Who Can You Count On?

Robbie Low looks at three sets of statistics

Your numbers up?

While the statistical bureau of the Church of England struggles to find new ways of presenting the figures to put a gloss on decline and we gird our loins for this year’s major electoral roll revision, some useful and interesting research has been published in the wake of the Decade of Evangelism.

Springboard’s mission team published a study, analyzed by the excellent and independent Christian Research Institute, on church growth in the 1990s.

Parish pumping

Inasmuch as anything can be considered a ‘hot topic’ in our deanery (other than quota!), this is it. The preliminary results of the post-mortem are in and much soul-searching is now being prescribed. Like loyal Anglicans our neighbours have duly met the overall national target of decline over the decade (c.20 per cent). Some have done more than their bit. The leading liberal Church dropped 29 per cent while the moderate Evangelical Church ignored solidarity and increased by 7 per cent. One notable soul only managed to get one quarter of his electoral roll to turn up for Easter while another parish, that toyed with the notion of being traditionalist before jumping into bed with the liberal ascendancy, managed to halve its Easter attendance. In these circumstances no straw will be too wind-blown to be clutched at. Christian Research has offered something more substantial than a few straws and, while some of it would seem common sense, there are a few worthwhile surprises and reassurances.

Wider picture

Against the background of severe and rapid institutional decline some churches are bucking the trend. Some 21 per cent saw growth of 10 per cent or more during the decade. The sample was large and significant – 8,700 churches of which 3,100 were Anglican. Sixty-five per cent saw a decline of more than 10 per cent with 14 per cent wavering between the plus or minus 10 per cent figures. It follows, as we can trace in our diocesan books for the period, that many of the declining churches must have suffered the equivalent of Ecclesiastical Black Death to have depressed the overall figures to a net loss of 20 per cent.

The study, based on returns from the end of the last two decades, charted (apart from numbers) eighteen characteristics. Eight of these proved statistically significant with four of those factors accounting for 85 per cent of the variation and effect. (Members of the parish mission committee will now be on the edge of their seats.)

Significant factors

The first of the four growth indicators is a double-edged sword. It is the size of the congregation. Clearly, a small congregation can make huge percentage gains quite beyond a larger body. One parish in my diocese has achieved a 244% growth, but as it started the decade with only nine members its laudable achievement is scarcely likely to balance the diocesan budget.

Outside the Anglican Church, of course, a rampant Protestantism is notorious for its growth stories. Much of this is achieved by sheep stealing from other churches plus the ever-popular sin of schism. Rejecting the authority of the Pope, each man can become ‘pope’ of his own conventicle. Breakaways, plants, house churches, youth churches all exhibit huge percentage growth because they start from such a small base. For a Church of 250 to grow 10 per cent it would need to recruit at least one new member per week to account for the increase while offsetting the ‘natural wastage’ by death and less absolute forms of relocation.

The second significant factor is the age of the congregation. The ‘churches’ that had no-one over 45 – presumably ‘youth churches’- exhibited no more growth than congregations with 50 to 75 per cent of their members over 45 years of age. The necessarily small number of churches with less than 25 per cent middle aged and over did have a substantially higher growth rate. This may tie in with one of the second rank indicators of growth – the provision of a youth service or a mission service aimed at the younger market and the unchurched. This is certainly a major factor in parishes where I have observed substantial and sustained growth. But the good news about age is that it isn't a deterrent to growth, however geriatric your parish may be. Thirteen per cent of churches whose entire congregation was over 45 still grew. In my parish, where Gentile demography is very elderly, a man of 60 is as likely to bring a grandchild as a fellow 60 year old to church and it is foolish to assume that the gospel has, of itself, age barriers. Similarly, it is our experience that while youngsters may come for ‘accessible’ services, many of them move on to the joyful profundity of traditional services – not least the wonderfully counter-cultural Book of Common Prayer. Young people may join for facility but they easily tire of superficiality.

