Although sections of the media write unceasingly of emptying pews, Christians who no longer go to church are enjoying new
forms of fellowship, new research suggests. The research, carried out by Dr Steve Aisthorpe, a mission development worker, on behalf of the Church of Scotland, is presented in a new book, The Invisible Church, published at the end of April. “I discovered that the number of people who attend church services are the tip of the iceberg of the total Christian community,” he said this week.
“I found that changes in wider society, and in the practices of Christian people, mean attendance at Sunday morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith. There is decline in Christian faith in Britain, but it is considerably smaller than previously assumed.”
Dr Aisthorpe suggested that Britain might be witnessing “a seismic shift in how Christians express their worship, nurture
their faith, participate in fellowship, and engage in God’s mission… a movement from an affiliation to institutional
forms of church towards new, less formalised expressions”.
He began his research in 2012 and 2013, exploring the experiences of people living in the Scottish Highlands and Islands
–predominantly rural areas –who were not engaged with a local church congregation. Most were “deeply committed Christians who had been involved in some kind of Christian leadership”.
Dr Aisthorpe argues that research to date has focused on church leavers, data on church attendance, and studies of the spirituality of people who do not attend church. No study has focused exclusively, he says, on people who are committed Christians, but who do not regularly attend church. Earlier studies suggest that most people who have stopped going to church have not lost their faith. Most “de-churched” had developed “friendships or informal groups that have Christian fellowship as part of their purpose”.
While most interviewees cited some negative experiences as “push factors”, most implied that it was “a concern for missional challenges” that were decisive: “More and more time seemed to be demanded for internal matters, leaving less time to nurture relationships with friends outside the Christian community.”
Aisthorpe’s research was welcomed by church leaders. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland,
Dr Angus Morrison, said that the Church was taking heed of the findings by “investing money and resources in our pioneer
ministry programme, which is bringing our Church into the wider community”. In 2001, the author of the World Christian
Encyclopaedia, David Barrett, estimated that there were 112 million “churchless Christians” worldwide.
Source: Church Times
Bible Study: Psalm 55:22
PRAISE God that many “de-churched” have not lost faith but are practicing informal “church”.
PRAY that the wider Church may learn how to reach out in nurture and fellowship to people in these situations.