Belfast Telegraph

Churches need to ponder why the decline in attendance is so severe

By Alf McCreary

During the next two months thousands of people will take their summer holidays, and Church members will worship in many places abroad.

They will come back with a feeling - which I have shared - that the numbers attending Sunday services here are still a lot higher than in other places.

However, there is no room for complacency at home, and statistics revealed in the latest 'Blue Book', which is the 'Bible' of the Presbyterian General Assembly, underline this decline in stark detail.

From 1975 to 2015, the number of families decreased from under 130,000 to around 96,000; individual membership fell from 380,000 to just over 220,000; the number of communicants dropped from 135,000 to around 98,000; and most significantly of all, baptisms decreased from 4,750 to just over 1,250.

Another indication of a Church facing worrying challenges was the revelation that the recent trend for fewer applications for the Presbyterian ministry is continuing, with only five candidates applying this year.

All were accepted.

The assembly was told that it is highly likely that there will only be a total of 17 students at Union College during the next academic year.

This is the lowest number for many years.

Particularly worrying is the lack of applications from women, though this is understandable, and regrettably so.

What woman would enter a male-dominated institution, which is such a "cold house" for women.

If you doubt this, consider the female ministers who are not allowed to preach in the pulpits of male ministers "on the grounds of conscience", and also the fact that the Presbyterian Church has still not had the grace to elect a female Moderator.

What a disgraceful insult to women, who are the backbone of the Church.

However, the Presbyterian Church is not the only one experiencing declining numbers and fewer candidates for the ministry.

The recent Presbyterian Assembly was told by Stafford Carson, who attended the previous year's Methodist conference as a Presbyterian representative, that they, too, are experiencing declining numbers.

Between 2009-14, the full membership of the Methodist Church declined by 4.3% from 15,503 to 14,835.

The Methodists are also experiencing difficulty in attracting candidates for the ministry, and there is an anticipated shortfall of 20 ministers in the next five years.

Some time ago I reported on a Church of Ireland survey which revealed that the average attendance at its Sunday services in November 2013 was 58,000 across the island of Ireland, which was only 15% of its members.

The survey also revealed that only 13% of the worshippers were aged between 12 and 30.

The Catholic Church has its own problems, and a survey taken in November 2015 showed that since 1995 the number of active priests in the ministry in Ireland had dropped by 43% from 3,550 to 2,019.

The number of ordinands from Ireland is very low, and interestingly last Sunday the first Filipino to become a Catholic priest in Ireland, Fr Manuelita Muga Milo, was ordained in St Peter's Cathedral in west Belfast.

Certainly I take no comfort from the general pattern of declining numbers of worshippers and ordinands, but it must be remembered that Christianity is thriving in many other places, and particularly in the developing world.

However, we must ask ourselves why the decline in western Church attendance and membership is so marked.

At Easter I heard an Anglican preacher in Belfast making the point that while many people in the general public still respect and respond to the teachings of Christ, they are not listening to the Churches.

That is something we might ponder over the summer before the full Church cycle begins again in September.

Belfast Telegraph

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