At the beginning of the New Year, David Robertson, a well-known Free Church of Scotland minister and blogger, gave ten prophecies for 2017 [1]. One of these particularly caught my eye:

The Church of Scotland and the Church of England in the UK will continue to decline …

One of the reasons he gives to support his prophecy is the turning away of these churches from the gospel. In fact, their decline for this year is virtually guaranteed because their senior age profile gives them a high death rate that births into the church cannot overcome. To stop declining, both churches would need a massive number of conversions, far higher than anything seen in generations. So, sadly, I think David Robertson will certainly be able to tick this prophecy off!

These two denominations are not alone; the pattern of long-term decline is typical of nearly all pre-1900 denominations. To show this, let me present some data for eight UK denominations and examine their growth and decline patterns.  

Institutional Nature of Decline

One cause of changes in church membership is the general growth of the population through births, deaths, and migration. To see genuine growth, rather than look at the actual numbers in a church, I will examine the church’s percentage of the total population of the country. If the percentage is positive, the church was gaining members from society; that is, enough conversions were taking place to more than counterbalance its inability to keep all its children. If the percentage is negative, the church was failing to keep pace with any population growth, effectively losing its “market share”. This method works as it is safe to assume none of these churches had a per capita birth rate greater than that of society.

  Figure 1 shows membership percentages for four of the larger denominations [2,3], three established and one free (Welsh Presbyterian) [4].  The Church of Scotland and Church in Wales show moderate percentage increases followed by long declines as they fail to keep pace with population growth. The Church of England would probably show the same pattern, but I suspect the membership figures in the 1800s are inflated due to inaccurate measures of electoral roll. However, its recent figures are more realistic. Thus, its percentage decline since the 1940s is genuine [5].

Figure 1: Membership of Church of England, Church in Wales, Church of Scotland, & Presbyterian Church of Wales, as percentages of the population of their countries, where data is known.

By contrast, the Welsh Presbyterians had a much higher percentage of membership from the 1700s to the 1870s due to very high conversion rates resulting from revival sustained over a number of generations [6]. Nevertheless, it has declined ever since and is now only a marginal part of Welsh life.  

All four churches show the pattern of the institutional lifecycle. A rise to prominence, caused by the freedom to channel spiritual life into evangelism, followed by a long decline, as the trappings of institutional maintenance and theological revisions distract churches from a passion for conversions. The Welsh Presbyterian church peaked earlier, perhaps because it was the one not established. Thus, it is further advanced in the lifecycle, explaining why it is now a smaller percentage than the Church in Wales.  The Church of Scotland has the fastest decline, probably because it has started with a much larger percentage of the host population.

Figure 2 shows four smaller denominations. The Methodist Church has the same institutional lifecycle as the Welsh Presbyterian, which is to be expected as both were at the forefront of the 18th-century revival in England and Wales [7]. However, the United Reformed Church (URC) is similar to the institutional churches in figure 1. It was formed from the English Presbyterian and Congregational churches, which, like the established churches, predate the 18th-century revivals.

Figure 2: Membership of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the Pentecostal & New Churches, Free Church of Scotland, & United Reformed Church, as percentages of the population of their countries, where data is known.

To make sense of these patterns, I would suggest the pre-revival churches, established and URC constituents, were declining before the 18th century revival at the end of a previous lifecycle. The revival was driven by new movements, Methodist and Welsh Presbyterian [8], which subsequently became churches and were later institutionalised. Some congregations of the pre-revival churches became part of this revival, but many didn’t, hence the slower 19th century growth rate.  These churches were already theologically mixed and not predominantly evangelical, so a partial take-up of revival is not surprising.

By the end of the 19th century, the Methodists and Welsh Presbyterians had become institutionalised, revival was no longer welcome, and they entered the decline phase of the lifecycle. The pre-revival churches just moved back on to the decline phase of their lifecycle that they had been on over a century earlier. Data from all these denominations have been fitted to the limited enthusiasm model of church growth, and all churches are well under the extinction threshold, except the Church of England, which is marginal. For some, that extinction is predicted before the end of the middle of the century [5]. Lifecycles can come to an end.

