A number of writers have described how Britain is entering a 'post-Christendom' period (for example, Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom: Church and mission in a strange new world, Paternoster, 2004).
In the Christendom era, from roughly the fourth century to near the end of the twentieth, the church had a dominant role in western society and Christian values shaped public life. Today, it seems, we are witnessing a profound shift in world view. Much of Europe is leaving Christendom behind and entering a new period. In this new era, the church is far less influential and Christianity competes with many other values.
The decline in church attendance reflects this change.
England's church attendance on a typical Sunday has fallen from just over 4.7 million in 1989 to a little above 3.1 million in 2005. The decline has happened while the overall population has been growing. This means that over the period the proportion of the population in church on Sunday has fallen from 9.9% to 6.3%. Though the decline has levelled off a touch, the 2005 figure was still down from 7.5% in 1998 (Peter Brierley [ed.], UK Christian Handbook. Religious Trends 6, Christian Research, 2006, p12:3).
The fall in recent years would have been sharper still but for the growing number of immigrants. Many have come to Britain from a Christian background and have boosted church attendance. Whereas quite a few regular churchgoers went twice a Sunday in the 1950s and '60s, today a growing number attend only once or twice a month.
If commitment is measured by Sunday attendance, not only are fewer people going to church, but the commitment of those who do is declining as well. Are more and more people hanging on to church by their finger-tips, ready to fall off at the slightest push?
On current trends, by 2015 Sunday church attendance in England will drop below 2.5 million, just 4.7% of the population (Peter Brierley [ed.], UK Christian Handbook. Religious Trends 6, Christian Research, 2006, p. 12:2). London is likely to remain the exception, with some growth due mainly to immigration. There will, of course, be growing churches elsewhere in the country, but the overall story - unless things change - looks pretty bleak.
Adults with no church background are a growing section of society
Some 35%, including people of other faiths. To these should be added people who said they used to go, perhaps as a result of attending church schools, but for whom attendance was very nominal. If you add in the 31% who used to go to church but have no plans to return, 67% of the adult population have no church background or attended church once but have no plans to return.
The current position is as follows:
|Regular churchgoers (at least monthly)||15%|
|Fringe churchgoers (bi-monthly or six times a year)||4%|
|Open de-churched (used to go and open to return)||11%|
|Closed de-churched (used to go and no plans to return)||31%|
|Open non-churched (never been but open to going)||3%|
|Closed non-churched (never been and no intention of going)||26%|
(Source: RSGB Omnibus Survey, sponsored by Tearfund, 2005 - figures kindly provided by Tearfund. Face-to-face interviews were conducted at home with a representative sample of 5,000 UK adults, aged 16 and over, in February–March 2005).
The church's failure to engage children in recent years means that the number of people with little or no church background will continue to increase. This presents the church with a difficult challenge.
For years the church has relied on 'returners' to swell the numbers. Children who were brought up in churchgoing families and had left church would often come back, particularly when they started a family. With regular church attendance by children in long-term decline, fewer adults are now in that position.
Fresh expressions are part of the church's response to the decline in attendance
As church is pushed to the edge of society, Christians are asking how church can reconnect with people. Do existing ways of being church serve effectively those who don't belong? Closing a church or chapel need not be the end of the world. It could be an opportunity to develop an expression of church more suited to people nearby. Post-Christendom (or post-chapeldom!) could be a new beginning.