New research reveals Britain's Christian community considerably larger than expected

Steve Aisthorpe
Steve Aisthorpe and the cover of his new book The Invisible Church.

This Easter, the number of people who hold the Christian faith as central to their lives is much greater than church attendance figures suggest.

A new study investigating why people stop attending church has discovered two thirds of church-leavers maintain a strong personal faith. Falling church attendance has been described as 'a haemorrhage akin to a burst artery' and this research is the first to make a thorough exploration of the world behind the statistics. Its findings challenge assumptions that declining numbers of people sitting in pews on Sunday mornings are synonymous with a decline in Christian faith and the Christian community.

"I discovered the number of people who attend church services are the tip of the iceberg of the total Christian community" says researcher Dr Steve Aisthorpe, whose findings are presented in a new book, 'The Invisible Church'. "I conducted extensive and rigorous research in Scotland and made a careful study of related research from other parts of the UK and across the Western world. I found that changes in wider society and in the practices of Christian people mean attendance at Sunday morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith. There is decline in Christian faith in Britain, but it is considerably smaller than previously assumed."

The research commissioned by the Church of Scotland suggests Christianity in Great Britain is in transition, rather than decline. This is an issue for wider society because faith-based organisations in the third sector are increasingly involved in public service provision and an accurate picture of faith-based communities is vital. It is also an issue for churches, who want to maintain the relevance of their worship services to their members and the wider community.

Steve's findings challenge assumptions about the inevitable secularisation of British society. They also pose questions for churches and church members.

"Among church goers, I found many previous assumptions about 'church-leavers' are at best, generalisations, and at worst prejudices. There has been a well-publicised view within the Christian community that those who discontinue church attendance usually do so over trivial issues and it is now clear that this is not true. The evidence also shows that churches which are resistant to change and those which are dominated by a single group are more likely to decline."

Steve also found common patterns in the reasons people stop attending church.

"Every individual's experience is different but I found five distinct phases people go through before they leave their church. As traditional congregations diminish, there is evidence of small informal gatherings of people coming together to explore their faith in what have been termed 'Fresh Expressions' of church are experiencing dynamic growth."

Rt Rev Dr Angus Morrison, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland says The Invisible Church is both hopeful and challenging.

"This is a major contribution to establishing the place of the church in contemporary society. As a Church we have to take heed of these findings, something we are already doing by investing money and resources in our pioneer ministry programme, which is bringing our Church into the wider community."

Bishop David Walker, Bishop of Manchester has also welcomed the research, commenting:

"When a serious researcher writes about Churchless Christians instead of just writing them off, leaders need to be giving him their full attention".

Professor Leslie Francis of the University of Warwick, who carried out the most extensive research into church-leaving in England and Wales has commented:

"Dr Steve Aisthorpe offers an original, insightful and authoritative voice on making visible and audible the invisible church of churchless Christians. His insights need to be taken seriously to understand God's presence and activity in today's world."

Here are two areas where the Church is already responding to the issues raised by The Invisible Church:

Moving ahead on Fresh Expressions

Creating new pioneer ministries

Get your copy of Steve Aisthorpe's The Invisible Church from St Andrew Press.