Chapter 6: Scottish Churches Attendance Census 2016 – a Survey of Ministers

To understand God's thoughts, one must study statistics, for these are the measure of His purpose – attributed to Florence Nightingale (Pearson, 1924)

In 2002 the Scottish Church Census gave valuable insight into the condition of the various Christian denominations in Scotland.  That census, when linked to previous similar exercises, provided trend information which, at the time, caused much discomfort for the main denominational groups, not least the Church of Scotland.[1]   Given the national prominence of this exercise and that the Church of Scotland supported it both practically as well as financially, it is disappointing to note only a few passing references to this significant and extensive piece of research in the formal reports to the General Assembly.[2]  The absence of high-level, church wide engagement with the census data may reflect its unease with the outcomes and the perceived effect on ministerial morale.  It may be that the church authorities did not see particular value in the process or the results, preferring instead to focus their own initiatives including the outworking of the Church Without Walls Report.[3]  Whichever is the case, it is clear that in the years that followed, when calls for another attendance census were made, they were largely ignored.[4]

Peter Brierley attributes a change of direction to September 2013 when a colloquium, convened by Rev. Dr Doug Gay of Glasgow University, was held.  This forum gathered together key personnel and provided the necessary stimulus towards a new attendance census taking place in 2016 (P. Brierley, 2017, p. vii).  In October 2014 denomination leaders had already pledged support for the project and financial arrangements were made for a census to take place on 8th of May 2016; this was to be the fourth such census over a period of 32 years, providing an extended period over which trends might be viewed and analysed.

The rationale for another census was to extend knowledge concerning rates and patterns of church attendance across Scotland, noting regional, denominational, gender, age, ethnicity and other variations. Trend analysis would allow projections of possible future conditions and provide insight for local, regional and national strategic planning.  In addition to Sunday activities, the Scottish Attendance Census gathered information on a range of numerical data on various church based or church initiated events and behaviours at other points in a week.  Additional questions were commissioned by partner organisations and other groups.  As a package of information, the census had the potential to provide a level of knowledge and insight which no other method has thus far provided.

The basic information, projected from the 40% of congregations which took part, was that 390,000 people or 7.2% of the Scottish population attended worship on a given Sunday. [5],[6]   The total was broken down for analysis into the broad denominational groupings of ‘The Church of Scotland’, ‘Other Presbyterian’, ‘Episcopal’, ‘Baptist’, ‘Independent Churches’, ‘Smaller Denominations’, ‘Pentecostal’ and ‘Roman Catholic’.[7]  

Over the time period of the various historical Scottish Church attendance censuses undertaken, the overall number of church attendances in Scottish churches has reduced significantly from 16.9% of the Scottish population in 1984 to 7.2% in 2016.  The greatest part of that fall is due to decline in attendance of Church of Scotland congregations which was 361,340 in the 1984 census and then 136,910 in 2016.  Although the Roman Catholic church has also shown a significant decline in attendance (from 345,950 reducing to 135,600), it is at a slightly slower rate, meaning that it is anticipated that, if the present trend continues, the Roman Catholic church will soon be numerically the largest denomination (by Church attendance) in Scotland.[8] These two large denominations accounted for 58% of all church attendances in the census of 2016 (in the 1984 census their combined strength was 83% of attendances in Scotland).

The census results show not only that the Church of Scotland is exhibiting a reduction in overall church attendance but that it has already lost its dominant place with sections of the religious landscape of Scotland. For example, in many of the extensive western ‘central belt’ urban areas, the Church of Scotland is no longer the largest active denominational presence.  Table 18 lists local council areas where the Roman Catholic church reported higher or similar levels of congregational attendance for the census, compared to the Church of Scotland.  The situation described begins to call into question the claim of the Church of Scotland to be considered the ‘national church’ and may indeed be part of the reason why the Church of Scotland is often reluctant to discuss the census findings.  In chapter 2 we noted the discussion surrounding the disestablishment of the Church of England following the findings of the 1851 census which highlighted weakness in the numerical strength of the organisation resulting in its negative response to further censuses.


