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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 April 2007, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
O come all ye faithful?
Woman praying
One in four attends at least once a year

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

The majority of us believe in God, pray and think of ourselves as Christian, despite not going to church. But if you cut out the middle man, isn't it cheating?

Births, deaths and marriages. They're the only events that get most people in the UK through church doors these days and even that is too often for some.

But this doesn't stop the majority of us calling ourselves Christian. More than half of British people say they believe in God despite only one in seven actually attending a Christian church service each month, says a new study.

26m adults claim to be Christian
7.6m adults go to church each month
12.6m go at least once a year.
3 million would go to church if asked
Other faiths make up 6% of religious attendance
32m people have no connection with church
London has highest number of regular churchgoers at 22%

It seems that while people find the church thing a little bit difficult, they are willing to recognise God. There's even a cute catchphrase for this absent majority - believing without belonging.

The church says the results challenge the UK's secular image, proving not everyone has embraced consumerism as their modern-day god.

It's not often that it has much to shout about. Congregations have been declining for years, according to figures published by the Christian Research. While some churches are growing and the rate of decline in congregations has slowed, overall numbers are still dropping. It is not alone in suffering this "curse of apathy".

Local organisations have seen a slump in membership, according to a new YouGov poll, which found 70% of people have no links to community groups like the Women's Institute, Guides and Scouts.

When it comes to faith, for some it's a case of disintermediation - cutting out the middleman. It's happening in many areas of our daily lives - the internet, for example, plugs users straight in to suppliers, side-stepping the need for distributors like shops.

Bride and groom
Weddings are a church occasion
But is an expression of faith with no commitment to going to church just religion for the "me" generation?

In today's "post-modern society" people want everything on their own terms - that includes Christianity, says Dr Elaine Storkey, a Christian academic, broadcaster and president of Christian charity Tearfund, which commissioned the study.

"People are used to instant gratification, they are used to having what they want, when they want and without putting in too much effort. Some view religion in the same way."

Having a connection with Christianity is not a problem for most people, it's when something is asked of them that they start to struggle, she says.

"The first step to get people involved in the church is getting them to consider God. A lot of people identify with Christianity even if they don't attend church. Often when the chips are down they fall back on the Christian faith.

"The second step is getting them to consider how much their faith will cost them. That's a huge leap for most people, that's when they have to start giving something back."

Some sort of "vague Christianity" acts as a way for people to keep their options open, they don't have to think too hard about life and aren't pushed outside their comfort zone, says philosopher Dr Julian Baggini.


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"It's easier than going in the other two directions. If you take religion fully on board you have to believe some strange things. Discarding it totally means you have to really think through the consequences, that death really is the end and many people find that worrying."

But it is possible to do away with the middleman, not attend church and still be a Christian, he says.

"Often the key messages in religion are social, like loving your neighbour. You don't have to go to church to be nice to people and help them."

Spiritual or religious?

Some research challenges the findings that many non-church goers in the UK still think of themselves as Christian.

People are shedding their religious beliefs even faster than churches are losing their congregations, according to a study by Manchester University

It found that older people described themselves as religious, though not necessarily orthodox. The middle-aged saw themselves as spiritual rather than religious. But most young people held beliefs as part of a view of life that they did not recognise as spiritual at all.

St Pixels
Online worshippers select an identity
Yet some people are seeking the church experience, only in a more modern guise.

St Pixels is an internet church, which offers prayers, daily Bible readings and a chat room to its online congregation. The fact its on the net does not make it any less valid than attending a church made of bricks and mortar, says Simon Jenkins, its co-founder.

"St Pixels may fall outside of what is traditional but we still consider it a genuine church. It is a real parish of real people who don't stop being members when they log off. It is not a second-class experience, just a different one. The site appeals to a whole spectrum of people, ultimately we are hoping to encourage faith."

You get from Church a sense of belonging even if you don't believe
Penny, Cardiff

The issue of "serving" the church is not about just going on a Sunday, he argues. That is often an easy choice. How you live your life on the other six days of the week is just as important, if not more so, he says.

"Our community may not go to their local church down the road but there is still a huge level of service involved. People share experiences online, pray and write to each other. Online worship is not an alternative to service, it is another opportunity to serve."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Sitting in a church doesn't make you a Christian any more than sitting in a carpark makes you a car.
Paul, Manchester

As a practising Christian I can understand why a lot of people profess to be Christian but don't practice. I'm a Catholic who has campaigned for women's ordination for many years, and have seen many people leave the church because of patriarchy and misogyny. There is nothing in the Bible to say women should not be ordained. Women and men can work well together and seeing women playing an active role in the Church would encourage people to come back.
Helen, Midlothian

We as a christian community should go to church in recognition of the wonderful thing God has done for us. You cannot be a christian without giong to church.

