The Baptist Union of Great Britain has welcomed an increase in church attendance over the last several years. But while attendance has risen, the figures for official membership have gone down.
The statistics seem likely to fuel debate about the relationship between participation in a church’s life and formal church membership, an issue that has come to the fore in several denominations.
Between 2002 and 2008, attendance at churches in the Baptist Union rose by about 3.5 per cent from 148,835 to 153,714.
This is roughly in line with the increase in the UK population over the same time, meaning that attendance has effectively remained even. However, this appears to be in contrast to the decline in church attendance in a number of other UK denominations during these years.
Attendance was measured as those present in church on the first Sunday of December in each year. This method of counting may underestimate the figures, given the trend for some churchgoers to worship regularly but not every week.
However, over the same period, membership of Baptist churches fell by 7 per cent from 149,685 to 139,244.
In addition, baptisms dropped by a staggering 23 per cent, from 4,654 to 3,601.
It is possible that the discrepancy between the attendance and membership figures represents a decline in 'denominationalism'. In other words, some Christians tend to attend the local church they like best without worrying about its denomination, and are thus less likely to become members.
Others may point out that ideas of belonging and identity are changing and that many people no longer feel the need to join something officially in order to belong to it.
Nonetheless, there is likely to be a fear that the figures demonstrate a decline in the willingness of worshippers to make firm commitments.
The Baptist Union’s General Secretary, the Rev Jonathan Edwards, told the Baptist Times, “Many churches speak to me about the growth in the size of their congregations combined with a less regular pattern of worship”.
Edwards added that, “It is widely acknowledged that people today are increasingly reluctant to make long-term commitments”. He urged churches to “declare with greater consistency and clarity that commitment to Christ is both enormously demanding and also life-giving”.
Baptists are not the only denomination in Britain to struggle with the relationship between attendance and membership. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has seen lively internal debate about the relevance of formal membership structures.
Some Quakers have argued in recent years that formal membership is too rigid and hinders the Society’s intention of relying on the Holy Spirit rather than rules and structures. Others maintain that, given the lack of water baptism and creeds among Quakers, membership is important for knowing who has made a commitment.
The Baptist Union is one of Britain’s largest denominations, tracing its roots back to the sixteenth century and including a range of traditions and theologies that emphasise voluntary commitment to Christ and believers’ baptism.
The most radical Baptists trace their origins back to the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, who rejected the “Christendom” model that united Church and state, insisting instead on a free choice to follow Jesus in his teachings of compassion, forgiveness, nonviolence and equality.