2016 population

Church of Scotland

% Population

Roman Catholic

% Population


Glasgow City







North Lanarkshire














South Lanarkshire







East Renfrewshire














West Dunbartonshire







Eilean Siar







East Dunbartonshire







West Lothian







Table 18: Attendance Census results for selected Council areas[9]

It was noted in previous census results that particular risk factors for the long term future sustainability of the Church of Scotland were the age structure of congregations and the effect of low rates of youth retention as part of the worshipping community.   The census of 2016 underlined these problems noting that, of all the denominational groups, the Church of Scotland exhibited the highest average age (60 years).  It is also evident that 56% of all attenders are 65 years or over.  At the same time, it also has a relatively small proportion of people under 25 years old attending (13%) which highlights both a demographic danger for the Church of Scotland and, given the large dropout rate of children from church attendance, the danger of non-replacement, unless there is a significant, successful, outreach programme.


One statistic gathered which points towards the evangelical vigour, or missional effectiveness of the denomination might be the length of time someone is present in the congregation.  The assumption being that the proportion recently joining the congregation points toward effective outreach activity.[10]   This measure further highlights the predicament of The Church of Scotland in that it has the smallest percentage of attenders who have been in the congregation for 5 or fewer years (19%).[11]


The basic results from the Scottish Church Census raise significant issues of interest and one might think also, some considerable concern for the Church of Scotland.  However, when the main results became public, comments promoted by the Church of Scotland appeared to downplay the data’s importance.  The convenor of the Mission and Discipleship Council concluded a long press statement which highlighted areas of church attendance growth recorded in another denominational group together with a list of present Church of Scotland initiatives already in effect and said,


In the midst of decline you can find growth and in the midst of growth you can find decline. That is how it has always been (The Church of Scotland, 2017d).


This seemingly nonchalant official comment stands in stark contrast to analysis and comment published by a range of national newspapers.  The Herald newspaper, which allegedly broke a news embargo on publication of the census results to print the story at Easter, carried a front page headline, ‘Why Christianity is in Crisis in Scotland: Easter Sunday shock leaves clergy reeling as new figures reveal church attendance at all-time low’.  The stark contrast between the responses prompted me to design a survey for Church of Scotland ministers to ascertain their level of engagement with the attendance census (Appendix 6).  I was interested to discover the general level of knowledge of the results, any response to those results and any reaction to the press comments put out by the Church of Scotland communications department, the Herald newspaper or other news comment (Appendix 7: Sample Media Coverage of the Scottish Attendance Census 2016).



Based on the style of previously well supported surveys, this online survey was devised using the SurveyMonkey platform which provided a web link for invited participants to access the survey questions.  Ministers were made aware of the link and encouraged to participate via three primary routes, firstly, through placement of the invitation to participate within a number of social media channels whose main constituent members were Church of Scotland ministers, secondly by contacting all Scottish Presbytery clerks requesting that they distribute the invitation via their own internal mail systems and thirdly through the email list of ministers maintained by the national Mission and Discipleship Council. The survey was open for responses from 6th May 2017 until the 5th of June 2017 and resulted in 291 full or partially completed surveys.  Since the survey was directed specifically towards ministers active in local church leadership positions, entry to participation in the survey questions was gained by both indicating a willingness to participate in an academic survey to be used for the purposes of this thesis (Survey Question 1) and that the participant met the desired criteria of being a minister leading a local Kirk Session (Survey Question 2).


What follows is an explanation of each question asked in the survey, an indication of the response level and an examination of the information collected.  This is presented in text or table, as appropriate.


Survey Question 3

The first substantive question allowed multiple answers and was designed to gauge both the level of knowledge about the census having taken place, as well as the response ministers made to the invitation to participate.  Table 19 reports that of the 290 respondents only 7.9% did not indicate receiving information concerning the attendance census.  A number of the responses in the ‘other’ option elaborated on having not received information, not recalling having received information, having passed it on to others to deal with or not being in a position to participate.   The proportion of respondents who indicated participation in the census is comparable with the overall completion rate for Church of Scotland congregations, which was around 60%.[12]  This then provides us some evidence to suggest that this survey will accurately reflect the views and actions of both those who did and those who did not participate in the Scottish Census.


