Face the future now
Why are churches in decline? And why are some growing? Martin Camroux surveys a sobering landscape
Last Christmas it was good to get a letter from someone who had just stepped down from leading the junior church’s senior class in my old church, Trinity, Sutton. For the first time in years, he could sit back and simply enjoy the Christmas Nativity. ‘There were more children in the tableau than I ever remember,’ he wrote. It made an encouraging change from the churches where I normally lead worship!
Church life today is a complex mix. Most churches are declining and, in many, if you are under 70 you feel young. But there are thriving local congregations and vibrant multi-ethnic churches. Many charismatic congregations are growing and so are congregations attracted by traditional cathedral worship. There is huge alienation from the churches among the young, who tend to see us as fundamentalist, homophobic and sexist. As the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby admits: ‘We have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 not only think that what we’re saying is incomprehensible but also think that we’re plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice. We have to be real about that.’ But many young people are still on a spiritual quest, and there has been a quiet revival of the Student Christian Movement. Everything is up in the air, old certainties no longer hold, but new possibilities challenge and excite.
Three trends above all account for this diversity. Firstly, society is increasingly secular with much of the population alienated from the churches. Secondly, however, large-scale immigration, often from deeply religious cultures, has dramatically expanded religious options and revolutionised church life, above all in London where church attendance increased by 16% between 2005 and 2012. Thirdly, there is a shift to what Grace Davie calls ‘religion based on choice rather than habit or obligation’. This means that most people no longer centre their faith on deeply held commitments to religious institutions. Much religion is outside the churches and even those who do still belong shop around for local options which satisfy their spiritual needs…
Martin Camroux is Chair of Free to Believe, a liberally-minded network of the United Reformed Church whose briefing, ‘The Future of the URC’ can be ordered from 4 Sorrel Close, Colchester, Essex, CO4 5UL for £4
This is an extract from an article that was published in the March 2018 edition of Reform