2020 Vision: Christianity in a Future Society

A talk given at the Sea of Faith in the Churches annual conference, Loughborough, 3 March 2007, by Dr. Kristin Aune of the University of Derby

I was asked to speak to the title ‘2020 Vision: Christianity in a Future Society’. I gather that 2020 refers partly to the twentieth anniversary of Sea of Faith but I want to interpret it in two ways, and in doing so I hope what I say may contribute something to the vision of Sea of Faith as you celebrate this anniversary. First, I want to take it as an opportunity to look from a sociological perspective at the future of Christianity. Sociologists are often seen by theologians and some Christians as rather relativist and unconcerned with issues of theological truth. But their – I should say our – strength is that we are often able to see and interpret the times particularly clearly and broadly, so this is one way the term 2020 vision can be taken. The sociologist C. Wright Mills published a book called The Sociological Imagination in 1959, in which he argued that the job of sociology was to connect personal troubles and public issues. He also said that suggesting possible futures was one of sociology’s major tasks. So we can also take 2020 as a date to look to, to consider what Christianity might look like in the next couple of decades. I’ll confine my discussion to Christian faith on an individual and group level rather than looking more generally at issues like the relationship between church and state or Christianity’s links to politics. I’ll also confine my focus to the UK. I’ll start with a statistical overview, and will then consider 3 possibilities for British Christianity as we look to the future.

A statistical overview

When the 2001 census asked ‘what is your religion?’ 72% of the British population identified themselves as Christian. Yet the decline in commitment to the institutional church, the decline in attendance and membership, is a significant phenomenon of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. Church attendance has experienced gradual decline since a high point of about 60% of adults 15+ in 1851 (Crockett 1998). From the 1960s decline became steeper (Brown 2001). Today, at least one in ten and as many as one in five UK citizens attend church at least once a month (Churches Information for Mission 2001). In the period 1998 to 2005, weekly church attendance reduced from 7.5% to 6.3%, which is a 15% decrease (Brierley 2006).

This reduction in churchgoing is one part of what sociologists call secularization – the declining significance of the sacred in society. (Secularization can happen on several levels; for example, it can also relate to the loss of religious influence as the state and its institutions take over functions previously belonging to the church.) But here I’m focusing on Christian belief and belonging.

Church decline can partly – or even mainly – be explained by age and generation. Since older people are overrepresented as churchgoers, their loss is not recovered by younger people being born into Christian families or choosing to join the church. There are also differences in likelihood of church affiliation by region, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and age. There isn’t sufficient time to go into those, but I will return to talk about women and young people as indicators of the future progress of Christianity.

If we look at trends for 2020, the organization Christian Research (2004a) predicts that in 2020 the UK will have 4 million church members, representing 6.5% of the population. They also predict that in 2030 the church will lose its 5% critical mass (critical mass being the proportion of people who are believed to have the potential of significantly influencing a society). But there is some growth in certain sectors of the church, which I will mention. And as Christianity seems to be in decline, Islam is growing, through migration, higher birth rates and conversion.

I’m going to suggest three possibilities for the future of the church and Christian belief as we look to and beyond 2020. These represent, as I see them, the three main possibilities offered by sociologists.

1) The return to belonging?

If many have talked about ‘secularization’ and church decline, others have begun to talk about ‘sacralization’ or religion’s return to prominence in society (Woodhead and Heelas 2000: 429-475; Berger 1999). Often they mean the public sphere’s increasing adoption of religion as a policy issue or as a partner in delivering education or social welfare – faith schools being a good example of this (Casanova 1994). Sometimes this is connected with ethnicity and Islam: as a number of commentators have recently noted, religion has become the ‘new’ ethnicity; people are talking about Muslims rather than about Pakistanis or Bangladeshis or South Asians.

Sometimes sacralization is about conversion or increased religious commitment (often called ‘radicalization’ by journalists in the context of Islam). Faith communities often emphasise the good news: a recent press release by Christian Research says the church is ‘pulling out of the nosedive’. By this they mean that the rate of decline has slowed from previous predictions and from the rate in the 1990s and more churches are growing. A third of churches are now growing, an increase from 1998 when only one fifth were growing.

