What Churches must do to get flock back in their fold
The news that Church attendances are falling is no surprise in this secular age of competing attractions, but the issue was again raised recently by no less a figure than the Church of Ireland Primate, Archbishop Richard Clarke.
At this year's General Synod, he told members that in a survey of Church attendance it was found that, on average, just 58,000 of a total of 378,000 members attended church every Sunday.
The figures also showed that only 13% of those attending are between the ages of 12 and 30. By contrast the larger number attending are from the older age group, with 19% between 46-60 and 24% between 61-74.
The figures were roughly similar in a separate survey for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor, the largest in Ireland. The estimated Sunday mass attendance is 72,000 out of a population of some 350,000.
The gender breakdown was much the same as the Church of Ireland with a higher proportion of women worshippers (56%) compared to 441 of men.
These overall figures can be viewed in two ways. They show that a sizeable proportion still attend regular worship in this part of the British Isles, where Church connections are still comparatively strong.
On the other hand, there is no room for complacency, as Archbishop Clarke pointed out.
He told the General Synod: "The statistics present the scale of the missional challenge ahead of us as a Church, but nevertheless it is one that, if we cannot embrace it with confidence and hope, we may as well close the doors of our churches now."
Tackling the problem is easier said than done. Some Churches attempt new trendy methods to attract the young, but this is not always in accord with the wishes of the older generation.
This in turn can lead to considerable friction, as has been shown in Knocknamuckley Parish Church, and when the situation develops to that degree of disagreement there are no winners.
Churches are right to try to attract the young, but not at the expense of older people, especially women, who are the backbone of every congregation. Young people grow older and some turn to the Church later on. For 10 years, I hardly went to church, from my early university days until I got married and started a family.
One of the deeper problems facing the Churches in this secular age is that people cannot grasp the Christian message, and they do not feel the need to go to church.
Another problem is the lack of warmth and inclusivity of many individual churches. I shudder to think of the numbers lost to the Church at large as a result of hellfire sermons at funerals, which persuade many people not to darken the door of a church again.
The narrow fundamentalist atmosphere of so many churches also puts people off, and I fear that the old 'broad Church' liberalism of our main denominations is losing ground to the dogmatists who have little grace, or mercy, to those weaker in faith.
The Churches all need more of the language of love, caring and inclusivity. People prefer to go to church to be uplifted rather than to feel guilty or frightened by hellfire.
One of my favourite hymns begins "There's a wideness in God's mercy that is wider than the sea …"
I wish, literally in God's name, that more of our Churches and their members would take that on board. Only then might people start to come back to the churches, rather than voting with their feet and walking the other way.
'People prefer to be uplifted, not to be made to feel guilty'