The Church may be in decline in the UK, but the CofE’s latest report shows some signs of regrowth. In Blackburn, Joy Rushton says the growing numbers of children and young people attending church is down to a focus on creativity and innovation

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Source: Ronnie Semley, Blackburn Diocese Communications Manager

Forest Church at St Leonard’s Church and School, Balderstone

On a crisp, spring afternoon, around 60 people of all ages met at St Leonard’s church and school, Balderstone.

They stood outside the church door, singing songs of welcome and praise to God for his goodness. Then, for the next hour, the vicar, together with school staff, pupils, members of the church and local community, journeyed around the church and school grounds collecting seeds, seedlings, twigs and pebbles to create visible prompts for the different stages of the Easter story.

The Lord is adding to our number – if not daily, then gradually but consistently

The service finished in the school hall with hot cross buns and warming drinks. Adults and children continued to share their lives and experiences over craft activities. Everyone lingered, not wanting to go home.

This beautiful example of how people are engaging in worship through initiatives such as Forest Church gives a foretaste of heaven. It provides a feeling of home: everyone is welcomed into the good news of Jesus, who left his home in heaven to help us find our way back home.

Over recent years, statistics around church attendance - particularly for the more traditional denominations – have not made for great reading. But while the number of people regularly attending a weekly Church of England service is still lower than it was in 2019, the CofE’s latest Statistics for Mission report did contain some good news. Church attendance has risen for the second year running. Among children, it was up 17 per cent compared to 2021 levels.

Signs of new growth

At a recent church meeting in Blackburn, Synod members were asked to identify “the most fruitful routes to connect with those not presently connected with church”. The top ten were: schools ministry, toddler groups, food activities, baptisms, weddings and funerals, social media, courses that explore the Christian faith, special services, church events, community involvement and focus on welcome.

In Blackburn, there is a clear story of growth – albeit modest in some places. We heard a powerful testimony from a vicar who talked about how specific prayers for growth were having an impact in his local church. Christmas attendance was also well up on 2022. The increased attendance throughout Advent was even more striking.

Everyone lingered, not wanting to go home

Following the impact of the pandemic, there is now also evidence of growing numbers of children attending church. We have been intentionally pursuing this through our ‘Vision 2026’ strategy since 2016, with a clear emphasis on “inspiring children and young people”.

Through innovative approaches, more pre-school and primary-aged children are getting involved across the diocese. Teenagers - many of whom are new to church - are also finding ways to engage with church youth activities. The encouraging, green shoots of growth are evident.

The provision of online services has also brought growth. Some clergy have noticed that new people turning up at their churches had been attending online for some time before feeling ready to attend in person.

There is now growing evidence that churches who continue to provide online worship have grown more than those that have not. Online attendance has, for a significant number of people, become their usual form of church attendance; and for those unable to attend in person, it has a provided a means of continuing to worship at their local church.

A new community

While official statistics may report only modest growth in church attendance, the provision of innovative new ways to worship has grown significantly across our diocese.

Through Vision 2026, churches have been encouraged to set up new worshipping communities. More than 100 new local congregations have sprung up in the past five years. There are now forest churches, choir churches, wild churches, praise and play sessions, Families@5, café churches, lyrics and lunch gatherings, all nations worship, pop-up churches and many more.

The Lord is continuing to add to our number – if not daily, then gradually but consistently. The green shoots of growth are all around us. Some of those shoots are still hidden underground, germinating. But we are encouraged. One day there will be countless numbers of people praising God in the heavenly home he is preparing for us.