Last week the Church of England released its latest attendance figures. Between 2001 and 2002, 39,000 people chose to stop attending Church of England churches. This is roughly the equivalent of the population of Farnham. Of course, there isn't really a town in Surrey where the churches are all empty and the mosques, pubs, football grounds etc are all full. The true story is more complicated: that several thousand churchgoers died, and not quite so many were born; that a bunch of churchgoers continued to come regularly, but missed a few more Sundays than in the previous year; and even that a lot of people started coming to church for the first time, but that these were hidden by the slightly bigger number of people leaving.
An important piece of research in this field was done a few years ago by Philip Richter and Leslie Francis, for their book Gone But Not Forgotten. Their team tracked down some of those who no longer went to church (the ones still alive) and asked why they'd stopped. There was a smattering of flouncers, those who'd been offended by something; a handful of doubters, people who had lost what faith they had; and rather more in the distracted category, who now take their children to football training, or visit aged parents, and similar activities that have made Sunday too busy to fit churchgoing into.
Unlike in most surveys, however, the most interesting category was "Don't know". Remember, we're talking about someone's relationship with his or her Creator: the sustainer of their lives, their link with the eternal, and so forth. How odd to stop worshipping God, and not to know why. Except that it's not really that odd: it's the same drift away from righteousness as when we slip out of diets, neglect our exercise routine, and start smoking again. It's not that we decide to be unfit or faithless; it just sort of happens. "Oh well, just the one." "Oh well, we can go next Sunday."
In my earlier years as a Christian, we called this "backsliding". We were enjoined to be on our guard against any signs of it in ourselves or our friends, to the extent that attending church only once on Sundays was a sign that something might be amiss, and a quiet word would be had with the culprit. It was an otherworldly phase, when a silly, rigid definition of what constituted a believer got in the way of contact with "normal" people. Nevertheless, despite its tinge of judgementalism, the regime did promote a great deal of pastoral care. Quite often, what lay behind a failing of belief, a disinclination to worship, was unhappiness in some shape or form, caused by depression, or bereavement, or a failing relationship. Friendly contact with someone from church could make a big difference.
What Richter and Francis found was that friendly contacts are seldom forthcoming. People would drift away from church and nobody would notice. No phone call, no friendly e-mail, no visit. What sort of treatment could be better designed to undermine confidence in the great Christian enterprise than that sort of neglect. There's something about respecting people's integrity, and not intruding; but this sort of carelessness - from a group of people who are supposed to exercise love and charity - suggests a lack of respect for those who have been allowed to slip away unchecked.
What this means is that there is a large group of people who have tried church, who feel reasonably well disposed to it, support its general tenets in theory, but just don't happen to go any more. This is where the bribe comes in. Next Sunday, churches in Manchester will be giving out bars of fair-trade chocolate as part of its "Back to Church" initiative. Congregations are enjoined to invite anyone they know to come and pick one up (and stay for the service). The posters say "Missing you"; there's a questionnaire on the website (www.backtochurch.co.uk) that starts "Why did you leave your church?" and offers the options: "moved house, someone in the church annoyed me, had a big life event (e.g. divorce, birth of child etc), and too much to do on Sundays".
Clearly, it's quite possible to be a Christian without going to church - just as it's possible to get through a weekend without reading a newspaper. But the riches of the world and the riches of heaven are on offer, and, if it takes a bar of chocolate to restore the habit of enjoying them, then so be it. And if you don't live in Manchester, don't worry: I hear that other churches are offering bread and wine.
Paul Handley is Editor of the 'Church Times'Reuse content