The third key factor is the presence of non-white ethnic groups in the congregation. All white congregations were less likely to grow. There may be several reasons for this. The church may be more welcoming and friendly – hence the ethnic minority (and everyone else for that matter) feeling more at home. It may simply reflect the fact that Africa and Asia are the growth areas of Christianity where anaemic Western liberalism is pretty much washed up except among the ecclesiastical governing classes.

It is always a revelation to do a quick nationality count of your congregation and see how truly Catholic the gospel is. Last Pentecost in this white Highlands suburb we clocked up 18 nationalities at the main Sunday service!

Creative Catechesis

Finally, a key ingredient – the Alpha course or its look-alike. 79 per cent of churches did not run such a course. One fifth of those grew. Of the remaining 21 per cent – running one or two courses saw growth of over 20 per cent. Running more (namely, regular) courses saw growth averaging 26 per cent. The provision of interesting catechism courses involving the fellowship, friendship and participation of the congregation established new Christians, reclaimed the lapsed and uncertain, and offered a simple way for regulars to bring family and friends on board. Churches that run consumer-friendly catechism courses not only attract, but they are clearly attracting already to need them. It would be interesting to know how many of the ‘non-Alpha-but-growing’ parishes were using Credo, Emmaus or some other course or house group study pattern.

Some special additional Anglican factors were teased out to help you select your next incumbent. Churches grew least with clergy under 35 and in their late fifties. They grew most when men were in their early forties and early sixties! Also 7–13 years into an incumbency was the most productive period for a parish, though it didn't really start to decline much until after 18 years stay. Short stays are the least productive and, one suspects, mean the relatively low success of short-stay clergy, namely under six years, masks the often sobering reality of what the next man has to pick up from an incumbent who has never been there long enough to have to live with his mistakes or even face an electoral roll revision.

Age shall not weary them…

The productive years of the clergy are equally fascinating. Most people would have guessed the early forties as a key period… but the sixties? Surely all parishes try to avoid older priests. The message is… don't! Very often a man in his sixties has stopped dreaming about being a bishop or even an Honorary Canon, couldn't give a monkey's about the hierarchy, is freed from most domestic burdens and wants one last crack at the job he joined to do!

The one factor that had nothing to do with a man's success was the theological college he went to. Traditionally it was always reckoned to tell you whether he was more or less likely to be a bishop but, surprise, surprise, it doesn't tell you if he can put bums on seats.

Oh, and one other statistic from a completely separate study on clergy gifts. Only one in five was assessed as having leadership qualities or potential, namely, 20% – almost the exact figure of growing churches.

As the Church is notoriously bad at choosing and training its national and Diocesan leadership, it is scarcely surprising that leaders of faith communities should rate so poorly in the key charism and it is difficult to think of any serious in service training which helps us develop these gifts or learn to delegate and administer in areas of our ministry where we are not especially blessed.

2 .How do you account for that?

Now that the Church of England has gone over to a new method of counting membership and attendance we will no longer be able to compare like with like and plot the trends. This is good news for officialdom who will be able to discover whole categories of missing people (for example, week day communicants, mother and toddler groups, adolescents smoking behind the Church hall on youth club night etc, etc). This will put a gloss on future reports, but will give no indication of relative growth or decline. So the 1999 figures were an important, and possibly final, benchmark.

As listed in the Church of England Yearbook 2001, they make a particularly interesting reading, especially the electoral roll figures, the declared membership of the Church.

The bottom line shows a nationwide decline, between 1994 and 1999, of some 52,435 or approximately 3.5 per cent of the total. Over a decade, at similar rate this would be a 7 per cent decline: an uncomfortable return for the Decade of Evangelism but a cheering slowdown in overall decline.

It’s different in the North

Further analysis of these figures shows that, as they are so fond of claiming, the North is different – and how! 52,415 of the departed have gone missing from the north, the Province of York. The entire Province of Canterbury has only lost 20 souls in the five year period!

