Writing in the most recent edition of the bi-monthly FutureFirst report, Dr Brierley’s figures show that churchgoing fell by 5% between 2008 and 2013. However, while the drop in churchgoing is predicted to continue, immigrant churchgoers and Fresh Expressions – an Anglican-inspired initiative, which Dr Brierley says is ‘becoming a generic name for all kinds of usually fairly informal gatherings like Messy Church, pub groups or café churches, mission-minded churches, Churches Without Walls (especially in Scotland) as well as those specifically named as Fresh Expressions’ – have put back the decline by five years.
The decline is unevenly distributed across the four home nations, at its highest in Scotland (–173%), –11.7% in Northern Ireland and –8.4% in Wales. England actually registered a small increase of 0.4%. Dr Brierley told Premier Christianity that Fresh Expressions appealed particularly to families and younger people, and were marked by ‘enthusiasm and informality’.
‘They are very effective at getting people in,’ he said, noting that student groups often had a similar character. However, he added: ‘Will Fresh Expressions help stem the teenage dropout rate? Teenage dropout leads to 20s dropout and we don’t know how successful they will be. But the numbers are significant.’
He also said that black majority churches were attractive to people from different ethnic backgrounds who were drawn to their often enthusiastic worship, high-quality preaching and high standard of music. He added that some large and thriving black majority churches such as Jesus House for All the Nations were working fruitfully with traditional churches.
Dr Brierley wrote in his FutureFirst report: ‘A heart for mission and a willingness to try the new are the key elements here, along with a denominational structure that allows such experimentation and in effect gives its new initiatives permission to fail as well as to succeed. It is obvious that the UK churches are not fossilising and in many instances are still vigorously active!’
Responding to the research, archbishops’ missioner and Fresh Expressions team leader Canon Phil Potter told Premier Christianity: ‘This research highlights, once again, the impact of Fresh Expressions and how they – working alongside traditional churches – are helping to create new opportunities for people to come, and discover, and respond to the good news.’
Church decline is likely to affect some denominations more than others. Recently released figures from the Methodist Church indicate that it has lost a third of its membership in the last ten years, with an ageing membership profile that suggests further sharp falls are likely.