Church Growth in Britain?

Posted on June 24, 2012

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David Goodhew (ed.) Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present (Ashgate, 2012)

I suppose most of us in academia have a list in our heads of books that ought to be written: there are positions that you know to be true, but that have not yet been demonstrated to be so to the satisfaction of the academy. This book crosses off number one on my list of such books. I have known for years that the standard public narrative of catastrophic church decline in contemporary Britain is at some level a misrepresentation: it is based on collecting statistics concerning Sunday attendances from mainstream denominations; but most vibrant church life in Britain today is not happening in mainstream denominations on Sundays; most of it is happening beyond the ‘mainstream’; that which is happening within is not generally happening on Sundays. This book tells those stories in academically credible ways, and so offers a significant corrective to the prevailing public narrative.

For me two themes stood out in the book. First, any of us who have been around the evangelical world know many individual stories of church growth, but to try to place these in a national context, and to seek to measure the extent to which growth in the lively parts of the British church is offsetting decline in the moribund parts, is both ambitious and fascinating. Second, the story of growth in Black majority churches is not news to anyone with open eyes (which apparently excludes almost all media commentators on contemporary British Christianity…); for me, other stories of growth I knew had often seemed occasional and unconnected; to have them placed in some broader narratives of patterns of growth was very helpful.

So what is the book about? Well, what it says on the tin: church growth in Britain since 1980: where it has occurred and (as far as can be discerned) why. The underlying theme is that the standard public narrative of church decline is an inadequate picture – not false, but needing qualification from another story.

The basic point can be easily made: I do not know, presently, how many church congregations are active in my home town of St Andrews. Were I to be talking about Edinburgh, that might not be a surprise, but St Andrews is a very small community – about 20 000 inhabitants. There are three parish churches, two episcopal charges, a Free Church, a Roman Catholic parish, the university chapel, my own Baptist congregation, and a Vineyard church. Beyond that things get more difficult. There used to be two different Brethren congregations; I believe only one is still meeting, but I have no firm evidence for that belief. There used to be an independent charismatic fellowship; I have heard nothing of them for a few years, so assume they have folded, but I could be wrong. In recent months we saw advertising for a new Nigerian church; I think it is presently meeting, but I do not know.

That reflects Sunday mornings. During the week there is a second university chapel which holds services during termtime; I know of homegroup type meetings which attract people not presently involved in any other congregation; much student Christianity happens outwith the town churches, for good or ill. It happens that, if we were to plot the Sunday attendances at the ten relatively mainstream congregations I have listed, I believe that they would show a slight increase over a decade; given the other uncertainties, that figure must be suspicious: if two other congregations have closed, and one new one begun, even the Sunday figure is difficult; if other things are happening during the week, that complicates matters further. Traditionally, however, we calculate church attendance by contacting mainline churches only and asking them to count ‘bums on pews’ on a given Sunday.

Goodhew’s book is largely, although not exclusively, about the hinterland, the ecclesial activity missed by the mainline congregation Sunday census count. One of the themes of the book is that in places – London; Birmingham; York – the hinterland is becoming bigger than the foreground. In other places this may not be true, but to focus only on the mainline churches is, even in a small rural Scottish town like St Andrews, to miss much of the reality of what is going on. The book is topped and tailed with an introduction and conclusion from Goodhew; I will look at these at the end. In between are three sections, on mainstream churches, new churches, and Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I’ll spend a blog post on each section.

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