Norfolk churches challenged to stem decline

PeterBrierleyBookWeb2007: Norfolk churches have been challenged to help stem a worrying decline in county-wide church attendances over the past 25 years. Keith Morris reports in the first of a three-feature series.

Top Christian researcher, Dr Peter Brierley (pictured), was in Norwich last week (April 17) when he challenged over 30 church leaders to counteract a possible loss of another 10,000 church goers in the county over the next decade, as they literally die off.
“If every one of the 1000 churches across Norfolk saw one new convert each year over the next decade, the predicted decline would be halted,” he said.
The latest English Church Census shows that in 2005, 3.2 million people attended church across the country, a decline of 40% since 1998. This equates to just 6.3% of the population attending church every Sunday.
In Norfolk, 44,000 people attended, just 5.3% of the population. Church attendance in the county has gone down by a shocking 50% in the last 25 years from 85,000 to 44,000.
At the moment there are more deaths than conversions among churchgoers.
Peter puts the decline down to several things: “a drastic loss of young people in the 1990s; a perceived lack of relevance of church to life; changing patterns of family life including an increase in Sunday trading and the attraction of alternative activities.
“Whatever else we do we must make church more meaningful to the rest of modern life,” he said.
Roman Catholics are the biggest church grouping followed by Anglicans and Methodists but all are declining. Pentecostals are the largest growing group plus some smaller denominations such as the Orthodox Church and new churches like New Frontiers and Vineyard.
Between 1998 and 2005, the church in England as a whole lost 900,000 people through death, people leaving the church for good and people attending less often.
To counter this there were 350,000 of gains including 100,000 conversion through the Alpha course, 50,000 through other courses and 1000,000 children born to church-going families.
There is some good news. Some 42% of churches are holding midweek services which accounts for another 310,000 church goers.
If current trends continue though, the church in Norfolk could go down to 28,000 by 2015 with around 9,400 attendees literally dying off.
“Recent growth has been seen in London and Herefordshire for example, why not Norfolk,” challenged Peter.
Across the country, ethnic churches are taking off. An increase in the numbers of overseas migrants and the growth of mostly black Pentecostal churches now means that 10% of church goers are black with 7% other non-whites. In London, a quarter of its 4,100 churches are Pentecostal. This move is even being seen in Norwich with Chinese and Afro-Caribbean congregations established and large numbers of Indians and East Europeans at some RC churches in the city for example.
There are also more growing churches now (34%) than a few years ago (just 21%). “Many people are leaving declining churches and joining growing churches. The larger the church the more likely it is to be growing,” said Peter.
“Those in their 20s and 30s are choosing which church to go to – not just the one round the corner. We have to think much more about how we market our churches.”
The church is also ageing fast. An incredible 39% of churches have no-one attending under 11 years of age and 59% have no-one in the 15-19 age category.
Of the around 8,500 people in church in Norwich on a Sunday in May 2005, 1190 were under 15, 1275 from 15-29, 1020 were aged 30-44, 2125 45-64 and 2890 aged 65 and over. This represents 6.8% of the city’s population, but remember that some people travel into the city to worship.
 “More women than men are leaving the church, partly because of Sunday trading and job opportunities,” said Peter. “Those aged from 30-44 attend church less often than others because of the other pressures they face from home, young families and work. Some churches have responded to this by holding church services at different times and on different days.”
Large churches are becoming increasingly important with younger people much more likely to go to them often because they provide more appropriate activities such as young people’s groups.
Churches of over 350 are dominated nationally by RC churches (1,250) followed by Pentecostal (200), Anglican (160) and New Churches (140).
In Norfolk, there are around 70 churches (7%) with over 200-strong congregations, 120 churches (12%) from 101-200, 200 (20%) from 51-100, 200 (20%) from 26 to 50 and around 410 (41%) with under 25 each Sunday.
“The challenge facing smaller churches, especially in rural areas, is they have a greater proportion of older people,” said Peter. “On the other hand they often have committed financial supporters, may be boosted by ‘internet’ families moving into the village and praying for grandchildren is also important. For 12% of Protestant churchgoers, grandparents were the most significant people in showing what faith is about.”

Peter issued three challenges to the church in Norfolk:

1 It must combat declining numbers to survive.
2 It should encourage more mid-week activity which often bring people in, help grow the church’s fringe and are especially important for young people.
3 It has to think, plan, pray and work more strategically.
Peter is director of Christian Research and the man behind the definitive 2005 English Church Census and Religious Trends reports. He was speaking at an event organized by Transforming Norwich, hosted by Sheriff of Norwich John Drake and held at the Salvation Army Citadel in the city centre.
The 2005 English Church Census asked all 37,500 churches in England for attendance figures, half responded.
Transforming Norwich chairman, John Betts, said: “We have seen the facts and glimpsed the future. We must do differently in the light of what we have learned. We can either profit from our history, learn and grow, or fail to move on.”
Next week, in part two of this feature, we see what Dr Brierley said about the effect of seven important trends in society on the church in Norfolk.

Published: 26/04/2007