There have also been claims of impending revival, especially by the evangelical sector of the church, notably through the 1990s (Walker & Aune 2003). Most of these didn’t materialise, but still, there is some evidence of conversion through evangelistic initiatives such as the Alpha Course and university Christian Unions.

More concretely, there has been and continues to be growth in particular areas. An average of three new churches a week have been started since 1998 (Christian Research 2006a) – half this growth is from ethnic minority churches, especially black churches but also Chinese, Croatian, Portuguese and Tamil churches, especially in London. However, at the same time slightly more than three churches a week have closed. Growth is coming from ethnic minority and Pentecostal churches. In 2005, 17% of churchgoers were from non-white ethnic groups, an increase from 12% in 1998. Pentecostal churches have replaced Methodist churches as the third largest Christian denomination and were the only denomination that grew in the period 1998 to 2005 (Brierley 2006). Half of Pentecostal churches are predominantly black (ESRC Society Today 2006). Second, there has been a growth in particular selected churches. While the Roman Catholic church lost the greatest number and proportion of members of any denomination from 1998 to 2005, there are reports of revitalisation of Catholic communities due to migration from Eastern Europe, especially Poland (Bates 2006).

So, in brief, there is some evidence of church growth. I am calling the second possibility

2) Believing without belonging?

The phrase ‘Believing without belonging’ was coined by Grace Davie (1990), who’s now Professor of Sociology at the University of Exeter. It became well-known through her 1994 book Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Essentially, Davie argues that Britain may be ‘unchurched’ but it is not secular. Belief remains high despite falling attendance and affiliation. She examines European Values Surveys and concludes that a high percentage of people believe in God, heaven, sin and the soul and pray (1994: 74-92). Believing without belonging signifies the ‘persistence of the sacred in contemporary society’, according to Davie (Davie 1994:94). Davie (2000) also points out that bare statistics about the decline of churchgoing don’t tell us everything we need to understand the state of religious belief. We need to look at the details of people’s experiences and beliefs. When we do this reveals a complex picture. For example, the death of Princess Diana in 1997 triggered an outpouring not just of grief but of shrines in public places and people turning to the church for answers.

There has also been a considerable growth in New Age or alternative spiritualities, which might be manifest by attending yoga classes, evoking the goddess or practising alternative therapies. Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead (2005) at Lancaster University recently conducted a study of Kendal, a town in the North West, where church attendance was exactly the national average. They tried to document every place of worship or spiritual practice and did so to test the claim that there has been a ‘spiritual revolution’ whereby Christianity is being replaced by alternative spirituality. They found that only 2-3% of Kendal residents were involved in alternative spiritualities, but this had grown by 300% during the 1990s, when church attendance fell from 11% to 7.9%. If change continues at same rate, alternative spirituality will eclipse Christianity within next 30 years. We haven’t yet seen a spiritual revolution but there is a reasonable likelihood that it will happen.

Another interesting trend pointed out by Giselle Vincett, a PhD. student at Lancaster, is the phenomenon of ‘fusing’. Vincett’s (forthcoming) research with women ‘re-imagining the divine’ as she calls it reveals that some are mixing aspects of Christianity with those of New Age spirituality.

The phenomenon of individualistic pick-n-mix religion is often criticised. Yet in a context in which we are now forced to position ourselves as individuals with sole responsibility for the progression of our lives (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2001), it’s hard for religion to avoid individualization. And accordingly, people use religion to enhance their ‘self-making’ (Marler forthcoming), and one way they do this is by rejecting the institutional church where it fails to live up to their expectations or tries to force them into a mould they are uncomfortable with. Alternatively, they may attend more than one church, both sporadically, eschewing actual membership. As evidence of this, there are now more church attendees than there are church members, reversing older trends (Christian Research 2003).

There are signs also that belonging is occurring in different ways than through traditional churches. There are manifestations of belonging that, like Jewish Shabbat meals or Islamic study classes, are difficult to count as easily as Sunday church attendance is. The rise of internet Christianity is a case in point. Discussions of theology occur on Christian internet dating websites amongst people – especially men – who do not go to church but consider themselves Christians. Blogs like Ship of Fools, myspace, livejournal and emergingchurch are new sites for shared belief, even new forms of belonging, among those who believe in Christianity but feel a lack of fit with the churches in their current forms. Research by Alan Jamieson (2000) on church leaving confirms that when people leave church it’s generally not out of loss of faith but because of problems with the church as an organization.

