Year Zero

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This year’s British Methodist Church membership figures are out, and once again show a fall. Membership in 2013 was 208,679 which is the lowest it has been since 1820. As you can see from the graph above, that’s a decline on more than half in 30 years.

Where are all these people going? Most of them are going to the cemetery. Literally hundreds of Methodists die every week, and they are not being replaced with enough younger people. As you can see from the next graph, the rate is increasing.

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Last year it looked as though the decline might be slowing back to 1980s levels, but it seems to have been a one year blip.

So what does this mean? It means the church is dying and we need to do something totally radical about it.

Whenever I show these kind of statistics, and present the urgent need for drastic change, people react in different ways.

Some pretend that the statistics don’t matter, and that “God is always doing something new”, so it will solve itself.

Others say that “it’s not about numbers” and it’s our job to be faithful. But if it’s not about numbers, what is it about? And what does faithfulness look like?

Still others talk about exciting Fresh Expressions they have heard of, but these national statistics include them, and the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

Then there are those who say that any facing of these issues is “talking down” the church, and we should be more positive. Yet the man on the sinking ship warning everybody of disaster, is actually doing people a favour.

So when will the church face the facts? Decline is not inevitable, but while we continue as we are, demography is destiny. The graph hits zero in 2033……

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30 thoughts on “Year Zero

  1. Hi David. Have you read the recent Anglican report ‘From Anecdote To Evidence’? Well worth a read. I think if you are considering the inherited church then these statistics are as you say very concerning and shouldn’t be ignored or rationalised. But they don’t include many people. It’s incredibly hard to count those involved in fresh expressions for instance. Even having said that, it doesn’t take anything away from the fact that we need to be making more disciples.

    • I have read the report and it is exciting reading. I suggest it implies that we should put most of our effort into Fresh Expressions, as that it is where disciples are being made…..

      • There is a lot more than just Fresh Expressions in this report – perhaps a quote from the summary (page 8) would be useful?
        ——
        “Researchers have concluded that, while there is no single recipe, there are common ingredients strongly associated with growth in churches of any size, place or context.
        Good leadership
        A clear mission and purpose
        Willingness to self-reflect, to change and adapt according to context
        Involvement of lay members
        Being intentional in prioritising growth
        Being intentional in chosen style of worship
        Being intentional in nurturing disciples
        All of the above are linked to growing churches.
        Equally, some factors appear to be connected to decline. The increasingly urgent challenge to retain the younger generations in the church has been confirmed. A church with no children or under 16s is very likely to be in decline. Nearly a half of churches have fewer than five under 16s.
        The strategy of grouping multiple churches together under one leader has in general had a
        detrimental effect on church growth. Multi-church amalgamations and teams are less likely to grow.
        Churches are more likely to grow when there is one leader for one community.”
        ——
        There is a lot here that can be applied to the Methodist Church.
        – The ‘circuit plan’ of different worship leaders and preachers each week makes most of the ‘intentional’ points difficult, and also doesn’t help ‘Good leadership’ and a ‘clear mission and purpose’.
        – The idea of being a minister in a circuit is very similar to the CofE approach of multi-parish benefices – and these are strongly linked to decline.
        – Notice too the importance placed on work with under 16s.
        The final sentence in my quote needs to be understood both ways. One community needs one leader (not a huge range of different leaders on a week by week basis), but also one leader needs just one community to work within.
        Having been part of a circuit leadership team (if only for a short time) I fully understand how much needs to change in order to apply what this report is showing, but we now have no excuse if we don’t start the process because we have a pretty good idea of how things need to change. That, after all, is the point of research!
        One final point, which was made at a recent ‘Sticky Faith’ evening I went to. The challenge was that the spiritual health of the generation in church that is younger than us is our responsibility – as we have been responsible for creating the type of church that they have been exposed to. I think that I huge amount of repentance is needed – in the meaning of ‘change of mind and behaviour’.

    • It depends on to whom we refer as ‘we’. It may be foolishness or pride to think ‘we’ as a group of believers can make more disciples. The mystery of the gospel cannot be understood, unless God reveals it to a person. God reveals things to us by His Holy Spirit. The secret to soul-winning is God revealing Himself, to the heart of man, by the Holy Spirit. If ‘we’ are in a partnership with God, empowered by His Holy Spirit, we may make headway in making more disciples. This empowerment seems somewhat lacking in the ‘inherited church’. It was very much exercised by the Methodist Church founders who understood this. Many Fresh Expression initiatives seem like good ideas, but are they God ideas?

