Church decline in Northern Ireland (a review)

It may come as no surprise but there is a widespread decline in church attendance going on in the western world, and Northern Ireland demonstrates no exception to this trend.

In a recently published report by McCartney and Glass of the University of Ulster entitled ‘The decline of religious belief in post-World War II Northern Ireland’ we are presented with a glimpse of the cold, hard facts. However, whilst the report makes for glum reading it carries with it an implicit challenge for those of us in Northern Ireland who identify with the Christian faith.

Before we look a little closer, it must be born in mind that the data used for the analysis was drawn from the census reports and not official statistics from each church body. If anything, we are likely to get a more realistic view from the census data rather than from church groups’ self-reporting which one would assume would tend to over-report attendance figures.

Decline is across the board

Utilising census data from Northern Ireland, commencing from the end of World War II, the authors demonstrate startling decline in the three main Protestant denominations – Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church. This drop-off is replicated in almost all of the smaller denominations with decline most pronounced among the Brethren churches. Whilst the Baptist church is the only group that does not demonstrate clear decline, the Elim/Pentecostal churches are the only Protestant group who show sustained growth over the last 60 years, whilst people who declare themselves simply as ‘Christian’ are also on the rise.

However, as the authors point out, it is impossible to know whether the growth of Elim/Pentecostal and non-affiliated Christian groups are through religious conversion or growth from individuals transferring from the declining congregations.

Rise of no religious affiliation

Perhaps unsurprisingly the report also demonstrates a concurrent growth in those who declare no religious affiliation in Northern Ireland. This is comparable to similar data from England and Wales (25% no religious affiliation 2011 census) and Scotland (37%). Currently those declaring no religious affiliation in Northern Ireland sits around 17%.

Using a series of mathematical models, the authors project that the non-religious section of Northern Irish society will continue to rise from 19% in 2021 to 24-34% in 2041. Further analyses demonstrate continual decline in religious affiliation across the same time frames.

Why is this happening?

The authors postulate two potential reasons for this decline. First they suggest ‘a failure to… efficiently pass the Christian faith on to the next generation within the church.’ Whilst the degree to which this plays a part in the deterioration of church attendance is impossible to ascertain from the data, its impact is undeniable, and has been similarly argued by other authors.

The second reason for decline is that traditional strategies used for evangelism by Christians in Northern Ireland are ‘having negligible impact.’ With the rate of conversion from non-religious to committed Christian being in the region of 1 in 2000 of the population, over-reliance on a previous generation’s methods is clearly bearing little fruit.

Where do we go from here?

This statistical analysis of the recent census data shows the likely trend of church attendance into the future. Simply put, if we do nothing, that is, if we carry on as we have been over the last sixty years and fail to address the obvious cultural and institutional barriers to effectively sharing the Christian faith with the increasingly non-religious society that we live in, our own society will become thoroughly secularised within a century.

Put positively, as Christians in Northern Ireland, we must listen to the warnings that the trends in church attendance teach us and radically reform our traditions, presuppositions and strategies in order to effectively communicate the life-saving message of Jesus to a desperately needy world. This message must be communicated to those inside and outside of the church, seeking to establish the next generation of the church firmly in the Christian faith as well as purposely engaging with those who of no Christian background.

This will necessarily be a painful process. We may have to dispense with some cherished methods, knock over some golden calves that have been lingering within our various traditions and upset a few people in the process. However this shouldn’t deter us. We get to come back to the Scriptures, read afresh with repentant eyes and prayerfully seek God’s guidance and the empowering drive of the Holy Spirit. We have little to lose and everything to gain: all for the glory of God.