Did you know that there are more members of the Caravan Club, or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, than of all Britain’s political parties put together?
I had lunch with a local Ormskirk borough councillor who told me that the number of members belonging to each of the Conservative and Labour parties in West Lancashire is just 200 or so, less than the number of you receiving (reading, even) this letter. In fact, the membership of the main UK political parties halved between 1960 and 1980, and has halved again since to represent just over 1% of the population today.
But not just political parties. Whatever organisation you may belong to, you will have seen membership fall drastically and age markedly in recent years, be it trade union, Women’s Institute, choir, Rotary club, the Masons, parent associations, sports groups, even the Rose and Crown.
The Mothers’ Union (from which my mother was thrown out in 1957 for refusing to have me christened) is typical: it had 538,000 members in the 1930s, but now just 98,000.
The situation today is that 70% of us have no ties with any local group or association. In the words of American sociologist Robert Putman, we live in a society in which I bowl alone. He observed that although the number of people in the US who bowl has increased in the last 20 years, the number of people who bowl in leagues has actually fallen dramatically.
This gives us an important context in understanding why church membership has been falling. In 1990, just before I arrived in Aughton, 9.0% of people in England attended church, last year 5.7%. Our church Vision Day is focussing on 2020 – when attendance is expected to be just 4.3%
But it is not so much that fewer people believe in the Christian faith, increasingly we are experiencing a phenomenon labelled by former Liverpool academic Grace Davie, “believing without belonging.” I have good friends who see themselves as committed Christians who for one reason or another no longer belong to their local church.
Or at least they now belong in a different way – and this is what we need to understand for the sake of the Gospel. For we live in an fast-changing culture in which people are beginning to relate to each other in totally new ways. Like Facebook and (here I go again) Twitter. New networks are being formed all over the place.
In this context we need to think creatively on how to do church and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than tread the familiar. The Gospel demands no less.
Whitbread is a company to emulate; you probably read their annual report published on Wednesday. Most of you will still associate Whitbread with brewing and especially pubs. But they found themselves in a business which was contracting through rapid social change. They could have invested heavily in making pubs work even though the social tide was going the opposite way.
What they did in 2001 was a moment of strategic brilliance – they moved out of brewing and brewing interests and into coffee and budget hotels.
Whitbread understood that people still go out to drink but now lattes instead of lager, in comfortable lounges with newspapers and wifi rather than the traditional pub . They saw was happening and dared to leave behind 250 years of tradition. Today their Costa coffee has 1600 stores in 25 countries. I understand that Ormskirk Costa (where we have had three Alpha launches) is about to be extensively refurbished and acquire the first floor. Not just booming but recession proof.
For the Alpha course, both in and out of Costa, comes as a great example of how to respond to this seismic shift in culture. Interactive, limited initial commitment and especially, a meal together. For above all it is friendship forming. Hard questions are encouraged rather than stifled. Alpha gives people space and time to think rather than to make an immediate commitment on the spot. Moreover, it grows through using the networks of new Christians – we have some remarkable examples.
As a church we are committed to serve our parish and beyond as it is rather than as we would like it to be. So we are having our church Vision Day on 1 October to simply listen to what the Holy Spirit is leading us to do as we aim to share Jesus beginning with everyone in our parish.