Christmas cheer

Christmas cheer December 26, 2008

Two good news stories for the festive season from both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, The Guardian reports that attendance at Church of England Sunday services is predicted to fall by a further 90% over the next decade, essentially turning it into a fringe sect. And in the USA, The Wall Street Journal reports that increasing numbers of churches are going bankrupt.

Turning to the Guardian item, it’s based on forecasts by Christian Research and published in their annual report:

According to Dr Peter Brierley, former executive director of Christian Research, by 2030 just under 419,000 people will attend an Anglican Sunday service. By 2040 the number will be down to 217,200, falling to 153,800 five years later. By 2050, if the trend prediction is correct, only 87,800 will be attending.

It’s a bit of a mystery where they get these numbers from, and it’s worth noting that religious attendance in the UK is diversifying. What’s more, many people hold Christian beliefs of one form or another and yet rarely step foot inside a church. This is certainly the Church’s argument:

The Reverend Lynda Barley, head of research and statistics for the Archbishops’ Council, said the figures represented only a “partial picture” of religious trends, adding: “Church life has significantly diversified so these traditional statistics are less and less meaningful in isolation.”

In other words, people are still Christian, they just don’t feel the need to go to Church. It even has a name: believing but not belonging. Now, this is interesting to social theorists because a leading contender for explaining why patterns of religious participation vary from place to place is Rational Choice Theory (RCT). RCT is derived from free market economic theory, and basically assumes that there is a constant demand for religious ‘goods’ (i.e. religious services, promises of salvation etc). If what the religious organisations in a given area are offering is attractive, then people will sign up. If not, then they won’t bother.

The argument goes that one reason why religion is unpopular in Europe is that we have monolithic state churches. Because they are shielded from competition, and because membership is more or less assumed (in the case of many Scandinavian countries, it is literally assumed), these state churches don’t really go to much effort to make what they’re offering attractive. They also try to be all things to all people. So religious attendance is low.

The ‘cure’ is to break the monopoly and encourage a free market in religion. Which is where the article from the Wall Street Journal comes in. In the USA, religion is very much a business like any other. And like many other businesses, they’ve been overoptimistic about how much custom will come their way:

“There have been too many churches with a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude,” says N. Michael Tangen, executive vice president at American Investors Group Inc., a church lender in Minnetonka, Minn. “They had glory in their eyes that wasn’t backed up with adequate business plans and cash flow.”

As a result, churches are closing. It seems that part of the reason the business plans were so flawed is the promises by the faithful of donations and church attendance weren’t fulfilled:

The 125-year-old Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, of Jacksonville, Fla., borrowed about $2.6 million in 2002 to add a new education wing, reflecting pool and tower. In addition, the church’s 1,200 members pledged $1 million to the building campaign, but two-thirds of that money was never actually donated, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Allen Newman. A quarter of the congregants soon stopped attending church, says Mr. Newman, so weekly collections started to dwindle.

This wouldn’t surprise neutral observers. It’s been known for 15 years that there’s a very large discrepancy between the numbers of people who answer yes to the question ‘Did you go to Church last Sunday’ and the numbers of people who actually do (see this article from In other words, in public people like to portray themselves as religious (especially in a country like the USA, where atheists face a lot of negative stereotyping), but their private lives are a different matter.

Part of the boom came about because many religious people in the USA have convinced themselves that religion is undergoing a revival in their country. In fact, religious attendance has flatlined since 1990 (see Presser & Chaves, 1990). Just goes to show that faith and business plans are not ideal bedfellows.

And meanwhile, back in the UK, Christian Research has also estimated church attendance for all Christian denominations (see figure, pinched from Ruth Gledhill at The Times). The decline in overall church attendance is even steep than the decline in Church of England attendance (in percentage terms)! In the UK at least, and notwithstanding the assumptions of Rational Choice Theory, it really does seem like Christianity is in terminal decline.

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