The Rt Rev Christopher Foster, Church of England Bishop of Portsmouth, says it’s wrong to judge a church’s success just by attendance on a Sunday
We’ve heard for many years that fewer people in the UK go to church on Sunday, that those people are generally older, and perhaps that the Church of England might cease to exist within 100 years on current trends.
I’m not going to pretend that the Church of England doesn’t have real challenges but the assumption that Christianity will just wither and die within the next few decades is clearly wrong.
Firstly of course, what’s happening in the UK doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening elsewhere in the world. In some countries, churches are growing rapidly.
The prediction is for the number of Christians across the globe to rise from 2.17bn in 2010 to 2.92bn in 2050.
Secondly, it is only the Church of England and Roman Catholic churches in the UK who regularly count those attending Sunday services.
Plenty of other congregations are growing, but we rarely hear about it because it is harder to get hold of the statistics.
In the city of Portsmouth, for instance, there are 78 different churches and only 26 are Church of England.
Many of these other churches have only been launched in the past few years, and have attracted hundreds of new people, young and old.
Thirdly, I think it’s wrong to judge a church’s success just by attendance on Sundays.
Over the past few decades, we’ve got better about providing midweek services, Bible study groups in people’s homes and children’s activities on different days of the week.
Those who attend are engaging with God in various ways, regardless of whether they come on a Sunday.
Many of our churches are also doing a fantastic job of caring for the homeless, running youth groups, helping people out of debt and so on. I’d rather judge their success by the difference they make to people’s lives than by how many actually sit in their pews.
Of course, we are aware that we need to do more.
That’s why we’ve launched a new strategy which includes the creation of a brand new church, aimed specifically at students and young people. I’ll be there when Harbour Church, based in Commercial Road, is officially launched on September 4.
And we’re also providing new ‘pioneer ministers’ in specific areas – Cosham, Leesland, Leigh Park, Milton and elsewhere – who have permission to dream up brand new ways to reach people who aren’t attracted by traditional models of church.
The new worshipping communities they create may not be in church buildings and probably won’t meet on Sundays.
Their work is unlikely to make a difference to official statistics just yet.
But they’ll definitely be helping non-churchgoers to engage with God in fresh ways.
In my book that’s definitely good news!