Lies, damned lies and church attendance statistics

Both Eddie Arthur and John Richardson have picked up on Ruth Gledhill’s report in The Times Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour. And this is not surprising given the shocking way that the report starts:

Church attendance in Britain is declining so fast that the number of regular churchgoers will be fewer than those attending mosques within a generation, research published today suggests.

Ruth goes on to report how these statistics are being seized on by those opposed to the church. In her commentary she, a good Anglican, comments:

The decline forecast for the Church of England is so severe that its position as the established church of the nation with the Queen as Supreme Governor can surely no longer be tenable.

The problem with all of this is that the predictions are in fact quite baseless.

Apparently this research has been published by Christian Research in their statistical analysis Religious Trends. But there is no mention on their website of any publication since the 6th edition apparently in 2006. It is not clear to me whether the press has got hold of pre-publication copies of a new edition, or has simply found and decided to be shocked now by something published years ago.

But it seems clear that this research is deeply flawed – at least in its predictions for the Church of England. The report predicts that C of E attendance will fall to 87,800 in 2050 (the over-precise figure betraying a misunderstanding of statistics). But in fact the attendance figure has been stable for the last decade or so at twenty times that figure, 1.7 million. That stability is because the decline of some churches as older people die off is being balanced well by good growth, often among younger people, in a relatively small number of thriving churches. So there is no reason to foresee any significant decline in the future.

The same point has been all the more clearly by an official Church of England spokesperson. Lynda Barley writes:

These statistics are incomplete and represent only a partial picture of religious trends in the UK today. In recent years, church life has significantly diversified so these traditional statistics are less and less meaningful in isolation … These figures take no account of the rapid growth in ‘Back to Church Sunday’ initiatives that are drawing thousands back to church. Nor, being based purely on numbers in church buildings on Sundays, do they take account of the thousands joining the Church through ‘fresh expressions’ initiatives meeting in other places, on other days.

The figures used for the Church of England are not the actual numbers of Anglican churchgoers, which are carefully counted and published annually, but the smaller, and perhaps still declining, number of people formally signing up to church electoral rolls. Many younger churchgoers are uninterested in church politics and see no point in signing up as formal members. This is likely to include a good proportion of the hundreds of thousands of mostly younger people who are attending churches as the result of initiatives like the Alpha Course, as well as those involved in “fresh expressions”. These are the people who will still be attending churches in 2050, and there are far more than 87,800 of them. The failure to recognise this point is a fundamental flaw in this research.

The comparison with Muslims is also rejected because “the research does not compare like with like”. Instead, it compares those calling themselves Muslims with practising Christians who are formally signed up as church members. Making comparisons of this kind is simply irresponsible. While the Christian organisation which published this misinformation may have intended it as a wake-up call to the church, in fact they have simply played into the hands of those who want to reduce the influence of the Christian faith in our country.

Meanwhile Christian Research are advertising on their home page for a Research Manager. They certainly need one.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, Dave Walker was posting at the Church Times blog his own take on this issue, in the form of a cartoon. Do have a look, and a laugh! Dave also links to two posts on this subject by David Keen, one in which he suggests (in a comment) that the best hope for the church is Bishop Hope, and another in which he explains, in similar terms to me, Why Christian Research is Wrong. In the latter he comments:

As Rowan Williams has pointed out, the media has two main narratives for the church, decline or split, and Christian Research is, sadly, playing straight into these.

FURTHER UPDATE: Dave Walker has posted again with a link to a post at EvangelismUK reporting that the director of Christian Research is distancing herself from the article in The Times, She

describes the article as very misleading. Church attendance once a week is compared to mosque attendance once a year, and no allowance has been made for once a month, once a year, midweek and FX church attendance.

So perhaps the fault here is not with Christian Research but with The Times for sensationally misreporting the statistics. If so, I am surprised at Ruth Gledhill, but maybe she has been badly served by her junior researchers. I hope we will hear more in due course.

0 thoughts on “Lies, damned lies and church attendance statistics

  1. Dave, you are right of course. I can only talk about C of E statistics, because they are well documented and I know about them. It may be harder to get even remotely reliable statistics for other churches. But then who needs detailed statistics? King David got into trouble for trying to collect them.

    Meanwhile you as a leader of student work should be able to judge the health of the Christian faith in general among younger people. Do the trends you see, among the people who (if the Lord waits) will be mature church members and leaders in 2050, justify the pessimistic statistics?

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  3. Thanks for the analysis Peter. Really helpful.

    From another angle though, how useful are statistics of attendance anyway. What are we counting? Maybe the best measure of the church is the effect we have on our communities. I wouldn’t care if attendance was measured officially at zero, so long as there was clear evidence that the church was alive and at work in homes, streets, and workplaces.

  4. Well… student-wise, and I’m only really seeing (in CUs) the ‘UCCF’ types (whatever that means! – normally fairly charismatic and cross-centred types)… I guess what I’d say is…

    I don’t think there has been any kind of decline in numbers in the last decade. So, Bath Uni CU had about 90 members 10 years ago, 150 now but that matches the growth in the size of the University.

    What I think I’m seeing is a improvement in the maturity of many, both on arrival and on graduation, compared to 10 years ago – so probably some progress in youthwork and some progress in UCCF’s work. I expect we see less fringe people, but that it’s matched by a growing core.

    I’m a little depressed though because 15000 CU members is still a very small proportion of the student body… but there are new Christians and there are growing churches. Jesus will build his church!

  5. Chris, I agree. Of course I can see why people want to collect statistics – as even King David did. The problem comes when the statistics are used against the church by its enemies. Indeed what matters is the effect the church is having.

    Dave, thanks for the good news that UCCF is continuing to turn out a stable number of generally well taught (despite a few past quarrels I have with the teaching) and deeply committed Christian graduates. Indeed we can wish there were more. But these 15,000 form a solid and continuing basis for strong churches through to 2050 and beyond, that will surely belie the statistical predictions of massive decline.

    Whether they will continue to attend churches of any particular denomination is another matter. I accept that some denominations may indeed decline very sharply. But I would expect to see stability or slow growth in some denominations, and strong growth in some churches outside the traditional denominations. Or more than that if a real revival comes, as many are prophesying, and looking for in what is happening currently in Florida.

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  7. Chris, in a previous post I said a little more about the ongoing revival in Lakeland, Florida, led by Todd Bentley. You can find out more at this site, including a blog summarising what is happening. I link to this for information; I don’t know enough about it to completely endorse it.

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