  2. interesting. There have been graphs showing the same for C of E for years. I have a couple of reactions to this:
    1. We need to be better at getting out into our communities and living out and speaking about the gospel. Fresh Expressions are part of this and should be encouraged, but not everything. The falling numbers are a call to act.
    2. The OT is full of the idea of a faithful remnant. It is clear the church is growing extensively in particular parts of the world, but not so much in Europe. However, I do not believe the Holy Spirit would let the church die out completely in the West. So the question to us is, where is god acting?

    • God is acting where there is spiritual fervor. Where there is a strong prayer base, where scripture is preached uncompromisingly, where people seek to ‘meet with the Lord’ through fellowship and bible study. God acts where HE is made ‘Lord of all’. The OT is clear as to why God kept abandoning His chosen people. The ‘faithful remnant’ allowed a ‘way back’ for His chosen people into come back into fellowship with Him…but this was not enough. He had to come into the world Himself…..and allow the Holy Spirit to become the catalyst in which people responded to the mystery of what Jesus did for us.

  3. “where is god acting?” Clearly not in the present overall structures of the Methodist church. They can go on posturing politically as preening prelates – or they can admit they are in a mess and resign en masse.

    An interesting aspect of the Paul Flowers fiasco, as demonstrated in his interview today on the BBC, is his unwillingness to use the word ‘Sin’. Given that Wesley was extremely strong this, it’s a further indicator of what is wrong with Methodism…

    • I saw that interview too…..and thought Jeremy Paxman was pretty easy on him considering the media’s wont to denigrate anything to do with the Christian Church. (Q. Although I understand he has resigned as a minister of the Methodist Church he is still referred as the Rev’d Paul Flowers. When a minister resigns..is he still called a reverend?) Paul Flowers admitted he had to spend 4 weeks in a clinic to help resolve his addictions – and to find out why people resort to addictive habits – which he found ‘life changing’. Perhaps he had not had the life changing experience of receiving Christ into his life. It was quite amazing that JP described him as an ‘innocent abroad’ when Flowers said that it was the fault of others for the failure of the Co-op Bank.

      When it was suggested that Flowers had ‘fallen like Lucifer’…the response was “Where do you find Lucifer in the Bible Mr. Paxman?” – general laughter. Dante’s inferno was the topic – which is not in the Bible but is recognised as an image of Satan’s domain. . Paul Flowers was obviously not familiar with the authorised version of Isaiah 14:12, though subsequent translations refer to him as ‘Morning Star’ – but still refers to his fall from heaven or cast down to earth. He believes he is no better or worse than any number of people – but recognised that he had sinned “in that old-fashioned term” – which he would rarely use. I wonder how he would describe sin. Perhaps if did use that term in his own lifestyle he might not have ‘fallen’ so dramatically.

      One wonders if ‘sin’ is neatly avoided in theological colleges or the Holy Spirit becomes ‘the forgotten God’? Sound teaching on both may be a dose of medicine needed for the Methodist church.

  4. ‘Bound to differ’ in process: I suspect that church seen over time is rather more about ebb and flow — even Darwinian — than it is about the one and the many in a crude sense.

  5. I know the falling numbers of Methodists (of which I am one)is a bit sad but surely we should not be putting believers in ” boxes”. Why not look at he bigger picture of the rising numbers of the Evangelical churches all around the world. Jesus lives!

  6. A trend is a trend until you do something about it and this is a powerful trend.

    All Christian denominations in the UK are showing the same trend.

    So there’s no point in complaining about corporate structures, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic.

    Just try and do something about it where you are.

  7. “A trend is a trend until someone does something about it.”

    The graph is so obvious that no one can possibly be surprised.Everyone in the Methodist Church must know that extrapolating the straight line means that there will be no Methodists in 2044. So what? . All we can do today and tomorrow is influence what we can do locally and if it works celebrate. Constantly complaining about corporate structures doesn’t serve any purpose. Some Methodist churches will grow dramatically and Hexham Trinity will be one of them. Will we be Methodists in 2044? The graph says no. I don’t know but I do know that Hexham Trinity will have been a Christian presence in Hexham for a further thirty years no matter what the graph says as we are not following the national trend. Rant over in love brother.

    • The Methodists are doing worse than other denominations. The question is whether elements of their present structure militate against growth / make decline more likely. A POSSIBLE cause of this lies in the dread circuit structure that ensures that after one week of life giving, spiritually healthy preaching, the next week you will be cursed with some disbelieving liberal whose contribution will merely make you spiritually sick. Given that this is a national issue, requiring a national solution, the church leadership needs to stop playing politics at Parliament and change how Methodism operates – otherwise you WILL waste away, AND WILL DESERVE TO.

  8. I am intrigued by the blip in 2011 where the decline briefly slowed. Given that the figures are a consolidation of figures from across the country, it would be interesting to know whether this was a general difference, or comes as a result of some change in the way that the figures are counted, or as a result of something specific in one area.