During 2016 all congregations were sent information about the Scottish Church Census, did you...?



RECEIVE the information



DISCUSS the census arrangements with the Kirk Session(s)



Decide NOT TO PARCIPATE In the Census



TAKE PART in the Census



other (please specify)



Total Respondents:



Table 19: Participation in the Scottish Church Attendance Census


Ministers who indicated that they had discussed the census with their Kirk Session were much more likely to participate in it, with only 4 out of 44 ministers who did not participate having discussed it with Kirk Sessions.   This lack of Kirk Session engagement raises important questions about how decisions are made at congregational level and the particular role of Kirk Sessions in playing an active part in local leadership.  The data here is suggestive rather than conclusive, but it does prompt the question, that if individual ministers were negatively inclined towards participation in the census, then it appears they were likely to decide without reference to the Kirk Session on that course of action.


Survey Question 4

The question was framed in these terms, ‘Can you briefly outline why you decided to participate or not participate in the Scottish Church Census?’   This section sought to identify both barriers to participation as well as providing some degree of insight into the positive motivation which helped others to invest the time and energy into this exercise.  The question solicited 242 individual responses which were analysed for common themes and grouped together for reporting.

Response Summary


I believe it to be helpful or useful


It was my duty to respond


I am sceptical of the value


I was too busy


Administrative issues


Table 20: Reasons for response to Scottish Church Census


Negative Responses

Those who did not take part gave reasons which covered three broad areas. Firstly, there are those who indicated administrative issues, which included three who did not receive any information concerning the census, seven who indicated that forms were lost, misplaced or forgotten after having received them.  Two responses indicated that there was no minister in the congregation at the time of the census and five that the administration was delegated to others and so there was uncertainty about completion.


A second group of non-completers indicated that they considered themselves to be too busy to participate and/or viewed completion of the paperwork as too burdensome.


The third group of non-responders made a decision not to take part because they did not consider the exercise to be worthwhile for them locally and/or helpful to the denomination as a whole.  There were a few who considered the collection of census data to be contrary to the Word of God, but most were likely to dismiss the scheme as having little perceived value or benefit.


Positive Responses

Thirty-two of those who completed this question saw the collection of the data as part of their duties within a national church structure.  Some of this group considered the completion of the census paperwork as an instruction, having been encouraged to fill it in by national or presbytery representatives.  Others indicated that they would have considered it, in some sense, ‘churlish’ to object to the request for the information.   Another group did it thinking that it might be helpful in some way to others. This section although positive in tone was passive in voice.


The largest group responded by actively voicing their approval for the census and indicated that they saw it as helpful or useful for work at congregational level, presbytery planning or national understanding.   The breakdown of this group’s submissions indicated a number of strands within the comments made.  The most frequent comments noted that the census would provide the church with better understanding of the context in which it operates; it would also provide relevant information which would be useful in helping the local leadership develop their knowledge of the congregations.  Some respondents made specific note of the value of knowing trends through repeated census exercises.  A more complete or comprehensive picture of the church was viewed as important by many, as was the regular updating of information to provide greater accuracy.  A number of general comments were made indicating that the participants saw the census as important for the church and that research was welcomed and should be supported.


Overall it is clear that there was strong support for the principle and practice of a Scottish Church Census.  This outcome is particularly interesting given that this survey was conducted in the wake of largely negative Media reporting of the survey results.  However, it also highlights the fact that ministers will assess a project on its potential benefits, apart from popular Press responses.


Survey Question 5

Question 5 seeks to explore further the level of engagement with the census results through the question, ‘Have you previously reviewed the available information on the website or sent to you concerning the Attendance Census?’.  Brierley consultancy had published a summary of the key census findings on its website in the April of 2017.  This survey, available in May 2017, gave some insight into how proactive ministers were in seeking out and reading the available information, prior to publication of the full results, which would not be available until the summer of 2017.  Even at this early stage, the majority of ministers indicated (Table 21), that they had already engaged with the available output.



