Turning Up and Being Counted

I’m currently going through a strange time. I’m away from my congregation on sabbatical. It is a good thing to do and I’m having a great time, meeting fantastic people and learning a thing or two by stopping for a while to breathe.

There’s always things that you miss when you are away from the place you know best. For me, the fact that Branston Pickle has not conquered the world is astonishment and I’ve missed it in far flung places all around the world over the years. However, there’s something more quirky, churchy and odd that I really missed this year.

Last Sunday was the day that the Scottish Episcopal Church counts all the people in its churches and reports the numbers back to each diocese, which then sends them to the General Synod Office in Edinburgh and the numbers are published in the new year. The count always happens on the Sunday next before Advent – the one we call Christ the King. The idea is that it is a fairly normal Sunday at a time of the year when most people are not on holiday and so you get a fair idea of the size of the worshipping population of the church.

They key thing though is that you have to turn up to be counted.

You might be on an electoral roll for a congregation (we report those numbers too) but if you are not there you would not be included in the annual count of who is in church on the Sunday next before Advent. You might have been baptised in the church or confirmed in it. You might have had the most glorious nuptials that church ever witnessed or have buried your great uncle Albert’s surprising bidey-in in the churchyard. You may have had tea with the rector once or even been to a carol service in 1972. But no matter how close you think your relationship is with the congregation, on the day when the count takes place, you won’t be counted unless you are there.

And I missed it.

Somehow not being counted made me feel a long way from home.

There’s all kinds of criticism of the kind of congregational statistics that we gather in Scotland, as there is in many other parts of the Anglican Communion. But the trouble is, we’ve got a great data set of next before Advent statistics and we need to keep measuring that one, even if we want to start to measure other things, if they are going to be of any use to us.

I’d quite like us to record average Sunday attendance as well. Some people want to count the number of people who enter the church at any time to measure the effective reach of the church. And some people don’t like the idea of counting at all.

But I do.

I don’t particularly want to rehearse the arguments for how we should count people in church but it does seem to matter to me that we have some sense of the trends and patterns of people’s worship patterns.

Quite a lot of people care more about the numbers of people whom the church is in contact with through the week and through the year than about the numbers of people in church for worship.

I’m probably in the minority by not counting myself amongst them.

I do care how many people are in church to worship and tend to think that worship is not only the most distinctive thing that churches offer but also the most interesting.

There are currently some very deep fears amongst clergy and lay leaders in a great many churches and of different traditions and theological persuasions around the numbers attending. It is also very difficult for Christians to talk about these fears openly.

There are obvious fears about how to keep paying the bills and the fact is, the greatest and most glorious expenses that most churches have are the people who work in them. Clergy, lay workers, musicians are all looking at attendance figures at the moment and thinking about the future a little nervously.

Clearly churches have to pay the bills and usually this money comes from those who turn up. One of the questions that the pandemic has raised is whether the link between turning up and coughing up (cash not phlegm!) is being broken.

I seem to be hearing stories of congregations being significantly down in number but where giving has risen at bit during the pandemic but no-one knows what that really means.

I have another anxiety which goes beyond worrying about how we are all going to pay the bills though. My primary anxiety about current changes in churchgoing is that what is done in church only really makes much sense if you are there every week to experience it.

The Liturgical Movement, which led to the kind of worship that many mainstream congregations now have, is predicated on the very idea that if you turn up, week by week, your personal faith will become deeper and more satisfying by being formed by the worship that you experience. Not just that, but when you gather all those individual experiences of deepening faith together, you build the strength, confidence and witness of the whole people of God who, acting out of that renewed faith, will turn the world upside down, usher in God’s kingdom of justice and joy and all the world will be saved.

(I know it isn’t particularly fashionable to talk about all the world being saved, but some of us still think it kind of matters).

One of the things that I realised as the events of 2020 unfolded was just how badly the Liturgical Movement had prepared us all for the pandemic. Somewhere along the way we’d become so focussed on community piety and devotion that we’d lost the idea that individuals on their own can deepen their faith.

Two years on, our communities can gather again in most places. However, all around the world, people are reporting that numbers are still quite disappointing.

It is clear that in many places some people have simply given up coming to church during the pandemic. Links were broken. Relationships were harder. Some people got angry in the midst of it all. And as usual with anger, it is difficult to pin down. Anger at oneself, anger at the pastor, anger at God, anger at those one lives with and anger at just about anything were all part of the pandemic.

However, my hunch is that numbers are still down in very many churches not primarily because of people who have left but more because of people who are turning up less often than they used to do. That was already a feature of life in the pre-pandemic church but as with so many things, the pandemic itself seemed to hit the accelerator on this process.

It is also the case of course that some people have changed health circumstances and are simply not able to do what they used to do.  (Online worship is a joy to some but we’ve no idea how to count those attending that way).

