The observation that "we are living in times of unprecedented change" is fast becoming a threadbare cliché. Certainly there is truth in it, but it no longer makes us sit up and listen. One aspect of the changing landscape is the church is declining. The data is unequivocal. Or is it?
Well that depends on what you mean by "church". Certainly attendance at Sunday services is declining. While some congregations buck the trend, the number of people attending UK churches has decreased dramatically in recent decades. Part of the picture is what one researcher called 'a haemorrhage akin to a burst artery'1
: there is a proliferation of people who used to go to church but no longer do. A study in 2007 found that a staggering 33 per cent of people in the UK were 'former churchgoers - no longer attending'2
So who are these people? Have they lost their faith? If not, why are they leaving congregations? The most reliable research available shows that the majority of people who have disengaged have not lost their faith3
. And yet we know little about the experiences of church leavers. Indeed the whole subject of church leaving is plagued by what one researcher has called '... misunderstanding, loose stereotypes, often downright ignorance and sometimes arrogant misjudgements'4
Christian media and national press have both been guilty of painting a picture of church leavers as petty-minded people who leave for trivial reasons. Quoting "research", one author highlighted 'Petty disagreements such as the way the organ was played.'5 The Times
, quoting the same study, stated, 'It is not the big doctrinal issues ... Typical arguments take place over types of buildings, styles of worship, youth work ... If not that, then they argue over the flower rota.'6
However, these apparently authoritative statements were based on surveying a sample of which ninety eight per cent "attended church regularly". This then was not a study of people who had left churches; it was a survey of church-goers' perceptions.
Over recent months, in a study supervised by Glyndwr University, I have conducted in-depth interviews with committed Christians who do not attend a church congregation. The sample was representative in terms of gender, age and experience of church. What I have heard has challenged me deeply. Nobody I listened to left church for trivial reasons. Most described a protracted process of wrestling with frustrations and difficulties. Many described bouts of sleeplessness and chronic struggles with angst.
Take Iain for example. Now in his 70s, since teenage years he has been following Christ. He was an elder for three decades. However, after a lengthy period of grappling with doubts, he stopped attending church. The doubts were not about his faith; they were about the relevance and missional impact of the congregation. The local church seemed to be detached from the community and had little to say about people's everyday concerns. 'A huge effort went into 'keeping things going', but nobody seemed interested in whether it was furthering the Kingdom,' Iain told me.
In addition to the "dechurched" there are others who never attended church and yet have a genuine faith. Janet is a young woman with three small children. She hadn't given Christianity much thought until a friend invited her to a Christianity Explored course. She had many questions and welcomed the opportunity to ask them.
As the course progressed she 'became captivated by the person of Jesus' and felt like she was 'launching out on a huge adventure with Jesus as guide'. She visited local churches, but found a radical contrast to the lively, interactive, and hospitable setting of the course.
Another interviewee was Liam. His Christian faith is precious to him. However, finding social situations extremely difficult because of autism, he has been unable to engage with a congregation.
Few of the people I interviewed are without fellowship. Iain meets weekly with Christian neighbours to drink coffee, discuss what they have been reading and pray for one another. Janet meets up with two friends who were on the course. It's informal and sporadic. Sometimes they just unload burdens; sometimes the conversation turns deep and profound; often they pray together. Liam has found that the internet provides ways in which he can feel part of a Christian family.
We already know that that the majority of people who leave churches do not leave the faith; they "dis-affiliate", but do not "de-convert". When applied to the huge numbers of people who have "dechurched" this suggests that the fastest growing sector of the Christian community comprises those who are not part of a traditional congregation.
Professor Grace Davie's observation that 'Religion in Europe is like an iceberg: most of what is interesting is under the water and out of view' seems to be true. And yet the experiences of "churchless Christians" remain largely unknown: a significant blind spot for the church. Decreasing attendance in services has often been interpreted as signifying a corresponding decline in the Christian community. However, when considered together, evidence suggests that something else is occurring: the Christian community is undergoing a significant paradigm shift - from institutional expressions of church towards more organic and informal forms.
Later this year the Church of Scotland will conduct a quantitative study based on insights gleaned from these recent interviews. It will develop our understanding of the scale and nature of so called "churchless faith". If you would like to know more contact Mission Development Worker, Steve Aisthorpe, who will be facilitating this research: email firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Aisthorpe is a Mission Development Worker for the Church of Scotland. He works throughout the Highlands and Islands, encouraging innovation in discipleship and assisting congregations in their mission planning. He was previously Executive Director of the International Nepal Fellowship.
1 Brierley (2000) The Tide is Running Out
, Christian Research.
2 Ashworth & Farthing (2007) "Churchgoing in the UK: A research report from Tearfund on church attendance in the UK".
3 Francis & Richter (1998) Gone But Not Forgotten
, DLT; Francis & Richter, P. J. (2007) Gone for Good?
4 Jamieson (2002) A Churchless Faith
5 Blake (2005) "UK Congregations Falling for Trivial & Petty Reasons, Survey Finds" at http://www.christiantoday.com/article/uk.congregations.falling.for.trivial.petty.reasons.survey.finds/3772.htm
6 "Petty squabbles cause empty pews" in The Times
, 25 August 2005.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 June 2013 14:43