If the first and second possibilities are a return to belonging, or believing without belonging, the third is:

3) Neither believing nor belonging?

Recently the ‘Believing without Belonging’ thesis has been questioned, notably by Alasdair Crockett and David Voas and also by Steve Bruce. These sociologists work with survey data rather than in-depth interviews with people and have produced some challenging evidence that points to the erosion not just of belonging but also of belief. Voas and Crockett (2005) analysed data from the British Household Panel Survey from people questioned in 1991/2 and then in 1999/2000. They looked at affiliation (whether people regard themselves as belonging to any particular religion), belief (when people say religion makes a difference to their life) and attendance. Affiliation was highest, attendance lowest and belief in the middle. Over the eight-year period they found fewer people affiliating, believing and attending. The decline of each seemed to occur at roughly the same rate. Yet it’s not that individuals are becoming less religious as they get older (although this does occasionally happen). The main decline is instead across different age cohorts. Each age cohort is less religious than the last.

British Social Attitudes surveys over a longer period also find relative stability in belief as people age, but find that each younger age cohort has lower rates of belief. Age and cohort have the most influence over declining belief. Voas and Crockett argue that this is due to upbringing – secularization relates mainly to the relationship between the religiosity of parents and children. Using British Household Panel Survey data questioning young adults aged 16-29 they found that if children have two attending parents, 46% of them still attend. If they were brought up with one attending parent the likelihood of the child attending is 23%; with none attending it’s only 3%. ‘What this suggest is that in Britain institutional religion now has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay’ (Voas & Crockett 2005: 21), they explain. ‘At least in Britain in recent decades, change has occurred because each generation has entered adulthood less religious than its predecessors’ (Voas & Crockett 2005: 24).

Religious belief, for Voas and Crockett, is declining, and the only form of the Believing without Belonging thesis that still holds is a vague one. People are still believing ‘there’s something out there’ but this hardly amounts, they contend, to religious belief. 1

I want to share with you case studies of two groups who are particularly important when looking at the likely future of UK Christianity: women – who have historically been the majority of church members and believers – and young people. Their patterns of belief or non-belief, of belonging or failure to belong, open up questions about what Christian belief looks like now and will become


To evaluate the three possibilities already introduced, there’s little evidence that women are returning to religious belonging. However, there is evidence of the other two possibilities.

In 2001 Callum Brown published a book called The Death of Christian Britain in which he argued that secularization was related to the changing position of women. Women have been the main carriers of religiosity, he said, because they’ve spent most of their lives in the private sphere, where the church and home are located and are often intertwined. But when women’s roles change – when women reject traditional gender patterns, move into paid employment and want egalitarian sexual relationships – their religiosity withers.

Largely, I think he’s right. I’ve just finished editing a book on women, religion and secularization and so have reflected a lot on this. (For anyone interested, the book’s due out in late 2007 or early 2008 and is called Women and Religion in the West: Challenging Secularization).

We can split contemporary women into three groups. I’m grateful to Linda Woodhead for this way of framing it, which she introduced in a 2005 journal article. First are the home-centred women whose priority is their home and families, even if they engage in part-time work. They tend to be traditionally Christian because Christianity affirms their priorities. Next are the jugglers, who combine home and work. These women are more likely to be found in alternative spirituality because alternative spiritualities do most to help women who are negotiating private/public boundaries, affirming their commitments to their families while also endorsing female empowerment and the search for fulfilment outside the home. The last group are work-centred. These women are more likely to follow male patterns of religiosity, abandoning church because it doesn’t fit with their demanding work schedules and taking on a more secular outlook.

Where future trends are concerned, the pattern for womanhood that is in decline is home-centred femininity, while the jugglers and the work-centred are increasing. This suggests that the future of Christianity lies both in its abandonment and in its incorporation into alternative or New Age spiritualities. This isn’t necessarily about loss of belief, but of new forms of belief that fit better with women’s lives. If you want to read more about this I’d refer you to an excellent chapter by Penny Long Marler (forthcoming) in our book which documents how the church in the UK and the US has declined as women’s lives have changed.

