The Revd Lynda Barley is the Church of England’s Head of Research and Statistics. Who knew the Church of England had a “Head of Research and Statistics”?

Lynda Barley has recently released the average Sunday attendance figures for Anglican parishes in England for the year 2009. For the most part, the numbers are down. Fewer people attended worship every Sunday in Anglican churches in England in 2009 than in 2008; there were fewer baptisms, fewer weddings, even fewer funerals (I don’t think this means people are dying less, just turning less to the church for solace).

To put the decline in church attendance in perspective Barley points out that on any given Sunday more people still attend a Church of England Church service than the combined total of people who are members of the three major political parties in England.

She also points out that,

It remains important to see these trends in the context of wider changes in a society where fewer people join and take part in membership organizations.

According to the Canadian 2000 National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating, the volunteer rate dropped in British Columbia by 32% between 1997 and 2000. Almost half (47%) of all volunteer hours in British Columbia were contributed by 10% of the total number of volunteers.

We are not a culture of joiners and, increasingly, we are not a culture of volunteers.

There are many reasons why today we may join less readily than we did in the past.

We are terribly busy. We are cynical about organizational structures. We tend towards an individualistic ethic that sees little value in communal expressions. Home is an increasingly attractive option for many people at the end of a busy day or the conclusion of a hectic week. The alternative options for ways to spend discretionary time have multiplied exponentially in the past decade.

All these factors contribute to the drop in attendance at worship services and the number of volunteer hours given to any organization.

There seem to be four choices in response:

1. Guilt – it is tempting to pull out the big daddy card and badger people into involvement. The preacher pronounces that we are a body, a family and the well-being of the family depends upon each member doing their part and pulling their weight. If you are not a contributing member of the community, you are a liability.

I am not convinced this kind of legalistic harangue works well any more. Only a minority of people are still willing to be driven into involvement by the blunt tool of guilt. The days when abuse was an effective motivational tool are hopefully over.

The church exists in part to call people into the fullness of that freedom for which they were created. In church, more than any organization, there is no place for coercion. Participation in church must be motivated from deep within the participant who has been encouraged to live only in response to God’s presence and action.

2. Continue to decline – we could simply accept the reality of our situation and allow the church to continue a slow weary decline until we finally fulfill the prognostications of all the prophets of doom and disappear. With a resigned shrug we could simply watch our congregations dwindle, resigned to the eventual demise of the institutional church.

3. Pay – rejecting both options #1 and #2, churches desiring to mount dynamic attractive programs, increasingly find it is necessary to pay for the person-hours required to make those programs happen. Unfortunately, this realization comes at a time when, due to the decline in church attendance and a general economic malaise, finances for the church also tend to be in decline.

4. The last option is that the church changes the way it looks at itself and realizes that the church does not need “volunteers.” We are not a “volunteer” organization.

We are a group of people who come together because we have chosen to live in relationship to God as we experience God through Jesus Christ. We gather because we desire to share and grow with other people in our awareness of the presence and action of God in our lives. Our commitment is to open to the Spirit’s direction and to follow faithfully wherever that direction may lead. We trust that God is working in peoples’ lives and that, it is God who will guide and motivate peoples’ involvement in life and ministry. We accept the shape and size of church God provides.