O come all ye faithful?

The majority of us believe in God, pray and think of ourselves as Christian, despite not going to church. But if you cut out the middle man, isn’t it cheating?

Births, deaths and marriages. They’re the only events that get most people in the UK through church doors these days and even that is too often for some.

But this doesn’t stop the majority of us calling ourselves Christian. More than half of British people say they believe in God despite only one in seven actually attending a Christian church service each month, says a new study.

It seems that while people find the church thing a little bit difficult, they are willing to recognise God. There’s even a cute catchphrase for this absent majority – believing without belonging.

The church says the results challenge the UK’s secular image, proving not everyone has embraced consumerism as their modern-day god.

The Results

26m adults claim to be Christian

7.6m adults go to church each month

12.6m go at least once a year

3 million would go to church if asked

Other faiths make up 6% of religious attendance

32m people have no connection with church

London has highest number of regular churchgoers at 22%


It’s not often that it has much to shout about. Congregations have been declining for years, according to figures published by the Christian Research. While some churches are growing and the rate of decline in congregations has slowed, overall numbers are still dropping. It is not alone in suffering this “curse of apathy”.

Local organisations have seen a slump in membership, according to a new YouGov poll, which found 70% of people have no links to community groups like the Women’s Institute, Guides and Scouts.

When it comes to faith, for some it’s a case of disintermediation – cutting out the middleman. It’s happening in many areas of our daily lives – the internet, for example, plugs users straight in to suppliers, side-stepping the need for distributors like shops.

But is an expression of faith with no commitment to going to church just religion for the “me” generation?

In today’s “post-modern society” people want everything on their own terms – that includes Christianity, says Dr Elaine Storkey, a Christian academic, broadcaster and president of Christian charity Tearfund, which commissioned the study.

“People are used to instant gratification, they are used to having what they want, when they want and without putting in too much effort. Some view religion in the same way.”

Having a connection with Christianity is not a problem for most people, it’s when something is asked of them that they start to struggle, she says.

“The first step to get people involved in the church is getting them to consider God. A lot of people identify with Christianity even if they don’t attend church. Often when the chips are down they fall back on the Christian faith.

“The second step is getting them to consider how much their faith will cost them. That’s a huge leap for most people, that’s when they have to start giving something back.”

Some sort of “vague Christianity” acts as a way for people to keep their options open, they don’t have to think too hard about life and aren’t pushed outside their comfort zone, says philosopher Dr Julian Baggini.

“It’s easier than going in the other two directions. If you take religion fully on board you have to believe some strange things. Discarding it totally means you have to really think through the consequences, that death really is the end and many people find that worrying.”

But it is possible to do away with the middleman, not attend church and still be a Christian, he says.

“Often the key messages in religion are social, like loving your neighbour. You don’t have to go to church to be nice to people and help them.”

Spiritual or religious?

Some research challenges the findings that many non-church goers in the UK still think of themselves as Christian.

People are shedding their religious beliefs even faster than churches are losing their congregations, according to a study by Manchester University

It found that older people described themselves as religious, though not necessarily orthodox. The middle-aged saw themselves as spiritual rather than religious. But most young people held beliefs as part of a view of life that they did not recognise as spiritual at all.

Yet some people are seeking the church experience, only in a more modern guise.

St Pixels is an internet church, which offers prayers, daily Bible readings and a chat room to its online congregation. The fact its on the net does not make it any less valid than attending a church made of bricks and mortar, says Simon Jenkins, its co-founder.

“St Pixels may fall outside of what is traditional but we still consider it a genuine church. It is a real parish of real people who don’t stop being members when they log off. It is not a second-class experience, just a different one. The site appeals to a whole spectrum of people, ultimately we are hoping to encourage faith.”

The issue of “serving” the church is not about just going on a Sunday, he argues. That is often an easy choice. How you live your life on the other six days of the week is just as important, if not more so, he says.

“Our community may not go to their local church down the road but there is still a huge level of service involved. People share experiences online, pray and write to each other. Online worship is not an alternative to service, it is another opportunity to serve.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday April 4, 2007.
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