Green shoots of growth as 390,000 Christians regularly attend church

Eighty per cent of church goers attend weekly services with almost half (45%) having attended their present church for over 20 years.

Cardross Parish Church Easter celebration
Parishioners at Cardross Parish Church on the banks of the Clyde near Helensburgh release balloons, with a message of fellowship attached, at 8.30am on Easter morning. Photo courtesy of John Young media

According to the latest Scottish Church Census (May 2016), a third (35%) of all churchgoers (counting congregational numbers against churches) were Evangelical, up from 26% in 1994, while another third (32%) were Catholic, with 16% Broad/Liberal, 13% Reformed and 4% Low Church.

Catholics and Charismatic Evangelicals recorded the youngest followers.

Although overall church attendance figures show a continued decline, the rate of such decline has slowed significantly, with some denominations and geographical regions seeing encouraging signs of growth. This is partly due to a significant influx of immigrants coming to Scotland and the growth of Pentecostal churches

Aberdeenshire, for example, has seen the number of its churches increase from 196 in 2002 to 228 in 2016, due to an increase of Polish labourers working in the oil industry and north east of Scotland.

More people (75, 350 or 1.4% of the population) are also now attending midweek worship.

Reverend Colin Sinclair, Chair of the Scottish Church Census Steering Committee and Moderator of the Presbytery of Edinburgh, said:

“Whilst there are a number of challenges facing Christian churches in Scotland, including a broadly aging demographic and ministering in an increasingly individualised culture; these are similar challenges facing society at large both in Scotland and across Western Europe.

As a nation, we are seeing less attendance at various mass cultural activities. Only around 4% of people (213,108) visit the cinema at least once a week – a great deal less than the 390,000 Christians regularly attending Church (2013 Scottish Household Survey: Revised October 2015).

Indeed, in an atomised society to be part of a formal community worship is unusual and countercultural. Yet, the fact that many people stay and frequent the same church for over 20 years is an indication of the stability they bring to a community. As well as being sacred places of worship, our churches act as hubs for the community to come together and provide vital social capital to the wellbeing of our society.”

Rev Norman Smith, convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council of the Church of Scotland responded to the report saying:

This Easter Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people across Scotland will gather in church to celebrate Christ's Resurrection and the faith which forms the foundation of their lives.

At the same time decline in church attendance has been well documented over the past few decades. In 1984 17% of the nation regularly attended church on a Sunday whilst in the 2016 census that figure had declined to 7.2%.

That percentage represents 390,000 people which is still a significant number of people.

In fact, more people attend church every week than go to the cinema or to football matches and more Scottish people are church members than belong to a political party.

These figures show that churches remain an important and relevant part of Scottish life. That is before you consider the enormous contributions that church members are making to communities across Scotland.

Church members are involved in everything from staffing foodbanks to running dementia cafes, welcoming refugees, youth work and much more.

Church members also raise hundreds of thousands every year for charities here and overseas.

The reasons for decline in church going are many and have been well researched.

Changes in working patterns, leisure activities and family life have all contributed as has increasing secularisation.

Within our society Sunday is increasingly no longer seen as Sabbath or the Lord’s day but another day to cram full of activity.

In addition church-going used to be something you learned from your parents so the pattern of going to church was instilled in you as a child.

However as each generation has moved further and further away from that inherited pattern less people have learned about going to church.

All of this has contributed to the decline of church-going in Scotland.

Our response is not driven by numbers. At the heart of our faith there is what is called the great commission, (Matthew Chapter 28 verses 16 – 20) which has compelled the Christian church throughout history to share the good news of Jesus.

This means the church is always looking for opportunities to communicate the faith and that declining attendance has been accompanied by greater opportunity for faith sharing.

The Church of Scotland has taken a number of positive actions to foster growth.

We have created five new pioneer ministries in areas as diverse as the farming community of Ayrshire, the arts community of Glasgow, the student community of Stirling, the inner-city community of Paisley and a new housing development in East Lothian.

Our ‘Path of Renewal’ initiative, which is helping 40 congregations engage with today’s world in news ways has proved so successful that 40 more congregations are being invited to join.

Another exciting new development is the growing enthusiasm for Pilgrimage, a way to worship that appeals to many people today.

Alongside this the Church continues to produce resources to help people share their faith, be more confident in their faith and deepen their understanding of faith.

The primary task of the church has not changed throughout the ages but the way we tackle that task continues to evolve.

In the midst of decline you can find growth and in the midst of growth you can find decline. That is how it has always been.

Read the Church census report

Read BBC News report on the census figures

Listen to our Principal Clerk Very Rev Dr John Chalmers discuss the census figures on BBC R4's Today programme at 2.49.50