The Contrast to Decline

There are still two churches I have not mentioned. I have added together the Pentecostal churches with the “New” churches. The former came from the early 20th-century revival, whereas the latter came from the 1960-1990 charismatic renewal, thus sharing similar traits. These churches are at the start of the lifecycle, with accelerated growth coming from the late 1990s due to strategic church planting and immigration enhancing the existing revival. Of course, it is not enough to make up for the losses in the other churches, but if growth is sustained, it may do in the future.

I have also added the Free Church of Scotland, as it was a comment by a Free Church minister that inspired this blog. Although it looked as if it were in the decline phase of its lifecycle, it has recently flattened out and seen some small growth.

Cause of Decline

If, as David Robertson suggests, church decline is caused by “turning away from the gospel”[1], then there should be some correlation between the decline and theological liberalism.  Figure 3 shows the average membership change over the last 10 years; the evangelical churches are growing, and the theologically mixed are declining. Of the declining ones, only the Church of England shows a significantly smaller decline rate. It could be argued that it has a greater fraction of theologically conservative congregations than the others; hence, its decline is softened. Figure 3 suggests that theological liberalism, one of the causes of institutionalism, is driving church decline, a conclusion that has been reached by others before me [9].

Figure 3: Annual membership changes, averaged over 2005-2015 or a closely similar period where data is uncertain.

Seriousness of Decline

The critical nature of church decline can be seen by noting that the rate of decline is increasing for most denominations. Figures 4 and 5 show the annual percentage change in membership, averaged over ten years, for two denominations, compared with population change. This accelerated decline is due to ageing in churches where there are few conversions to bring the average age down. This later stage of the institutional lifecycle contrasts markedly with the earlier revival phase, figure 4, where the Methodists managed growth well in excess of population growth for over a hundred years.

Figure 4: Annual change in Methodist Church membership, smoothed over a 10-year period, compared with the annual smoothed population change. See note [11] for an explanation of periodicity in the numbers from 1900.
Figure 5: Annual change in Church of Scotland membership, smoothed over a 10-year period, compared with the annual smoothed population change.

Church leaders often express some mild concern over falling numbers [10]. A quick glance at either figures 4 or 5 should provoke the utmost alarm in those leaders and a determination to change direction radically. The trend is so clearly getting worse that it is almost unbelievable that this is not top of the agenda of every church denominational leadership meeting, rather than the endless debates on the church’s response to social trends.

Reversing Decline

It is the Pentecostal church grouping that is seeing clear growth. The lesson for the other denominations from this is that if you want to see growth, embrace the charismatic revival with its Bible-centred evangelical doctrines! However, it may not be as simple as that.

Pentecostal growth has not come out of the blue but from a sustained commitment to its theological stance over generations. Revival is often a long haul. Likewise, the other churches’ decline has come from generations of theological and institutional lethargy. It cannot be turned around overnight. But individual congregations could be turned into growth if the central denomination allows those who wish to go down a Bible-based and revival route to do so unhindered by denominational pressures. Unhindered doctrinally, financially and in terms of ministerial training and appointment.

Perhaps even small lessons can be learned. Why has the Free Church of Scotland stopped declining? It is not dramatic, but is better than decline! I could point to similar modest success in the independent evangelical churches in England. What have they discovered that the declining denominations have failed to grasp? If nothing else the leaders of the denominations facing future extinction owe it to their members to learn from denominations and congregations that have bucked the trend.

References and Notes

[1] Ten Prophecies Re. the Church in 2017, David Robertson, The Wee Flea, 11/1/17.

[2] Currie, R., Gilbert, A. D., & Horsley, L. S.(1977). Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700. Oxford University Press.

Brierley P. (2014). UK Church Statistics 2010-2020, and previous editions. Brierley Consultancy. Also, Religious Trends Vol 1-7, Christian Research.

Statistics for Mission. Church of England

Statistics for Mission, various editions, Methodist Church.

Church of Scotland Blue Books.  

Attendance figures are not known over a time range of centuries. Even obtaining membership data is challenging. Attendance tends to be higher than membership in growing churches and lower in declining ones.  This is due to delays in joining and leaving churches and due to evangelistically active churches having a large fringe of uncommitted people.