It is at moments like this that even a born-again southern bigot like me begins to smell a rat. These figures simply cannot be true. A quick glance down the columns confirms the suspicion. 27 of the 30 southern Province dioceses have lost ground. Only three have grown – St Eds & Ips by 2.5 per cent, Canterbury by 1.8 per cent (edging it, at last, above Truro), and London by a phenomenal 25 per cent! Either Richard Chartres is the best bishop-evangelist since Augustine, or London has started assessing its quota in a more sensible way. The rest of the dioceses have, uniformly, lost ground. Many showed ten per cent declines (Bath and Wells, Bristol, Chichester, Coventry). Others are more spectacular – St Albans 14 per cent, Derby 16 per cent, Norwich 17 per cent. This is, in fact, not much different from the pattern in the North. Ten per cent declines include Sheffield and Newcastle while others are far higher, for example, Durham 15 per cent, Southwell 17 per cent, Blackburn 18 per cent.

The simple fact is that the Southern Province 1999 column just doesn't add up. In fact, far from losing only 20 people in the five year period we have lost a tad short of 80,000 or 7.5 per cent of our membership. Over a decade this would be 15 per cent (or more). It is true that it is still relatively worse news for the North. There the rate of decline is 12 per cent (24 per cent in the decade) and no sign of slowing. No diocese there has bucked the trend, nowhere near.

The real picture

The 1999 figures, when added up correctly, revealed a nine per cent overall decline over the five years across the country. There is, of course, good news in the midst of all this – some churches are showing steady, year on year, growth. The bad news is that means that the real rate of decline for many parishes is considerably higher than the already unsustainable nine per cent. The unaccountable miscalculation in the Church of England Yearbook cannot disguise the need for root and branch review of the Church of England. This is not a management exercise but a realistic assessment of everything from theological colleges to episcopal leadership. We know that there is nothing wrong with the ‘product’, but, for many of the ‘sales force’ morale could not be lower as confidence in the institution continues to nose dive.

3. September 11th

There is scarcely a company, organization or publication that has not, in the last four months, issued a statement on its situation ‘in the light of September 11th’. The Church of England is no exception. As we can no longer look forward to any reliable and comparable statistics (see above) the spin doctors at head office have been unusually busy. Initially, in the papers, there were reports of more people going to our cathedrals. No doubt many churches experienced a percentage gain in the immediate aftermath. We opened our doors here and rang the bell on the evening of the tragedy and 120 people came in to a Mass for America. That would be statistically significant in any week.

In the weeks that followed, to be honest, we have not noticed any real difference in our figures. Were we alone in not benefiting from the new post September 11th religious curiosity of the British people?

After Christmas I rang round a few parishes, of different persuasions in different parts of the country, to ask whether they had noticed any change in attendance. ‘Much the same’ was the uniform reply. My research was far from comprehensive, but I couldn't help wondering if this mini-revival was a cathedral's only phenomenon. I duly contacted a few cathedrals. One was a bit down because they had confused people by changing the time of the service. Another was up by the addition of two extra organizations’ carol services. The story overall was, ‘Much the same’.

Imagine my surprise, and of course, delight to read in the Daily Mail, the week after Christmas, that cathedrals were leading the revival in the wake of ‘September 11th’. Our senior statistical spin doctors were cock-a-hoop. Among the usual unverifiable anecdotal evidence one statistic stood out. Over Christmas, it was claimed, Chester Cathedral had 41,000 worshippers!

This is remarkable for three reasons:

1) Only a fortnight before Christmas the church press lionized Canterbury Cathedral for getting 1,100 worshippers at Christmas the previous year.

2) Chester Cathedral's average Sunday attendance is c.500

3) The total average Sunday attendance for the whole of Chester diocese for the last year available (1999) was 33,600

We can only hope that Chester will shortly provide the definitive guide on packing 'em in.

Rampant Protestantism is notorious for its growth stories. Much of this is achieved by sheep stealing and the ever popular sin of schism.

Surely all parishes try to avoid older priests. The message is… don’t !

 

The unaccountable miscalculation in the Church of England Yearbook cannot disguise the need for root and branch review of the Church of England

Were we alone in not benefitting from the new, post September 11th, religious curiosity of the British people?

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