The Decline of Congregationalism

Congregational churches were once known for their dynamism and vibrancy. Now most are shut down and many that remain huddle together, awaiting their seemingly inevitable doom. Well this is not strictly true. If we use congregationalism with a little ‘c’, such churches continue to thrive. FIEC churches are run according to the Congregational way, as are many Baptists and Pentecostals. Our own little church, though still small, is growing, and we have no plans to shut down. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering why historical ‘Big-C’ Congregationalism suffered so speedy and serious a decline.

Historian Bernard Manning thought that better educational opportunities after 1871 and the social mobility they offered caused a migration of upwardly mobile folk to the Church of England. Erik Routley notes that when Higher Criticism came along (the doubting of scripture’s authenticity) the Big-Cs “drank more deeply of it than did any of the others”. Trendy Congregational preachers like R.J. Campbell at City Temple preached a theology that appealed to modernism and rationalism. Although it must have made him and his ilk sound sophisticated, draining authority from the scriptures could only ever sound the death knell for vibrant Christianity.

David Thompson in The Decline of Congregationalism in the Twentieth Century (2002) noted that in the 1800s, the number of worshippers at any given church was greater than the number of members, whereas the opposite was true in the following century. People were happy to have their names listed but had few qualms about not actually attending. This is a situation we faced at Martin Top, until we took an axe to the membership list.  

Perhaps there are bigger reasons, which affected the wider country. Grace Davie, the sociologist of religion, coined the term ‘believing without belonging’ (perhaps the last paragraph describes belonging without believing). Numbers affiliating to Christianity, though declining, are still surprisingly high (59% in 2011), but this is not expressed by attending a place of worship.

I lament the decline of Christianity in this nation and the loss of so many fine Congregational churches in particular. However, packed churches and swollen denominations are not without problems. They become excellent breeding grounds for ecclesiastical careerists and their associated empire-building; tares and chaff are comfortably accommodated in the pews and churches lapse into social clubs with their high teas, shows and galas, rather than rescue shops and missions. As Jude warns his readers in verse 5:

But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.

Unbelieving, compromising and apostate churches God has no desire to preserve. But of the believing remnant, He says

and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.