Church Growth in Britain 3: New Churches

Posted on July 2, 2012

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Six chapters of the book focus on new churches, three looking specifically at Black Majority Churches, and three more widely. Hugh Osgood gives an excellent overview of the growth of BMCs; Richard Burgess offers an account of one denomination, The Redeemed Christian Church of God; and Amy Duffuor offers an account of a single congregation, Freedom Centre International in Peckham. All three chapters are interesting and valuable in charting the changing experiences of BMCs, and their intentional moves to keep the next generation and to adapt to changing cultural locations of their worshippers.

George Lings (who was my vicar for the few months of my life I spent worshipping in an Anglican parish) offers a chapter on ‘Fresh Expressions and Church Planting in the Church of England’. These are big stories: George estimates, very credibly, that a thousand new congregations have started since 1992, either as plants or as fresh expressions, although he acknowledges a certain degree of false branding (in discussing things badged as fresh expressions, ‘the “annual Christmas tree lighting service” is an entry on a recent database that entertains me most and convinces me least.’) There is – properly, in the case of fresh expressions, where service and mission should be as important as attendance – no attempt to estimate the numbers of people attending these events, or how many of them are either also attending normal parish worship, or have left parish worship to join a fresh expression. We might guess at 50 000 people involved in Anglican churches and largely invisible to standard measures, however.

David Goodhew’s analysis of new churches in York does give numbers, and they are fascinating. Twenty seven new churches have been founded in York since 1980, with a total attendance of just below 2000 adults and just over 500 under 18s; this can be compared to Gill’s figures (from Empty Church Revisited): mainline adult Sunday attendance decline between 1989 and 2001 was 1683 (741 Anglican; 322 Free Church; 620 Roman Catholic). There is some double-counting in these figures – some of Gill’s Free Churches probably class as ‘new churches’ on Goodhew’s analysis – and the time periods are not directly comparable, but we might be justified in suggesting that new church growth almost cancels out mainline decline in York, at least (Goodhew notes that York enjoys unusually vibrant church life). There are more adults in new churches than in old Free Churches; Goodhew predicts that the new churches will have more worshippers than the Anglican churches across the city very soon.

The new churches include some international churches – BMC; Portuguese-speaking; &c. – and also a number of small Eastern Orthodox congregations; the majority, however, and all the larger congregations are non-denominational, or new denominational (Vineyard; New Frontiers; …) new churches in the classic mould. Broadly evangelical and charismatic in theology, appealing strongly to students and staff at the universities, well-organised, and mission-minded.

Clive Marsh looks at new churches in Birmingham through the lens of four case studies; here the BMCs are a much more significant part of the new church story than in York; although Marsh does not attempt to offer city-wide statistics, he opines that in Birmingham also ‘the decline of mainline denominations is being offset, if not balanced, by the growth of other churches’. He further suggests that if we factor in other religions, it is almost certain that Birmingham is desecularising.

These chapters do not tell a story of the reversal of the national decline in church attendance, but they do tell local stories of vibrant and growing churches, that are significant enough in at least some contexts to challenge the national story quite seriously.

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