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invisible 246The largest part of the Church in the UK 

Review of 'The Invisible Church' by Steve Aisthorpe

You may have heard of the word 'dechurched'. A description of people who attended 'church' but now no longer do so. In 2007, Tearfund in their report 'Churchgoing in the UK' found that although 53% or 26.2 million adults in the UK claim to be Christian, only 7.6 million attend 'church' at least monthly. 16 million have been in the past but have since left - most of these are closed to attending 'church'. These are labelled 'dechurched'. Church attendance has declined again since then (except in some locations e.g. London and large cities), but now seems as a whole, to have stabilised. However, we have an enormous number of people in the UK who are 'dechurched' and this is not just a trend in the UK but also in USA, Europe and Australia.

I personally have found the word 'dechurched' to be very unhelpful. Have those that don't attend 'church' lost their faith? Has Jesus disowned them? Aren't they still part of the ekklesia - the body of Christ? Aren't we really saying that we have a large number of believers who are no longer connected to an institution - in effect 'de-institutionalised' rather than 'dechurched'? If that is the case, we have an enormous Church out there.

We have had research and negative messages for some years based on the decline in church attendance e.g. books - The Death of Christian Britain, God is Dead, but is there research on this seemingly enormous segment of the Church? There is some. In 1998, 'Gone But Not Forgotten' by Richter and Francis was published. In 2002, 'A Churchless Faith' by Alan Jamieson was published. 

In April 2016, a new book 'The Invisible Church' by Steve Aisthorpe was published and this gives some more recent. deep, evidence based insights into this segment.

Steve came back to the UK in 2007 after 12 years overseas. Where we perhaps have been too close to gradual decline, it was very obvious to Steve that we are living through a period of exceptional change and transition. He found himself wrestling with the contradiction between the concept of the local church congregation being God's primary agent for the gospel and what he was seeing on the ground as hundreds of thousands of people no longer turned up.

In his role as Regional Development Officer for the Church of Scotland and in his studies for a PhD, he was able to talk to and survey a substantial number of those who were no longer attending 'church'. These are some of his findings:

Firstly some myths busted:

  1. It's all doom, gloom and decline. Around the world, Christianity is growing and growing in may ways; depth, impact, numbers.
  2. There's an inevitable slide into secularisation. Growing prosperity, health, education does not lead to secular societies.
  3. The end of Christendom is the end of Christianity. Our Christendom-shaped churches need to realise that substantial numbers of those disengaged from churches want to be part of a vital, revolutionary, compassionate movement of Jesus-followers that existed pre-Christendom.
  4. Decline in church attendance is synonymous with decline in Christianity. 2000+ people leave churches each week in the UK - the majority continue to be committed to their Christian faith.
  5. Christians who do not attend church are all 'church-leavers'. Many with faith have not attended 'church' as they have found the experience does not mirror the course they attended for example. However, they continue to witness, meet others, etc.
  6. If congregations do the right things, leavers will be returners. They are not waiting for the local 'church' to change. They are content to live out their faith without reference to religious institutions. Most feel part of the wider Church. A minority would be open to meeting in an informal setting.
  7. Churchless Christians are driven by consumerism. Leaving a church is actually emotionally complex. The evidence points to decisions being rooted in a journey of personal discipleship influenced by deep changes in the individual.

Then some stereotypes, generalisations and assumptions about Christians that are not church-goers. These help deflect from deep examination of causes and therefore the need to change:

  1. The loner. Many meet up with others informally or online.
  2. The backslider. Most people reported their faith journey had been positively impacted - a deepening relationship with God.
  3. The petty-minded. Long-term struggle and deliberation can result in a tipping point over something trivial. This can be misconstrued.
  4. The uncommitted. Many have attended church for decades - the average in the research was 15 years. Considerable committment.
  5. The incomer. New to the area and expecting something different - no - most had lived in the area for many years.
  6. The Christian in name only.

Steve then goes on to look at exit routes - common elements on the road to post-congregational faith. Phases of the process were identified; asking questions/exploring doubts, building disaffection, investigating/experimenting, tipping points/last straws, detox/grief/moving on. He also looks at how churches can inadvertently create a culture that is helpful and comfortable to some people but challenging and excluding for others e.g. dress code, gender, lack of community, personality types, etc.

His next section looks at the question of why institutions are so impervious to change despite being committed to a mission of transformation. We need to be keen observers of our continually changing world - the context in which we can tell the gospel afresh to a new generation. Flexibility, agileness, learning, re-learning are vital elements of a healthy church culture. A significant recurring theme of those that had left was the frustration with change-resistant culture of congregations rather than alterations they disliked (rarely cited in the research). A transition has been happening for decades and existing structures and practices have for the most part failed to adapt to cultural change. At a time when many denominations are encouraging creativity and church planting, it is worth noting that some of those most committed to innovation may have left the building.

Life is a journey and faith is a dynamic and evolving element of that. This is deeply rooted in the Bible e.g. Moses and the people of Israel. The research showed that crises of faith and life take people into seasons of being church-adverse. For a small number this may amount to a sabbatical after which they return. Others have no intention of engaging with the congregations currently available to them but still yearn for a different type of church. They often find other forms of Christian community, whether face-to-face, virtual, structured or informal. They are contentedly non-congregational. Reinforcing this separation is a lack of recognition of vocation e.g. business, irrelevance of sermons to everyday life and the 'sacred'/'secular' thinking in church words and actions e.g. praying for missionaries but not those in workplaces. 

The research also showed that while love within the Christian community was often prominent in the reasons for embracing the Christian faith and involvement with a local congregation, it was often a perceived lack of love affecting themselves or others that contributed to or sealed a decision to disengage.

Unexpectedly, the research showed that a sense of commitment to participate in God's mission was prominent in more than 50% of respondents. It was a concern for the missional challenges in their area that was a decisive motivator for their disengagement from the congregation. They explained that mission opportunities were inadequately met by the local congregation, due to, for example, a focus on internal matters. They have found a release of time to meet and talk to others outside of a faith community.

Steve concludes with some thoughts on the way ahead. Is the Church in transition, on a journey? Moving from institutional to organic? Moving from roles, activities, structures, set ways of doing things to being shaped by the people, their gifts, visions and relationships? Based on extensive research in the USA, George Barna predicts that, although 70% of Christians in the year 2000 saw the local church congregation as their primary means of spiritual experience and expression, this will drop to 30%-35% by 2025. This corresponds to a rise in what he calls 'alternative faith-based community'. There is relief and hope here. Relief that the decline in church-goers does not equate to a corresponding decline in Christianity and hope because Christian fellowship is being expressed in fresh ways. There is also pain; the grief of those attached to particular institutions, the emotional struggles of those disengaging, the failure to recognise each other as authentic parts of the Christian family.

As Steve says, "The fact that Christianity sometimes becomes church-centred and church-focused rather than Jesus-centred and Kingdom-focused is a tragic reality. Congregations degenerate from being a movement to being a monument, from being dynamic to being static. Eagerness to follow and serve and grow in Christ gives way to routine, monotony and boredom. The main thing is that the main thing remains the main thing."

Between each chapter are questions and activities for further reflection. As George Lings, Director Church Army's Research Unit says, "I continue to meet the very people this book talks about, but the wider church is unsure how to react, because admitting this reality of churchless Christians poses deep questions about how the church operates at present." Are you open to working through such questions?

NB Book links are to Amazon UK but obviously these can be obtained from other booksellers.

See an update on this research here.

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Geoff Knott, 30/05/2017

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