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Membership Decline: Facing the Real Issue

Christianity Today is highlighting the plight of rural vicars in congregations in England. Churches are declining, and vicars are filling multiple pulpits. The article goes on to explain in detail implications of declining congregations — pastors are pulled thin between multiple responsibilities and congregational sites, and are unable to devote the time and resources to those needs. It explains the stop-gap measures that churches have undertaken to deal with the decreasing memberships and increasing strain on pastors.

When facing an immediate crisis, it’s natural to want to make a quick fix with the fewest repercussions. Spreading pastors across multiple sites seems like a rational choice — the congregations don’t need to close, and the bigger problems can be kicked down the road. But that is prolonging the problem.

Looking at the issue of declining rural membership from the ecological frame would put the problem into a different focus. The fact is, a quick look into demographics would show that fewer and fewer people in England live in rural areas. While many congregations in England across the board are declining, with fewer people living in the rural areas, there are fewer available people to even attend church. The number of churches is greater than the number of people able to sustain them.

What can these churches do? Some will be able to begin new ministries and reach out to a broader base of members and sources of income. Some will close, preferring to maintain their current ministries even in the face of decline. The vast majority will continue discussing the current problems without facing the reality of the future.

The benefit of using the Frames for Studying Congregations is that it allows a problem to be analyzed given a variety of perspectives. Declining congregations and overstretched vicars outlines a problem, but it fails to fully examine what caused it, and cannot give insights into how to solve it.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at