Attendance, Migration, Community
In the autumn of 2017, FIEC held a small consultation with leaders from churches in rural, city and town locations. Here are three big headlines that came out of the conversation.
It soon became pretty clear in our discussions that although these churches all served different places, three key factors were affecting every single one of them. Attendance, migration, and community.
At FIEC, we’re going to do some more work on this to help your church to address these factors but for now: have you ever given serious thought to how the church you lead is affected by them?
Let’s look at each one in turn.
There are various trends that can be seen in church life. One obvious one is that churches report weak attendance at Sunday evening meetings. Around one in four churches don't have an evening service at all.
Meanwhile many more churches report the phenomenon of “more people coming but less often”. That is to say that as a church grows the regularity of attendance slips. There is some evidence that church size factor shapes this trend: the issue seems statistically more significant the larger the church. Although smaller churches generally report proportionately a more consistent attendance, they are affected by this too.
So leaders have to think hard about discipleship when 25% or more may be away on any one Sunday. Add to that those who may be out helping children and the proportion who miss vital health-giving spiritual nurture may be much higher.
Why this is happening can be difficult to pin down. We might say people are acting like consumers or that we live in a spiritually superficial age but I suspect the answer is a lot more complex. But how we overcome the problem merits careful consideration.
It may be tempting to do a series of sermons blasting away on the theme of, “Not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together”. That might help some recalibrate their priorities.
But you may need to think more about making your small-group structure work better so that discipleship formation is shaped both by large Sunday meetings and small group meetings at other times (Acts 2:42-47). Linking Sunday teaching to small group life becomes important.1
You will also need to reflect upon how the next two factors affect your church.
Contrary to popular belief, many more people move around within Great Britain than come to settle here as immigrants.
Students are a good example. Most of us know that students leave in September (perhaps never to return again) but we may not realise the scale of this migration. More than 50% of all youngsters go on to some kind of tertiary education. The numbers on the move are vast.
One of my sons went to Sheffield, where the two universities in the city account for 65,000 young adults. That is nearly two thirds of the population of the town I live in. More than 1 million youngsters migrate around the country every year. Some churches gain, many feel they lose.
After University, enormous numbers of young graduates are drawn into London. One Christian leader estimated that half of all Christians in Britain aged under 30 live in London. They add a vibrancy to the city and its churches. But then, many leave the city (at least as their place of residence) as they have families.
It means that churches on the outskirts of London gain from an enormous net out-migration from the UK’s capital city.
This internal migration also effects the ethnic make-up of a church. Many immigrants start off by living in London and many of them come from Christian backgrounds. As they leave they look for churches with greater diversity than the church they worshipped in when they first arrived. This migration factor has helped many once white churches have a greater ethnic mix.
In other parts of the country, the West for example, why not make the most of the migration trends affecting your church? Can you appeal to newly retired people, for example? The migration statistics suggest that you might be on to a winner as many older people move to the coasts in search of sea and sunshine.
But, of course, some churches are in places where no one moves house. On large social housing estates there may be few owners buying and selling, but rather tenants who stay for the long term.
This presents different migration issues; a church plant can find it hard to see new people moving in to fill ministry positions. New converts aren’t so anonymous in a place where everyone knows everyone. Standing for Christ can be tough and costly.
Which brings us to the third factor.
As a geographer, I used to do a statistical test called “Nearest-Neighbour analysis”.
These days, however “the neighbours” are often the people you know on a social media network. This takes precedent over spatial connections.
But this opportunity to connect to people electronically can bring its own subtle temptations. Do I only ‘like’ or ‘become friends’ with the selected ones I vet or see as desirable, or am I going to reach out to the needy?
On the other hand it has given fantastic opportunities to communicate with people without the constraints of proximity or the “friction of distance”. Whether you see it as a temptation or a positive opportunity, the social media revolution is shaping our understanding of neighbour, locality and community.
Add to that the changes that the personal transport revolution (greater car ownership) has brought, and community means different things from our past.
I have also found that it is shaped by age and stage of life too. When we had very young children so much social interaction was within walking distance. But as a sporty 60-year-old, my team-mates come from all over the town and way beyond. One guy even lives thirty miles away but team camaraderie is such that he would rather travel and play with his mates then join a new team. You may have some church members who are the same.
This underscores the idea that personal connection can be as significant to attendance as something that’s nearby. Community has a complex geography. This will mean we all have to think carefully about how we encourage evangelism and how that relates to each local church.
So, here we have A, M, C (I was trying hard to find a B but failed!). Later in 2018 FIEC is going to film a conversation with a few pastors who are talking about these factors and how they affect churches like yours. I hope you will be able to watch and talk together how these factors affect your mission.
All of us need to consider carefully what we can do to make the most of the opportunities changing dynamics present, and how to overcome some of the weaknesses that are affecting Christian discipleship.