The Times chose to use the lower of the two sets of numbers. Both tables appear in Religious Trends 7 (on pages 12.5 and 12.6). You can find out about Religious Trends 7 and order a copy on this website: http://www.bibleresources.org.uk/pages/data.asp?layout=book.htm&id=952 I am aiming to get a link on the Christian Research website as soon as I can. Alternatively, visit us at Christian Resources Exhibition, stand E6, 13-16th May.

    We have not “got our figures mixed up”, although I do share some of your concerns about extrapolating to 2050. I hope that helps.

    Benita

  3. Thanks, Rhea. But there is nothing new in this article except some new confusion: a

    drop from just under one million to around 899,000

    is hardly worrying, but even the most optimistic estimates are worse than that!

    That new confusion comes from the linked article in Christian Today, the second page of which has some interesting new information, including more from Benita Hewitt:

    The statistics in the latest edition of Religious Trends were put together under the guidance of former head of Christian Research, Peter Brierley, before his departure from the think tank last year. Ms Hewitt said that Christian Research would not be making any more forecasts, but rather shift the focus of its research into present attendance patterns and use that to “build bridges” with non-churchgoers.

    “It’s always dangerous forecasting to 2050 and I don’t think you can reliably do it. Nobody can predict what the world is going to look like in 40 years time. It’s just that if present trends continue this is what we are facing. The church needs to change and look at where it is growing, and learn from best practice. And there are all sorts of signs of growth.”

    New initiatives and a good research department were helping the Church of England to buck the trend of decline quite well, but the other denominations are “falling much, much faster”, she warned.

    “There is no doubting that the church is declining. And as much as Lynda Barley will point to the positive news – Back to Church Sunday, Fresh Expressions – the overall picture is decline,” she said.

    “The church needs to change and just adapt more to what’s going on and be more sensitive to what’s going on in the culture.”

    Ms Hewitt said she agreed “absolutely” with the title of an article in today’s Telegraph, “The Church isn’t dying … but it needs to evolve”.

    The church “needs to evolve and where it is evolving it is growing”, she said. “If it doesn’t evolve then those trends that were predicted in the book of stats may well happen. We hope that they don’t.”

    Amen! It seems that the unjustified and misleading predictions of the distant future came from Peter Brierley and the current director of Christian Research is rightly distancing herself from them. But it is a shame that they were not more carefully edited before publication.

  4. Benita, thanks for your comment, which I didn’t see before my own last comment. Thank you also for the further clarification.

    These issues are clearly very difficult. I know from personal experience how hard it is to measure membership and attendance at just one church, let alone every church in the country. I understand the distinction you have made between membership and Sunday attendance, which sadly has not been reported as clearly as it could have been. It is indeed unfortunate that the worst figures have been extrapolated beyond what can be justified, and the results picked up by the media without proper explanation.

  5. Religious Trends 7 is a huge volume of statistics that has taken 1000’s of hours to put together. It contains information on all sorts of things including psychological type of churchgoers, Alpha worldwide, HIV and Aids, youth organisations, Christian bookshops, UK births/deaths/marriages/family composition, househod religion, schools and exam results, overseas mission workers as well as stats on 275 Christian denominations in the UK and a little on other religions. The editor is Peter Brierley, this is his last publication for Christian Research. I would liked to have spent more time studying the book before publishing.

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Pentecost news - I hope not!

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