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Combating the decline

It’s reported this week that weekly attendance at the Church of England services has fallen below one million for the first time. This is part of a steady decline of just over 1% each year for the past 10 years or so. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes the decline started at the end of the Second World War in 1945. 

The Bishop of Norwich tried to put a spin on this saying that the Church of England was about to embark on the biggest renewal process for over 150 years; and that most of their members are elderly and so will either die or become housebound. I wonder what happened to the ‘Decade of Evangelism’ from 1990 – 2000? All of this negates the fact that we’re told that the country is getting over-populated.

Is England getting less Christian, or is the Church of England just on a losing streak?  Certainly where I live and work as a Catholic priest the number of church buildings is increasing and most seem to be thriving, including my own. But no matter how we proclaim the Gospel and from which denomination, we cannot compel people to listen and act on our message. The response has to come from the individual: we cannot force people to hear the Gospel, the News which is eternally good.

Perhaps we, especially clergy, need to realise that joining the Church is a deliberate choice, either by parents when presenting their child for baptism or by the individual. No longer do people go to church, of whatever denomination, because it’s ‘what our family does’ as used to be the case in days of long ago. We have to help people see that the gospel is liberating, and once embraced leads to self-fulfilment.

But, I wonder if the people in the pews share this view of the gospel. As you look around your church do the people look liberated, self-fulfilled and happy? If they do, then your church is probably growing. That sort of people will attract others into it, and visitors will want to stay. On the other hand, if your congregation is sad, feeling oppressed and worried, then that is hardly likely to get anybody new in off the streets.

This is the difficulty: success breeds success, failure bring still more failure. The Bishop of Norwich is reported as re-affirming that his Church is unashamedly committed to following the teachings of Jesus as regards worship and service to the poor, which is reassuring. We wouldn’t expect any less from a church. He also said, “Our confidence, resilience and service is rooted in Jesus.”  That is great, but what will he and the Church of England (and all our churches) actually do?  Is it just a question of putting resources into prayer, discipleship, leadership and so on?  It would seem to me that the basic resource of any church is the people there, filled with the Holy Spirit. They have to be cultivated to feel positive about their faith.

As you read this, how positive do you feel? What would make you feel more positive? The growth of the Church of God depends not on Bishops (or leadership, if your church doesn’t have bishops) but on the normal Christian, filled with the enthusiasm of God’s love, that’s you!

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