As the latest figures for church attendance are published we asked Mike Eastwood what they mean for us and our growth.
As the Church of England publishes its latest figures for church attendance we spoke to Diocesan Secretary Mike Eastwood about what the figures mean and how they offer us a platform to grow as we reflect on Bishop James questions from his presidential address.
Q What are the figures that we are talking about?
Mike Eastwood: These are the official statistics that are released by the Research and Statistics department of the Church of England in London. They are based on the Statistic for Mission returns that each church submits every year.
Q Why are they important?
ME: Well people will always debate the merits of statistics, they way they are collected and their usefulness but the fact remains that they are about the best indicator of how many people are attending regular/mainstream XXX church services on a Sunday or through the week. The media and general public do use them as a way to assess the health of our churches and we need to take them into account when we are think about the health of our churches.
Q So what do they show?
ME: In general I think that after years of decline they show a bottoming out of adult church attendance. They may even be signaling growth in numbers, albeit with more people attending church slightly less regularly. Other data, particularly our giving statistics, would also suggest this. We are very pleased to see a growth in attendance of young people.
So 20,000 adults regularly attended church on a Sunday in 2008 compared to 20,800 in 2007. Also in 2008 4,500 young people regularly attended on a Sunday compared to 4,400 in 2007.
But what is interesting is how significant attendance on days other than Sunday is becoming. The expansion of a whole range of church activities in the middle of the week are definitely starting to make a difference, not least because much of this newer activity is left out of these figures.
Q How do these figures relate to the national picture?
ME: According to the national figures, church attendance has declined by an average of only 1% so clearly we still have some work to do. But each area, every diocese is different and we need to focus on doing God’s work in the place we are called.
Q so what are we doing?
ME: It’s a mixture of the traditional and new forms of church. The Diocese of Liverpool is committed to growing churches and has a reputation for developing attractive new forms of church that have been successful in reaching different groups of people. Examples include café style churches, churches in the workplace such as Riverforce in Merseyside Police and services in and for schools and school-children. We have a virtual church network – Dream, and people have a wide range of opportunity to explore their attitude to faith and spirituality in a way that suits them.
But the Diocese is also committed to growing the traditional church. It is definitely a case of both/and, not either/or. Back to Church Sunday has proved a very popular way for people to experience what church is like and we have experienced a growth in people exploring traditional forms of worship.
But what is important is doing it well. Whatever the form of church, whatever the tradition of worship, whatever the local context we need to be creating and growing churches that people find attractive and want to become part of.
Q In his Presidential Address Bishop James referred to growth. So how does this relate to these figures?
ME: These figures show that we have a good platform on which to build. Bishop James has asked PCCs to reflect on the questions “How are we serving our community?”; “How can we kindle our love for God and our love for our neighbours?”; and “How can we grow numerically?”. He pointed to the example of the church in Acts and while recognizing the different challenges we face the Bishop clearly stated that church was about growth. Numerical growth.
As Bishop James said numbers are important. “Numbers are people. And God loves people. The more people who know God’s love the more God’s love cascades through the world! Numbers are needed for mission – it is through people that other people come to faith. It’s as simple as that! Numbers are key to our survival – more and more is being done by fewer and fewer; we need more people simply to keep the show on the road!”
These figures show that we have the potential to grow. We are growing in some areas and among some groups of people. Among young people in particular we have seen increased numbers. So it can be done. We all need to work how we do this in our context, culture and spirituality.
Q But how does this link to the questions we were reflecting on for Responding to the Call?
ME: In Responding to the Call we had the clear vision of creating a sustainable led transforming Christian presence in every community and were asked to think about the mission of God in our area. If we are to maintain that sustainable Christian presence we have to grow the number of disciples and leaders able to build on and develop what has gone before.
We also need pioneers to take us to places we have not yet gone to, to open up new ideas and new possibilities.
And crucially we need to see all of connected together in this work, people working alongside each other in complementary ways helping to reach out and advance the kingdom of God.
Q So having understood this, what do we do about encouraging growth in our churches?
ME: The first thing to do is reflect prayerfully on the Bishop’s questions. Then to a certain extent it is up to individuals how they respond. As a diocesan office we are here to support those who feel inspired to see growth in their church. One idea would be to book on the Bishop’s Conference on Saturday 20th March. There Bishop James and Bishop Graham Cray from the national fresh expressions team will explore what Fresh Expressions are and how we can mix them with more traditional forms of worship to create exciting, vibrant, inclusive and ultimately growing churches.