[3] Percentages are calculated in terms of the relevant host population, such as England, Wales, Scotland, Great Britain (GB), the sum of the previous three.    

[4] Though technically disestablished, the Church in Wales occupies a similar position in law as the Church of England, sharing rules on marriages and church schools, thus having points of contact with the state.

[5] Blog: Anglican Church Decline in the West – The Data  
Blog: Anglican Church Decline in the West – Possible Reasons

[6] Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions  
Blog: Church Decline caused by Lack of Revival  
Blog: Why Revivals Stopped in the UK

[7] Not the sudden drop in combined Methodist membership in the middle of the 19th century. Although the data includes all the constituent Methodist churches before and after splits and mergers, it is likely that for a couple of years, a number of members failed to be counted. The temporary drop is a recording issue not a genuine drop in real members. The same effect can be seen in figure 4.

[8] The Welsh Presbyterians were Methodists but of the Calvinist variety. The name change to Presbyterian came at the beginning of the 20th century.

[9] The correlation between theological stance and growth patterns has been discussed many times in the literature, much as a response to the seminal work by Dean Kelley: Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Mercer University Press, revised 1986, originally 1972.

[10] The following is typical of church leaders avoiding the issue. The soon-to-be-retiring Archbishop of Wales, in an interview with the BBC, admitted attendances at church had not done “terribly well” but said he has seen church communities become “more engaged” with society than ever before. Given there have been sixty years of decline in the Church in Wales, which has accelerated in the last few years, his comments are something of an understatement.

Archbishop of Wales Dr Barry Morgan on his retirement, BBC News, 27/1/17.

[11] Someone asked me the excellent question as to why there is periodicity in the time series for the Methodist membership change data figure 4 (and to a lesser extent, the Church of Scotland, figure 5).

a. Unlike the previous graphs, these concern the change of membership. Rates of change in a quantity always exaggerate effects which may be present in the original quantity itself because a rate is attempting to be instantaneous. In this case, the time period was 10 years, not an instant, but it still exaggerates any underlying periodicity. This periodicity may be in the original membership figures – but that is an accumulation and may not be as noticeable. Also, I gave no graph of the membership figures, only the percentage of the population, figure 2, so the periodicity could be lost in population changes.

b. I used a 10-year average in figures 4 and 5 – but I did it by taking the gradient between the beginning and end point of the 10-year period as I was only interested in comparing it with population change. With there being about 20 years between the end of World War 1 and the start of World War 2, there is a danger my smoothing/averaging period has exaggerated the effects of the war and counted them twice at the beginning point and the endpoint.

c. Looking at the actual annual membership change, figure 6, it can still be seen there is some periodicity in the data – though not as pronounced now. But there is a remarkable smoothness in the changes.

Figure 6

d. To double-check, I tried a variety of smoothing periods. This time, I averaged all the data points in the period, not just the end points. Figure 7 shows one such graph with a 7-year period, deliberately chosen to be out of phase with the 20-year inter-war period. 

Figure 7

The periodicity is still present. So, short of doing a statistical test, we can assume the effect is real. 

The first negative low point was 1914-18. This could be the effect of World War 1, when records were not fully kept up to date, and many men were lost. The rise to 1926 is a post-war membership readjustment, with the real state of affairs following up to 1939. The same effect happens again during World War 2. There is a low point in the early 1940s, and it peaks again in 1954 as records are updated in the post-war period. Remember, these are not the membership figures but changes in membership.

The next trough is 1978, a longer period than before and a peak in the early 1980s. This is likely an effect of the baby boom now becoming adults and entering membership, thus temporarily slowing the decline. It has only been down since.

I conclude that the best explanation of the periodicity in membership changes is a demographic effect due to the two world wars. A 25-year effect from the first war and a 30-year effect from the second, temporarily lowering the birth rates.

e. There is a peak in 1906, 20 years before the periods looked at above, and another peak in 1882, 24 years before that. These times may be a coincidence. The 1880s saw membership fall behind population as the period of revivals came to an end. The early 1900s saw rapidly falling birth rates – but this could also be a generational effect from the 1880s drop in conversion.

Sudden changes in populations, where the whole population, or a church subpopulation, can often have a knock-on demographic effect 20-30 years later. So, these effects are not surprising.


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