In her 2002 book about religion in Europe, renowned British sociologist Grace Davie noted that, in general, world Christianity was growing everywhere towards the end of the 20th century, except in Europe. In seeking to understand why, she found little evidence for secularisation across the rest of the world outside Europe despite increasing modernisation (Davie, 2002). Focusing on Britain in her most recent book (Davie, 2015), Davie emphasises the notion of “vicarious religion” rather than “believing without belonging”, and that there has been a shift from obligation to consumption. However, Davie is conscious that London is different.
In recognising this unique difference, Peter Brierley, previously the director of Christian Research UK, examined data from the 2005 and 2012 London Church Census, and published his findings in Capital Growth: What the 2012 London Church Census Reveals (Brierley, 2013).
Brierley discovered that attendance at London’s Christian churches grew by 16 per cent during the period between the two church censuses. According to his research, 721,500 people attended church on an average Sunday in London in 2012 (Brierley, 2013, p. 57), up from 623,000 in 2005.
Between 2005 and 2012 the number of churches in London grew from 4,100 to just under 4,800 (Brierley, 2013, p. 23). The main increase came from Pentecostal churches which grew from just over 1,000 churches in 2005 to 1,450 in 2012 – an increase of 44 per cent. Smaller denominational churches also grew considerably from 229 churches in 2005 to 496 in 2012 (an increase of 117 per cent).
In his presentation delivered at the Lausanne Researchers Conference, Brierley suggested seven reasons why London has seen such growth. New Black Majority Churches (BMCs) have intentionally started churches near where potential congregations live. For example, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, the third largest Pentecostal denomination in the UK, ‘plant’ churches so that potential attenders would live within 10 minutes walking distance. Additionally, around one-fifth of churches in London hire out their buildings to another congregation, invariably a Pentecostal church.
‘Specialist’ churches have drawn targeted people to them. Rather than appealing to the majority, many churches have appealed to “specialist” groups within London. For example, 14 per cent of all congregations in London had services in a language other than English. In fact there were more than 50 different nationalities who had their own congregations. Other churches have focused on different styles of worship, such as Messy Church or Hillsong. The focus for many denominations has been specific social, ethnic or age-related groups wherever those groups are located.
Larger churches have continued to grow, in many cases attracting people with clear Biblical teaching. There were also a significant number of Black Majority Churches which had grown in attendance, although, interestingly, only partly from attracting similar ethnicities. However, while noting the continued growth of already large churches, Brierley observed that 44 per cent of all of London’s churches had congregation sizes between 26 to 100, compared with 23 per cent which had congregation sizes over 200.
Age and gender were critical factors in church growth in London. London had a higher percentage of church attenders in all age groups in comparison with England overall, and one-third of all church attenders in their 20s in England attended a church in the London area. London has unique opportunities for churches to attract specific types of attenders. Many young people come to London seeking employment, so much so that 18 per cent of the population in London were aged in their 20s, compared to 13 per cent in the rest of England. There were many more mid-week activities in London churches in comparison with England generally. In fact, almost two-thirds (63%) of London’s churches held mid-week services, compared to 42 per cent across England. Additionally, London had many more Evangelical churches (61 per cent of all churches were Evangelical) than the rest of England (38%).
London is more diverse ethnically than the rest of England. There are much higher proportions of people of other religions compared to elsewhere. For example, the Muslim population in London (12.4 per cent) was much larger than in England overall (five per cent). Brierley calculated that six per cent of newcomers to churches in London had come from other religions.
London churches have a strong community life. As an example, London churches had more weekly youth activities than the rest of England. Forty-five per cent of London’s churches had a weekly youth event, compared to 27 per cent in the rest of England. Additionally, there were much higher proportions of young people attending services in London than nationally.
Brierley noted a number of other factors in London churches which had contributed to growth:
• The London Church Census found that more than half (54%) of the churches in London had offered teaching courses which offer clear exposition of the Christian faith.
• One-third of all churches had undertaken neighbourhood visitation and street evangelism.
• Fifteen per cent of churches had started another church in recent years, of which 93 per cent were still going after five years, and half of which had seen attendance numbers double in that time.
In London, ten per cent of the overall population had had some interaction with a church every week.
Although Brierley argued that London was the ‘exception of the exception’ in Europe, he estimated that, by 2020, attendance at churches in London was likely to decrease to around 704,100, a decline of 2.4 per cent on the 2012 census attendance figures. This decline would occur because of the current age-profile of church attenders (Brierley, p.95). In order to prevent such a decline in London over the coming years, Brierley calls for clear thinking, impassioned prayer and strategic action by church leaders.
Brierley, Peter (2013) Capital Growth: What the 2012 London Church Census Reveals, Kent: ADBC Publishers.
Davie, Grace (2002) Europe: The Exceptional Case. Parameters of Faith in the Modern World, London: Darton, Longman & Todd.
Davie, Grace (2015) Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
This article was first published in Pointers: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol.25, no.3, September 2015, pp.13-14.