A survey released by evangelical organizations in the UK last month found that while around half of the country’s population identify as Christian, only 6% are “practising” and active enough in their faith to go to church at least once a month.
Falling attendance is one of the reasons more than 2,000 churches have closed in the past decade. Communities are wondering if or how to save historic buildings as new expressions emerge through church planting.
“If you ran a business organization and you had a branch on every high street in the country, but the number of people visiting them dwindled, you would go out of business if you didn’t close some branches,” said Nick Spencer, lead researcher at Theos. . “That’s the reality the church is facing.”
The number of churches in the UK has fallen from 42,000 to 39,800 in ten years, according to a 2021 report by Brierley Research Consultancy.
“If you have churches in rural areas, and there are fewer people going there, and actually fewer people living in rural areas, and you don’t have the money to run the churches, then they’ll probably close,” Spencer said. mentioned.
A recent Church of England report found up to 368 churches could be at risk of closure over the next two to five years, although the church said the pace of closure was slowing. Of course, these figures do not take into account other denominations, but many buildings belong to the Anglican Church.
Falling attendance — and, therefore, turnout and donations — has left churches with fewer resources to maintain their aging buildings. Even churches with a sizable body of worship might not be able to afford repairs and restoration of churches that are hundreds of years old.
The National Churches Trust and other non-profit organizations can help bridge this gap, keen to preserve the spaces that have played such an important role in the lives of people and communities.
“A historic and beautiful church reminds you that you are part of a story larger than your own life, which spans centuries,” wrote Lucy Winkett, rector of St. James’s Church in Piccadilly. “The truth is that as people and as a society we need church buildings. At best, they are public spaces with low barriers to entry (thresholds), which are open simply because they are open, free and easy to access, inclusive, adaptable, beautiful, with a strong tradition of connection through time and space. ”
The history and tradition described by Winkett is of great significance to many people across the UK who wish to see local church buildings preserved even if they do not attend.
“We would very much like as many churches as possible to stay open because of this local [connection]said Eddie Tulasiewicz of the National Churches Trust. “[The church] means something to the people who live there. People are buried in the cemetery. There are memorials to people who may have done something important or lived there. It’s history, which could be 50 years old, could be 200 years old, could be 1,000 years old.
Urbanization has affected churches that once had a village to support them. Spencer explains that, for some rural churches, this local connection and history might be about whatever is left in a village.
“In many villages where the church still exists, the local post office, the local bank, the local store and the local pub have closed, and the church is often the last public building there,” he said. -he declares. “The church is synonymous with the history and identity of these villages.”
In 2019, Brierley discovered that churches outnumbered pubs in the UK, as they too closed regularly.
Grants help struggling churches make repairs, but not all are able to stay open. Sometimes smaller churches close and consolidate with a larger church in a central location. Other times, church buildings may be repurposed for other uses.
Meanwhile, churches themselves are meeting in new spaces based on community needs.
“I have never experienced such innovation in the UK, with churches being planted in different places in different communities,” said Gavin Calver, CEO of Evangelical Alliance UK. “People are planting churches in cafes or in homes, and a lot of those church plants would not be measured. I’m excited about a new move of God in the UK, and the metric for that won’t be how many church buildings we have, it’ll be how many active followers we have, and I’m not sure that these two things give you the same answer.
With the exception of some larger Anglican churches, research has shown that immigrant churches and majority black churches are growing fastest as UK demographics change.
“Immigration is changing the face of religion in Europe, of religion in the UK and of Christianity in the UK,” Spencer said. “Migrant churches will meet in school hallways or cinemas. They are more focused on people and the community element than the building element.
A Theos report revealed that London is one of the most religious places in the country, largely due to the immigrant population.
“The challenge and the opportunity remain with the younger generations as 86% of people coming to faith in the UK are under 25,” Calver said.
Church buildings will continue to deteriorate. Some will be saved, while others will be repurposed or demolished. However, Calver firmly believes that God has given the British church a tremendous opportunity.
“We are living in an incredible moment. I’m not going to deny that buildings have been shut down or shuttered, but I’m excited about the new expressions of the church,” he said.
“I’m not going to deny that the number of people in the UK who normally call themselves Christians is falling. But I am excited about how many people could come to know Jesus in a powerful and personal way. We live in incredibly exciting times where the spiritual temperature of the UK could be transformed.