Last April 100,000 churchgoers throughout England were quizzed about their faith for a new survey. The first results have just been published and make fascinating reading. The Churches Information for Mission (CIM) report entitled ‘Faith in Life’ aims to assess the vitality of the church, help the mission of local churches and explores the views and experiences of attendees.

Talk to most church leaders about surveys of church-going attendance and their faces frown. The statistics over the past couple of decades reveal that the church is in steep decline and that those who do attend are ageing. However, some clergy, claim the surveys have been interpreted far too negatively. They suggest that the true picture is not so downbeat. They point to the church attendance statistics and argue that taking a snapshot of one Sunday’s attendance is too blunt a measure of growth or decline. Increasing numbers of church-goers attend once or twice a month and when they do attend a service it may be to a midweek or Saturday alternative worship meeting rather than the traditional Sunday morning service. These occasional worshippers slip through the measuring net and thus an important aspect of church attending trends do not feature in the figures. This view has led to calls for more sophisticated and far reaching Church statistics and analysis to show the whole picture in what is a changing situation.
Phillip Escott, the Research Officer of the CIM survey, claims the forms completed by attenders from 2,000 churches were a carefully chosen statistical sample and therefore an accurate representation of the wider church. Much of the survey has yet to be analysed, however the first section of the survey to be published looks at age and gender profiles and asks, Who goes to church?

It goes on to ask other faith-based questions including: What aspects of church life do you appreciate most? Does the preaching help you in your daily life? Do you experience a sense of God’s presence when you worship? Do you share your faith with others? Do you attend a church-linked small group? How often do you spend time in private devotions (prayer, Scripture reading etc.)
Where are the young adults?

These statistics mirror earlier research, which shows that teenagers and 20-somethings are massively under represented in church, while the 55-84 age bracket is over represented. This means that unless there is a dramatic change the church will shrink dramatically in the next 30 years, as those born before the end of World War II die and are not replaced in similar numbers by the Baby Boomer, Generation X and Millennial Kids generations. The church attendance among young adults is so low that it would be foolish to presume these will return to church in their later years, since for many they don’t have anything to return to, having never been involved in their youth.

Earlier this year the Evangelical Alliance published a report written by Matt Bird, highlighting concerns over the missing 20-something generation. Only the middle aged cohort (45-54 year-olds) make up the same percentage of church attendees as their percentage within the general population.

Despite the continuing trend to employ salaried and professionally trained youth workers and ministers, the numbers of young people attending church continues to drop. Growing desperation with this decline has been one factor in triggering experimentation with youth churches, youth congregations and youth friendly worship services. The tendency to develop ‘niche’ worship services to cater for different preferences continues apace. The theological debate on whether this is appropriate or theologically right continues, but pragmatism rules in many churches. Ministers may consider that offering a wider range of meetings pacifies the different generations and means overall attendance stabilises and even grows.

Some commentators suggest that while the 90s were the decade of evangelism, the first decade of the new millennium should be dubbed the decade of experimentation. Churches are becoming more flexible and trying new times and even days for services.

Some view the haemorrhaging numbers as a positive – reducing the church to a small dedicated core who are prepared to do whatever it takes to (pick one or more from the list): be more prayerful and thus ready for revival, be more relevant, be more seeker friendly, be more open to creative worship, be more Bible-based … etc ...

Most view the ageing and declining church and the predicted potential meltdown of major denominations as nothing short of disastrous. However, the CIM report goes on to detail extremely positive feedback from churchgoers on preaching and worship. This led some who attended the launch of the report to question its accuracy – “How can people be so positive?” But as Alison Gelder, CIM’s Chief Executive, writes in the introduction to the report: “For the first time ever, we have the views of ordinary churchgoers. Not staid attendance figures. Not church leaders’ opinions on the likelihood of growth within their church, but ordinary people.” So what are these ordinary churchgoers saying?

Best Thing About Church

If you were asked to list the three things you most valued about your church what would you choose? Those surveyed rated communion as top of the pops with almost one in five listing it in their top three. Preaching and traditional worship both tied in second (12%), closely followed by practical caring. However, when you dig a little deeper it becomes apparent that the opinions differ widely across different age groups. Communion was most valued especially among older people, who also liked traditional worship, whereas under 55s tended to prefer contemporary worship. Preaching scored highest among 25-44s, while practical caring for one another was equally appealing across the ages. Other aspects of church life which showed the most age contrasts were prayer and social activities. Prayer ministry was most appreciated by the 45-64 agegroup. Social activities got the thumbs up among young people and over 65s – presumably those in the middle were too busy or stressed to want or appreciate this!

But perhaps most striking of all – this question reveals very wide and diverse preferences for ‘most valued aspect of church’. Ministers and leadership teams probably need no reminder that congregations can hold wide and varied preferences – particularly when it comes to worship services.

Communion and traditional worship helps a significant minority to meet with God, while others want guitar-led worship and thematic preaching, some call for seeker-friendly meetings,still others opt for Celtic or Taize style worship – and the list goes on … It isn’t possible to please all the people all the time is what this and other statistics seem to back up. In terms of worship services, many Anglican churches have for many years been adept at scheduling a variety of meetings and styles which can lead to a multiplicity of congregations who rarely worship together, and yet co-exist within one church organisational and pastoral structure.

