Print

Who are all these people?

As Britain's population is changing, what are the implications for the ministry of our churches?

According to the 2011 census, published in December, the population of England and Wales was 56.1 million, the UK total being around 63 million.

Other sources expect that roughly two million will be added to the population of England each five years up to 2031. But who are these people? Who will make up our congregations in coming years? Who will be the people we are to evangelise for Christ?

Elderly people

The number of people aged 65 and over in the population has increased by 14.4% since 2001. One in six people are of retirement age. Numbers of elderly people are set to grow even more because the post-war baby boomers are about to enter retirement age. Other sources say, the numbers aged 85 plus will grow as well, almost entirely due to reductions in mortality.

This provides us with a number of pastoral challenges. We will need to grow ministry to older people. With more families caring for elderly relatives, we will need to care for the carers. With the breakdown of family life in society generally, will churches be involved in providing care to the elderly in the neighbourhood? Churches may need to look to have ‘age workers’ as well as ‘youth workers’.

Alongside this, we may well see an increase in the numbers of active, healthy and able people in the church who have retired. Yes, many will be involved in looking after grandchildren and aging parents, but others may wish to be useful to the church. How can we train and release these folk into some kind of ministry (Titus 2.14; 3.8)?

Immigrant people

International migration has been much higher in the last ten years than in the previous decade. The 2011 census found that seven and a half million people living in England and Wales were born outside Britain, an increase from 4.6 million a decade earlier. White British people are now a minority in London. Migrant inflow is dominated, currently, by those coming to study. Some migrants have a Christian background. Many other migrants are from other faiths. Often people from overseas seem far more open to the gospel than indigenous Anglo-Saxons. Pastorally, this means that there are increased opportunities for friendship and evangelism towards internationals.

Three million people live in households where no adult speaks English as their first language. We need to recognise and use the folk in our congregations who are able to speak foreign languages — often Spanish, French, Arabic or Polish are very helpful. Migrants can be helped by the church running an ‘English conversation’ group which aids their knowledge of English and perhaps can help them more generally with filling in forms and being alongside them in the ups and downs of immigrant life — dealing with landlords, employers, etc. Can we use Christianity Explored in its simpler English format?

Young people

The birth rate increased in 2008, but by 2011 had fallen back slightly. It seems that much of that increased birth rate is among people from overseas. Many migrants have tended to keep to the traditional structure of the family with husband working and wives at home with the children. They tend towards larger families. Of the population more generally, one in three children lives with a single parent or step-parent.

The white indigenous population has shied away from marriage and, if they are married, often both husband and wife work and have smaller numbers of children. How this will affect our traditional ‘youth works’ is yet to be seen. If, for example, the bulk of young people in future are from a Muslim background, how accessible will they be to the churches? The facts are that child populations are expected to grow fastest in cities (in particular, Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester and London).

Single people

In 2011, a quarter of people living in England and Wales were single (in some way — never married, divorced, widowed). This amounts to 11 million people and reflects the growing number choosing not to marry. In church the estimate is that there are three single women to every one single male.

This is a time bomb for the churches, because, whatever your take is on single folk, most single people feel at best awkward and at worst unwanted in church. Singles believe church is aimed at families and they don’t fit. Many leave the church due to this. But, if trends continue, the future is much more single than married.

In a recent survey on the dating site Christian Connection, 80% said that their church did not put on anything for single people, or did not recognise them or affirm them. 46% said that their church leaders’ advice was unhelpful, unrealistic, impersonal or simply lacking.

A friend who runs a singles group says candidly that singles are very sensitive and often over-react, as they feel marginalised. About two-thirds of single people would prefer to be in a relationship.

Let me lift the lid a little on the singles’ world. Those who have never been married tend to grieve or be angry that God has not answered their prayers and provided a spouse and children. This is not recognised in most churches. Many singles feel worthless because they are not in a relationship or have a family. They are rarely in church leadership. Singles may have personal issues, problems, which make them awkward and not ready for a relationship. Divorcees frequently carry guilt over the break-up of marriage. Single parents shoulder huge burdens of raising a family alone. Widowed people often idolise their deceased partner and find it hard to accept anyone else. Most singles feel isolated and lonely. Singleness is on the increase and is not something churches can afford to leave on the sidelines any more.

Poorer people

In future, we are likely to be less well off. The current recession and accompanying austerity will be very difficult to climb out of and is expected to continue until 2018. We are likely to see many more redundant people in our congregations who need our help. Without work people tend to feel worthless and can fall into depressive or dependent life styles.

With the economic uncertainties, there will be more couples where both work to fund housing and family life. The 2011 census indicated that the number of people in private, rented accommodation has almost doubled, while homeowners with mortgages fell significantly. This may also go along with greater mobility, as people move more frequently to get work. Will this mean it will be harder to retain younger and middle-aged people in a local church and give stability to the work? During the recession of the 1980s, one pastor said it was like preaching to a procession rather than a congregation.

Religious people

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people identifying themselves as Christian fell from 71.7% to 59.3%. Meanwhile, those who say they have no religion increased from 14.8% to 25.1%. The number of Muslims increased from 3% to 4.8%.

Tweeters, bloggers, etc.

Our times have seen the dawn of the Information Technology age. With websites and emails and Twitter and podcasts and Facebook, there is lots more information available and the people of a church are and seemingly will be exposed to many more ‘voices’ and opinions than ever before.

One result is that our people have access to a lot more ‘Christian’ resources. To put it bluntly, they might listen to their pastor perhaps twice a week. But they may well be listening to five or six of John Piper’s sermons on podcast each week. Well, praise the Lord for that. But who is their pastor? If their pastor is not up to JP’s standard, how well do they listen to him?

And what happens when it’s not John Piper they are listening to, but some cowboy on ‘the God Channel’? How do church leaderships get to grips with this? There’s a lot of good teaching out there, but also a lot of false teaching. How do leaderships guard their people?

Many things remain the same in church life, but here are some changes to consider as we face the future at the beginning of a new year.

John Benton