Well I'm a Christian and I love the church! Remember church is not a building or a service - it's people! I live in a Christian community in Coventry, part of the Jesus army. We don't go to church - WE ARE THE CHURCH!
Andy Crisp, Coventry

The thing to remember is that going to church doesn't make you a Christian, but at the end of the day the church is made up of beleivers. Being a Christian isn't just about believing in God - all religions believe in 'God' by definition but it's about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Timski, England

I'm a born-again Christian and I don't 'go to church.' Why? Because the institutional church bears little resemblance to the New Testament Church intended by God even at the evangelical/Pentecostal end of the scale. I fellowship with other Christians in our homes, but the concept of going to a specific external building to 'do church' is just alien to me.
Jules, London, UK

It's nice to see more people thinking for themselves, rather than blindly following convention.

Going to a physical building is not a pre-requisite for being a Christian. The 'Church' is Christ, praising or fellowship can be done anywhere at any time. Church services in the UK have a stigma of being very stuffy and old fashioned, praising the lord should be fun and full of life, a ratting old organ and groaning old songs is not attractive to young people. Praising online is just as valid and more attractive to younger people, being able to relate to the delivery of the content, Its no less valid than going to church.
Dave Shanley, East Barnet

Being a Christian is not about trying to do good things, or going to church or anything like that. Jesus is very clear that there's no way you're getting to heaven by being good. He told us we need to submit to him, saying 'I am not ruler of my life, but Jesus, you are' and recognise this as his right. This is a huge thing to do, and very counter cultural, with the 'self-is-king' attitude so prevalent today. As you submit, though, you will seek to follow his teaching, and become more like him, as we were created to be. Part of this will be a desire to spend time with like minded people and learn more about Jesus (i.e. at church). Going to church is one outworking of Christianity, not a generator of it! I would be surprised if even half those regular church attenders were Christians as Jesus defines it.
Steve, Hockley, Essex, UK

No, you don't "need" to go to church to be a Christian, but it IS a big help. It's great to have other people to talk to, to help you work through how best to apply Jesus' teachings in modern-day situations, and to encourage you when that means making difficult decisions, or acting in a way that other parts of society, or especially the media, think is a bit strange. However, the most important thing isn't what you get from Church, but how you contribute. By not going, you don't just deprive yourself of support, but others of the support YOU might give.
Dave McGuire, Camborne, Cornwall

I am not religious in any way shape or form, Religion is the basic cause of more disagreement and anger than any other subject on the planet and for a set of values based on historic stories which have no base truth and are manipulated by those "in Charge" of the various religions for their own end I find the fascination ludicrous.
Glenn, West Yorkshire

I haven't been in a church for years. Why? Because I now believe that ALL religion is man made and depends not a jot on anything supernatural. ALL religions are invented by man, and depend exclusively on man's fear of the unknown to drive their ethos. I am not now a Christian, but neither do I subscribe to any religion - they are all hokum and blarney - Marx was wrong about everything except when he said that religion is the opiate of the masses - how right he was there. My only advice for those caught in the religion trap - get out now. You'll be happier. After all this life isn't a rehearsal.
Peter Keen, Chichester England

7.6 million - that's almost as many as watch Emmerdale! Maybe the government should establish soap-based schools, and have soap stars automatically entered into the House of Lords. Makes more sense than pandering to the beliefs of religious people.
David, Ely

I consider myself a believer, maybe even Christian, but I don't see why we should go to a man made building (a church) to worship god. God is everywhere, why do we need a church? This suggests to me that Christians think a church is where gods presence is bigger than anywhere else. It matters not where you worship god, or even if you do worship god, what matters is the way you live your life. You don't need to go to church to prove to god that you believe in him or you are living your life the way god intended. Just be a good person, be nice to people and I'm sure god will see your living your life the way he intended (mostly)
David McGuinness, London, UK

C of E churches may have a problem with attendance but from my experience the Catholic faith is growing fast. I am joining the Church at Easter and the 4 Masses each weekend in our parish are all full to bursting. Being a Catholic is not just about worshipping God it is also about joining our brothers and sisters in the act of collective worship each week. In an increasingly secular and largely disfunctional society this sense of community and cohesion is vital.
Debbie, Luton, Beds

From an old hymn "A church is wherever God's people are praising". Some people find that their worship of God is enhanced and supported by being part of a close knit community of believers centred round a building ("Church") with someone that can help guide their Christian life (Rector/Minister/Pastor...) within a larger organisation that can support their community ("Roman Catholic Church" / "Church of England" ...) Others don't. There is no concept in UK now of having to go to church, like there was perhaps 20 years ago. Those who do go however are far more committed.
Peter Tweed, Northern Ireland

What a load of nonsense. Isn't it time people shouldered responsibility themselves, rather than absolving themselves by blaming an 'all seeing entity'. Surely we can all be nice to each other without having to involve religion? After all I can't think of many wars that are still raging today that don't involve religion. I welcome the fact that more people are 'seeing the light', and realising that blind faith just doesn't make any sense!
Will Bennett, Horsham, West Sussex UK

The church is not the building. But it is the people who gather together worship in what ever place that god provides, ether it be a home a school hall, or a stadium. Who says that church membership is decreasing. Many churches are expanding.And reaching out into there comunities to help and serve
Andrew Mcadden

To be honest, I wouldn't want to go to church with most of the people who have commented here. They show all the signs of today's "what's in it for me?" culture. Church is what you make of it.
Geoff Lankow, Auckland, New Zealand

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