Most Valued Aspects of Church

  • Communion 18%
  • Preaching 12%
  • Traditional worship 12%
  • Practical caring 11%
  • Contemporary worship 8%
  • Bible study/prayer groups 7%
  • Youth/children’s ministry 7%
  • Social activities 6%
  • Prayer ministry 6%
  • Community/social care 4%
  • Reaching non-attenders 4%
  • Social diversity 3%
  • Church school 2%

Preach It!

More than four out of five people agreed with the statement: ‘The preaching I hear in my local church is usually very helpful to me in my everyday life’ (see the chart below). If this statistic is a true reflection then it contradicts the widely held view that most preaching is irrelevant. Or perhaps it shows that those who have found it irrelevant had left the church leaving behind a more tolerant, less easily bored and more easily satisfied rump.

Preaching is helpful

  • Agree 57%
  • Strongly agree 25%
  • Neutral 14%
  • Disagree 3%
  • Strongly disagree 1%

Worship: reasons to smile

Just as preaching got a positive response, the CIM survey suggest most churchgoers find worship services a positive, joyful and inspirational. Most are rarely if ever bored and a quarter consider spontaneity is always or usually present in their church worship services with a further 52% experiencing this ‘sometimes’. Over half are rarely if ever frustrated by the worship in their church.

Worship Experiences

Always or Usually %

Sometimes %

Rarely or Never %

God's presence




Growth in understanding of God
















Awe or majesty












According to the CIM report, worship is a very positive experience for most people who attend church, providing desirable experiences. But if worship in a local church is such a positive experience why don’t more attend? Could it be that those who would have ticked the bored or frustrated box have left already?

The statistics don’t yet reveal any detailed reactions to the growth in so-called ‘alternative worship’ services. Growing numbers of churches have been hosting new forms of worship that are most popular among the 20s and 30s age group.

Have these new meetings been launched by people who were frustrated by the lack of opportunities they were given to lead worship in the more traditional service? How many began because 20-somethings found the existing meetings just ‘didn’t do it for them’ any longer? Or are there other more positive factors at work here? According to many commentators, this trend has released a new creativity and freedom of expression in worship, however others interpret it less charitably and criticise it as a further sign of isolation and separation of the generations. More thinking and research is required in this area.

Intriguingly what has sometimes been launched or promoted as youth friendly worship have failed to appeal to teenagers. Soul Survivor and its style of charismatic worship attracts the biggest number of young people to its annual festival cum Bible week. While Greenbelt with its more ‘alternative’ worship approach tends to attract an older age group.

Small is beautiful

About three-quarters of churchgoers attend a small group if you include groups with a social dimension. However this drops to less than 40% who attend a small group that has a devotional focus (Bible study and/or prayer). Small groups are particularly important in larger churches. Without this key ingredient a person can feel dislocated from friendships and accountable relationships, which most church growth experts argue is crucial for the spiritual vitality of most believers. A third of people – a significant minority - said although their church had small groups they didn’t want to be part of it. Presumably this was either because of their retiring personality or because the content of small group meetings didn’t appeal. However, most church-goers positively want to be able to share, pray, get real, socialise and/or develop deep friendships, which small groups facilitate. Only 1% of those surveyed said their church did not include small groups.

Share it

Small groups

  • Not involved 35%,
  • Social 27%, Prayer, study 20%,
  • Both - social and prayer, study types 17%,
  • No groups here 1%

The CIM survey asked church attenders to choose which one of five statements best described their readiness to talk to others about their faith. About a half said they were mostly at ease talking about their faith “if it comes up”. One in five said they found it hard to witness. Any church that aspires to grow will want church members from the 12% the survey identifies as “seeking opportunities” to share their faith. The CIM report points out that C Peter Wagner, the American charismatic church growth specialist, suggests that about one in 10 church members is likely to be gifted as an evangelist.

The CIM report seems to support this claim.

Communicating Faith

  • If it comes up 52%,
  • Find it hard 20%,
  • Life and action suffice 12%,
  • Seek opportunities 12%

Personal Devotions

Personal prayer practice

  • Every day/most days 49%,
  • Few times per week 20%,
  • Once a week 4%,
  • Occasionally 18%,
  • Hardly ever 6%,
  • Never 3%

Organisations who exist to promote daily Bible reading and prayer have, for years, been agonising over falling sales in daily devotional reading aids.

The CIM survey reports that almost half said they spend time in private devotions most or every days. However, almost a third rarely if ever spend time in this way.

Over the coming months further results from this massive survey of English churchgoers will reveal further trends. God is alive and very active in his world. Some continents are exploding with new believers. But within England, the UK as a whole and most of Western Europe the church is aging and in decline. Jesus heavily criticised the Jewish religious leaders 2,000 years ago for failing to discern the spiritual climate and the presence of the Messiah in their midst. Our prayer should continue to be that we discern the times we live in and what God calls us to be and do. We should be grateful for the work of CIM and other surveys which identify aspects of an ailing church. But the picture is not one of uniform bleakness! The impact of Alpha courses documented in this magazine recently is perhaps the most high profile tool which is working to reverse the downward trend, but there are others too.

Christianity+Renewal commit to continue to report on individuals, churches and organisations which are experiencing blessing. At the same time we will trying not to duck the uncomfortable questions or avoid raising the issues which give us reasons for concern. We live in interesting days.