This year’s statistics, gathered in many different ways and in many different denominations, are going to show that a lot of people did not show up and were not counted.

But how are we going to talk about this in public?

Clergy are very wary of telling people that they must come to church every week and for good reason. We don’t need people to come to church because of a guilt trip that someone has induced in them. We need people to come to church for more positive reasons.

I want people to come because turning up helps them make sense of life. I want people to come because it is gloriously fun. I want people to come to be inspired to help make the kingdom of justice and joy a reality. I want people to come because it helps us to learn how to live when life isn’t gloriously fun. I want people to come because friendships formed as we worship together challenge us all to live as salt and light in the world. And I want people to know that sometimes,  out of what I can only describe as a very strange sense of humour, God even seems to enjoy teaching us good things through people whom we would never otherwise be with.

It has been the universal expectation of Christianity that worshipping together weekly is the norm for Christians. I suspect that there have been very many times in the history of the faith that those who count the numbers have sighed deeply and wondered how to convey the giddy joyful truth, that deepening one’s faith by committing to weekly worship, is life changing and life affirming.

Clergy and lay church leaders are planning how to deliver another festive season that will be both wonderful and exhausting. Very many, I suspect are also trying to work out how to convey that maybe, just maybe, part of our healing from pandemic-driven exhaustion might be found in finding regular, weekly rhythms of faith.

You know the drill. Advent Sunday is upon us. A new church year dawns. Ecclesiastical new year resolutions are the best new year resolutions of them all.

In a few weeks time we’ll be celebrating someone who turned up and was counted in a census just over 2000 years ago.

And a God is for life, not just for Christmas.


  1. Lesley-Ann craddock says

    Thank you Kelvin
    What a read, I really enjoyed it, all of it. You have touched on the 3 things that I too have been wrestling with.
    Liturgy , turning up to be counted, and being open and real with our peers and counterparts.
    Hmmm I wonder if those aspects of being church in this post pandemic implosion of society will somehow be a catalyst to become braver clergy and have proper discussions about what matters to Gods church in its own context. Can we be diverse and not divided, can we lock into our heritage and yet be able to change too. Can Branson pickle save us. X

  2. Christine McIntosh says

    Great stuff, Kelvin!

  3. Robert MacDonald says

    Good points well made. We find some church members, who organise a community lunch on a Wednesday, then regularly say ‘we won’t make it on Sunday’. Seems the wrong way round – attendance on a Sunday should come first.

  4. Peggy Brewer says

    Reading this made my day and contributes to my celebration of the season! Thank you!

  5. Calum Wyllie says

    Reading this, I feel like it could have been written about me. I couldn’t have been more deeply involved with my church (felt deeply rooted in the weekly liturgy, sat on the PCC, led on diversity and inclusion, set up online streaming for the first time during lockdown), yet I haven’t been back in two years. There is definitely an element of that link of continuity having been broken, and it’s up to me to make the effort to reforge it again. But the anger is also real, and hard to pin down. When somewhere no longer feels like home, when you feel excluded (even when that person was responsible for leading on inclusion!), how do you find the courage to return? When the link with spirituality feels more present in other places (even when I used to absolutely value liturgy, the Eucharist, the community), how do you find a way forward? Too much thinking, and not enough getting on and doing, perhaps…

  6. Meg Rosenfeld says

    Wow–this article is not only thought-provoking, and, to someone who’s a church-goer, extremely easy to identify with, but also entertaining and therefore all the more memorable. As one whose parish church (in San Francisco’s notorious Haight Ashbury neighborhood) nowadays gets about 15 people in the congregation on a “good” day, I do often wonder whether we’re ever going to bounce back from this expletive-deleted pandemic. Personally, I have no choice: I am, on the aforementioned good day, 50% of the alto section, and on other days, 100% thereof. All you folks out there don’t know what you’re missing–except, of course, those of you who are watching on your home computers.

  7. Well said, Kelvin Perhaps we clergy don’t stress enough the fact that the Host at our worship is not the clergy, but the Incarnate Son of God; who empowers us to the extent that we are willing to be empowered for daily life and work. I still think of that lovely phrase “Turn towards HIM and be radiant”. What a thrill!

  8. Kennedy fraser says

    Yes,I still wonder if we have counted all those spiritual communions

  9. John Davies says

    My church (suburban, evangelical Anglican in Birmingham, UK) took a long time to really recover from the lockdown and subsequent fears, but seems to be close to its pre-shutdown numbers again. What my wife and I noticed was that for quite some time the congregation was largely made up of its elderly members – ie those who are not perhaps so nifty with the electronic gadgetry of our age and, also, those who most wanted company. Younger families took a lot longer to return, but are now coming out of the woodwork again.
    One interesting point is that my old church reported a big increase in deaf people watching their zoom or youtube services, because one of the congregation provided signage at the front. Their new found audience felt greatly enabled to join in when they may otherwise never have done so. Is this something worth thinking more about?

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