    • I’m not sure what the answer is. I was surprised last year to see the blip, and could not find any particular reason as to why it should be. I think the trend of % decline is a mathematical function of cohorts continuing to die, whilst the organisation shrinks in size – rather like water running out of the bath when the taps are off. The water runs out the same, but each minute the proportion of water leaving increases.

  9. Figures such as these are only a worry if (1) you are concerned about people who aren’t members of the Methodist church and/or (2) you are likely to still be a member in 2033 (i.e. you are under 60/65 years old). As I am under 50 (just), I’ve left recently while I’m still alive. Call me a rat (leaving a sinking ship …) if you wish, but my teenage children deserved better. Some Methodist churches are thriving, and reports have been written about them (those without a ‘Missing Generation’), and many other churches are thriving too – and a common factor is the emphasis they place on work with children and youth. But note, that this is not just to the benefit of the children and the youth but means that their parents too will be happy to attend that church. Our previous church (Methodist) couldn’t provide anything for our children (it was too small) so we left and now attend a large Anglican church. We’ll be in these statistics next year …

    • It’s not only rats that leave sinking ships. It is known that Captain’s of certain nationalities have a tendency to ‘evacuate’ before ensuring their passengers and crew are safely accounted for. There is no shame to being rescued by a sound ship if damage control parties cannot save a sinking vessel. The rats actually drown.

  10. Our Methodist membership at Tubestation has been increasing every year for the last 7 years (plus we have lots who who don’t do denomination on top of that). We’ve seen a ten-fold increase just in new “Methodists”. This is small kahunas, but we (and others like us) could set up similar projects in lots of Methodist chapels if there was the strategy and resources released to do so.

  11. Strategy and resources should be:
    1. What are the top ten growing chapels in each sector, small town, rural, inner city, suburban etc.?
    2. What can we learn from the growing chapels in that sector?
    3. What can we copy from the growing chapels in that sector?
    Go ahead and do it.
    We’ve received 126 members in 10 years in a small town setting. I think what we have done is easily replicable if people want to.
    Perhaps the “if people want to” bit is the key issue…….

    • I wonder if Tubestation’s ‘new Methodists’ are much like many of Trinity’s ‘new Methodists’, believers drawn out of from other congregations or those that have moved into the locality and found that the warmth of fellowship across all age groups and the facilities for young people attractive. We can Praise God for all the young people who have made commitments within the church and ‘made Methodists’…..but they usually see themselves as Christians first – as we see them move on into fellowships that are not necessarily Methodist based. OR whether Tubestation’s ‘new Methodists’ are people who have come into a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ for the first time. If that is the case….it would be interesting to know what we can learn from them

  12. I am a member of the Methodist Church (so my membership card tells me), but does that ‘make me a Methodist’? It advises me that Methodist discipleship is ‘whole life, lifelong, world transforming’. This submission would indicate that the ‘lifelong’ element may be somewhat optimistic for younger members. In ‘Year Zero’ will I still be a member of the Methodist Church? I do not know. IF, God willing, I still inhabit this world, I am sure that I will still be a disciple of Christ, be in fellowship with other believers, continue with prayer and supplication, my Bibles will be even more thumbed and highlighted and be willing to share my faith wherever God creates that opportunity. I would still want >to follow Jesus every day >to love my neighbours whoever they are >to witness to the world in word and deed >to seek justice and serve the poor >to live responsibly in God’s world (The Methodist Mission). Under what banner, I do not know. Having been a member or adherent to the Church of England, an independent Charismatic Fellowship, the United Reformed Church and even the ‘Gilbert Islands Protestant Church’ and having shared Christian fellowship in numerous other church or ‘para-church’ organisations – will it be devastating for me? I would be sad that a great initiative by God, inspired the Holy Spirit had ended. But I trust God enough to believe that He knows what He is doing. His chosen people lost His blessing when ‘everyone did they wanted’. It is only when they repented and came back to worship Him as their God and became the central focus for national life was the blessing restored. May the Methodist church return to its roots of allowing the Holy Spirit to inspire the preaching of the Word of God, of allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to people souls and to declare what is sinful in the eyes of God; I pray.

  13. David is doing us all a service in pointing out these figures. There is, however a bigger and hidden factor. The age strcuture of Methodism – where I have always been under hte average age and am now approaching 60! I know of a church with nearly 200 members and an average age of over 80.
    We need to put all we have and are into two things – quality of our own discipleship – and – offering our service to the world in prayerful service and evangelism. Changing the structures of the chruch will do little – unless we are brave enough to pare down the superstructure and release the local churches.
    We might, even more radically, sell all we have and give it to the poor! Was it Martin Luther who said ‘when God forms a church the devil builds a chapel’ ?

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