Church decline slowed by zeal of evangelism

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Churches are holding on to more of their congregations as they become more user-friendly, according to a report published yesterday.

Schemes such as mission projects have helped to slow the fall in congregations seen during the Eighties, the rise in donations is no longer being outstripped by inflation, and the number of new churches opening exceeds the number of closures. There is currently one new congregation a week.

The figures highlight the Church's success in the first half of its "decade of evangelism".

In a "half-term" study, the Church says pledges have risen 20 per cent in real terms. Latest figures show the average parishioner gave pounds 4.52 a week in 1993 against pounds 3.77 in 1990.

Average attendances are down since 1990 - from 1.14 million to 1.09 million But the report says the decline has slowed. It claims the Church of England has become more "user-friendly" in its attempts to grow and spread the Christian message.

No longer does it rely on preachers to communicate the Gospel. Instead the whole congregation is involved.

This has been achieved against the odds. Rapid changes in society worldwide are hindering the communication of the Gospel, the report says. These include a rejection of "external authority", and a growth of individualism and cynicism that have led to a rejection of any attempt to take a wider view of life's meaning.

Canon Robert Warren, national officer for evangelism and the report's author, highlighted a number of signs that the Church was grappling with evangelism in new and creative ways. There was a wider range of community projects, including parenting courses, and more people were attending training events to learn new ways of communicating the faith.

Much of the success was due to listening to communities and going out to people to answer their questions.

It has also been helped by the involvement of the whole congregation in spreading the message and the move towards the celebration, not just the declaration of belief. "These are all quite spontaneous changes taking place in the way the Church is doing evangelism," Canon Warren says. "As such, they represent a less clergy-dependent, more team-based, user-friendly approach to commun- icating the faith."

But the report concludes that challenges still lie ahead. More needs to be done to change the inner culture of churches, and while many churches have developed specific initiatives, there are still those who have failed to "engage seriously with the implications of the decade".

Launching the report, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, said the signs of growth "confound the doom-and-gloom merchants claiming the Church of England is on its last legs".

He said a number of targets had been identified for the second half of the decade. More needed to be done to reach out to children and young people and more effort had to be placed on deepening the Church's spiritual life. "Evangelism and mission have to undergird all we do: they are not optional extras," he added.