Young people

The second case study is of young people. Is there evidence of a return to belonging among young people? It’s true that most converts to Christianity are young. The role of Christian youth work and evangelical summer youth festivals like Soul Survivor is quite significant in this regard. Also, there are claims of resurgence in student religion. While some of these relate to the growth of Islam – whose supporters have outstripped those belonging to student Christian groups in some universities – some journalists have been writing about the rise of evangelical Christianity among students (The Times 2006). But I think we need more research on this before we can say whether there is really resurgence.

So what about ‘believing without belonging’ or ‘the end of belonging’? As with women, I think there is evidence of both. The decline in church attendance amongst young people is one of the most significant signs of church decline. Church attendance amongst under 20s has about halved since 1980. Buddhists, closely followed by Christians, are the group with the smallest percentage of young members (Christian Research 2004c). There’s also evidence of a general dislike for the church, especially in its institutional form. Peter Brierley’s book Reaching and Keeping Tweenagers found that 87% of 10-14 year olds thought church was boring.

As Voas and Crockett’s research suggests, younger generations are becoming less and less religious, and it could be that Davie’s ‘believing without belonging’ is giving way to no belief at all. Older people are most likely to describe themselves as religious, middle-aged people as spiritual and young people as neither.

But some kind of belief or spirituality continues among young people. For one thing, there’s been a rise in interest in Religious Studies at AS and A level.

Work in the USA by Christian Smith (2005) suggests that young people are holding to a kind of vague set of beliefs he calls ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’. Many of them are Christian, but seem unconcerned with doctrinal detail or correctness. For them, Christianity’s about believing in God, being nice and using faith to help them create enjoyable own lives. Where they are religious, religion is associated with better education, health and relationship prospects and helps young people negotiate the transition to adulthood. As Brierley found in the UK, tweenagers and teenagers may find church boring but they want to be part of a social group and will eagerly attend where churches offers youth groups.

In the UK Sylvie Collins-Mayo and Bob Mayo are doing some important research on the impact of Christian youth work on young people via interviews with young people. They’ve found among the young people a lack of coherent religious knowledge; what young people believed in was more what Mayo (2005) calls ‘free-floating disjointed fragments of information’. Many of them pray, but see spirituality more as an expression of what they consider important to them.

Phil Rankin (2005) also carried out research all over the UK talking to young people in cafes, shopping centres and nightclubs and has published an account of this in the book Buried Spirituality. Both of these research projects show an erosion of spirituality and the reluctance of young people to identify as spiritual. But when opportunities are offered for discussion it becomes clear that young people are engaged in the same kinds of soul searching that older people call spiritual. They lack opportunities to think about spirituality for themselves and when offered them benefit from them. ‘The lack of religious knowledge shown by some of the interviewees was a loss of cultural capital more than a lack of willingness to engage in belief’, argues Bob Mayo (2005). Mayo and his co-researchers (Savage et al. 2006) also found that happiness is important above all to young people. They have an optimistic outlook, recognising that bad things happen and when this happens you need family and friends to support you. And again, Australian research by the Australian Christian Research Association also found that fun and friendship were young people’s core foci, and that religion was one source – but not necessarily a vital one – of support for their quest for a happy life with successful relationships (Christian Research 2004b).

The most likely future?

In conclusion, there are at least 3 possibilities for Christian belief in the UK. These are by no means set in stone but are open to change. Of the three, I think there is least chance of a return to belonging although this may occur on a small scale in limited contexts. I think there’s a reasonable likelihood that belief will endure despite decreasing belonging. But still, this leaves us with questions. For me, one important question concerns what counts as acceptable or viable Christian belief - what counts for sociologists, what counts for the church, what counts for God? Do people have to attend church faithfully to be considered Christian believers? Some people, even some researchers, would say yes, and would see the decline in church attendance as the beginning of the end of Christianity in Britain. But others would say no – Christian belief can and does persist even when its older structures are eroded. Pete Ward (2002), for example, has advocated the idea of a ‘liquid church’, a new type of church based on fluid networks rather than a building where people go to worship each Sunday.

I will close there and would be very interested to hear your comments, especially on how what I’ve said might fit with your thoughts as a network as you approach the future.


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