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London surprise

September 2013 | by Rod Badams

Church attendance in London is significantly on the rise, bucking the trend of a steady decline in churchgoing across the nation over the past 30 years.

While England has lost 2.2 million churchgoers since 1979, London attendances rose by 98,500 to 721,500 between 2005 and 2012 — an increase of 16 per cent. The proportion of Londoners attending church is now 8.8 per cent, compared with 5.6 per cent in the rest of England.

In addition to those attending on Sundays, a further 120,000 attend activities during the week. If these were included in the headline figures, it would mean that slightly over 10 per cent of the population are seen in church every week.

Churches in London which describe themselves as evangelical (61 per cent of churches representing 52 per cent of the churchgoers) are growing the fastest, having experienced an increase of 30 per cent between 2005 and 2012.

These upbeat statistics are the findings of the London Church Census (LCC), commissioned by the London City Mission and conducted by Brierley Consultancy. A churchgoer was defined in the LCC by attendance at least once a month.

The census took place on 14 October 2012 and its results were published on 21 July 2013.

 

Engagement

 

For more than 30 years, church attendance in England has seemed to be in inexorable decline. Attendance was 5.4 million in 1979 (11.7 per cent), 4.7 million in 1989 (9.9 per cent), 3.7 million in 1998 (7.5 per cent) and 3.2 million in 2005 (6.3 per cent).

The LCC findings paint a brighter picture of the state of Christianity in London than emerged from the religious data in the 2011 census, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in December 2012.

The 2011 census confined itself to asking people what their religion was, and in London only 48.4 per cent said it was ‘Christian’, compared with 61.1 per cent in the rest of England and Wales.

The LCC, however, focused on church attendance — a much greater level of engagement. In England, London may have the smallest proportion of population identifying with Christianity at the most basic level, but it leads the way in church attendance.

The LCC reveals an increase between 2005 and 2012 in the number of churchgoers in all age bands. The most striking change in the seven-year period is the 28 per cent increase in the number of over-65s attending church.

 

New churches

 

Between 2005 and 2012, about 1000 new churches were started in London, representing a rate of two a week. Of the churches planted, 93 per cent of them were still in being after five years, compared with a survival rate of 76 per cent outside London.

Of the people attending newly planted churches, 40 per cent were reckoned to be people with no previous church background. Three-quarters of the newly-planted churches were financially self-sufficient after five years. New churches outnumbered those ceasing to exist by more than three to one.

Professed conversions are a real part of the picture revealed by the LCC. Of new church-goers, 6 per cent were members of a different religion when they started attending church.

Although these statistics represent a genuine and unexpected advance, there are also some caveats. The increase in church attendance (15.8 per cent) has done only slightly more than kept pace with the size of London’s population, which rose from 7,172,091 to 8,173,941 (14 per cent) between 2001 and 2011.

The growth is not consistent across the whole range of denominations and types of church. Those reporting an increase were Pentecostals (50 per cent), Orthodox (20 per cent), and Roman Catholics (1 per cent).

However, a number of denominations suffered a decline: United Reform Church (-14 per cent), Methodists (-11 per cent), Baptists (-9 per cent), Anglicans (-7 per cent), Independents (-1 per cent).

In fact, nearly one third (32 per cent) of London’s churchgoers are Pentecostals, including those in the Black Majority churches, followed by Roman Catholics with 27 per cent.

 

Mixed picture

 

Of the 4800 churches in London, 1450 are Pentecostal. Anglicans are the only other group with more than 1000. Within this mixed denominational picture, it is clear that not all the growth is within churches professing to be evangelical.

Church attendance is not uniform across the whole of London. There are boroughs whose church attendance is well above the average (8.8 per cent), such as Kensington and Chelsea (18.2 per cent), City of Westminster (15.2 per cent), Southwark (13.7 per cent), Brent (13.4 per cent), Enfield (12.7 per cent), Lewisham (11.4 per cent), Harrow (11.0 per cent), Wandsworth (10.6 per cent), Lambeth (10.3 per cent) and Haringey (10.2 per cent).

Yet there are also boroughs well below the average: Tower Hamlets (5.9 per cent), Redbridge (5.5 per cent), Barking and Dagenham (5.2 per cent), Newham (5.2 per cent) and, lowest of all, Bexley (4.8 per cent).

In fact, much of the recent growth has taken place in areas of London with significant African and Caribbean populations, such as Lambeth (60 per cent increase) and Southwark (52 per cent). Migration patterns have contributed significantly to church attendance in some areas, but these can easily change.

Half of London’s churches have congregations of fewer than 200. Many of these are in outer London, and are experiencing decline rather than growth.

The growth is not evenly spread between the sexes. Four out of five of the additional worshippers since 2005 are women. There is no obvious explanation for this imbalance.

 

Black Majority churches

 

Looking beneath the headline figures, the contribution to the growth made by Black Majority churches and larger churches located in or near the City of London immediately becomes apparent.

London’s population is much more ethnically diverse than the rest of England. In London, 40 per cent of the population is non-white, compared with only 10 per cent in the rest of England.

London has three times more Asians (18 per cent) and six times more black people (13 per cent) than the rest of England (2 per cent). While only 13 per cent of London’s population is black, 28 per cent of its churchgoers are black. In inner London, this figure rises to 48 per cent.

Although on an average Sunday 8.8 per cent of Londoners attend church, this figure jumps to 19 per cent for the black population, and 16 per cent for the Chinese, Korean and Japanese communities.

The impact of larger churches is also significant in London. More than half (54 per cent) of all churchgoers attend churches which have congregations of more than 200. A third of these larger churches have 500 and some have thousands. Among the latter are a number of Anglican, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal Black Majority churches.

 

Large churches

 

Although it has a population of fewer than 7500, the City of London has the disproportionately high number of 5100 church attenders — 1000 more than in 2005 — since it houses several of the largest churches, which attract people from a wider area.

The pattern of church attendance by younger people is a significant factor influencing the recent growth. In the capital, the average age of a churchgoer is 41, compared with 46 in the rest of England.

It seems to be a general rule that the larger the church, the younger the congregation. In a small congregation of 25 or under, the average age is 50, whereas in a church with 100 or more, the average age is 40.

In London, 6 per cent of the 20-29 age group goes to church regularly, two-thirds of them attending larger churches. This is twice the attendance rate for this age group in the rest of England. Of all churchgoers in inner London, 14 per cent are in the 20-29 age group, compared with only 9 per cent in outer London.

The average age also varies with the denomination of the church attended. In Methodist and URC churches it is 56; in Anglican and Roman Catholic churches 45; in Baptist, Independent, Orthodox and smaller denominations 42; and in Pentecostal and new churches 33.

 

Prayer

 

Aside from Sunday attendance, the churches reach a further 120,000 people each week through mid-week services (63 per cent of the churches have these), youth work (45 per cent) and community activities (23 per cent).

The findings of the LCC are based on more than 1000 responses, consisting of returned questionnaires from individual churches and other data supplied by the offices of denominations and church associations.

For all the patchiness and uncertainty they indicate, they nonetheless paint a picture which is unarguably quite different from the familiar pattern of unremitting decline.

This glimmer of encouragement ought to spur us all on to pray for our capital city, its people, churches and gospel workers.

We should pray also that this growth in church attendance might spread throughout Britain, and be particularly evident among churches where the gospel is preached and the Bible taught and trusted.

Rod Badams

A book is shortly to be published by Brierley Consultancy entitled London’s churches are growing (details from

www.brierleyconsultancy.com).

 

 

 

 

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