Number of













Table 21:Levels of engagement with Church Census initial results


Survey Questions 6,7 and 8

A key characteristic necessary to engender confidence in the usefulness of statistics is that of ‘Trust’. Three questions asked respondents to score 0 to 100, using a slider, to indicate the level of trust they had in the census.  In addition, to contextualise the score given, participants were asked to indicate the level of trust they had in the Parish Statistics profiles produced by the Church of Scotland, in the wake of the 2011 census, as well as governmental statistics in general.


The results in Table 22 below are cross tabulated for those who indicated in Question 3 of the survey that they did or did not participate in the church census.  Those who did participate exhibited a high degree of confidence in the process and output, with respect to both the census and the Parish Statistics profiles, whilst having a lower degree of confidence in government produced statistics.


Those who did not participate, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not have the same overall degree of trust in the statistics, not that their trust was wholly absent, but certainly, it was at lower levels.  Of note might be the considerable degree of confidence still given to the parish statistical profiles, which were constructed from data wholly derived from the governmental population census outputs.  Having the data presented with Church of Scotland official approval does appear to enhance the level of trust given to the data.


Answer Choices

What is your level of Trust…?

Average Score

No of Responses



Did not participate

in the statistics presented in the SCOTTISH CHURCH ATTENDANCE CENSUS? 

















in religious statistics provided by GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES?








Table 22: Levels of Trust in the attendance data and other statistics


Survey Question 9

It has been argued by some in the Church of Scotland that, since negative statistics adversely affect the morale of both ministers and members, then we ought to distance ourselves from them to concentrate on more positive aspects of the church’s work.  Question 9 then presents the survey participants with an opportunity to directly respond to that suggestion.  The question was designed to be open-ended but with a focus on the impact to morale of negative information, hence the capitalisation of those key words, ‘It has been suggested that NEGATIVE church statistics affect the MORALE of ministers and church leaders.  How do you respond to this suggestion?’


There were 245 responses to this question with 28 respondents giving an unqualified ‘yes’; a further 88 ministers agreed that morale is affected by negative reporting but within this group, there were two subgroups.  The first and largest group acknowledged the negative impact of bad news but also valued the reflection of lived reality it brings and the impetus it provides towards change and renewal.   This group wants to know the information and to use it for the development of mission. A second smaller group argues for statistics not to be gathered and numbers not to be published to remove this particular pressure. 


Some 52 ministers denied any personal negative effects resulting from the given statistics.  Within this grouping, the majority pointed towards the understanding that statistics cannot present the full picture of what is happening, particularly at local level.  Another subgrouping viewed the information given as a positive motivation for ministry.  The smallest of the groups in this category pointed towards a spiritual dimension for their positive morale, claiming that their particular focus helped towards maintaining an equilibrium.


A relatively large number of responses did not directly address the issue of personal morale with respect to negative statistics or were vague in their answer on that subject, preferring instead to either state the usefulness, even essential nature of statistical information irrespective of the effect on morale or that its use was limited.


Overall, although this particular survey question was the most difficult to categorise, it did highlight something of the dilemma of presenting difficult statistical information to ministers.  Ministers, presumably dependant on factors such personality, temperament and theology of ministry, will receive and internalise data in radically different ways.  This presents something of a challenge, especially when the voices of dissent are heeded by the church authorities, even if they represent the minority view.


Survey Question 10

Question 10 was intended to gauge the level of interest among ministers to participate in further census exercises and, if so, at what scale of interval between them.  The question put was, ‘Scottish church attendance data has historically been gathered infrequently.  Looking at the statements below, which statement do you most closely agree with?’


Answer Choices



I have NO INTEREST in Scottish church attendance data



I believe Scottish church attendance data should be GATHERED ANNUALLY



I believe that Scottish church attendance data should be gathered EVERY 5 OR 10 YEARS



I believe that Scottish church attendance data should NOT BE GATHERED



I believe that Scottish church attendance data is UNHELPFUL



Other Responses (please specify)



Total Respondents



Table 23: Levels of interest by minister in having further attendance censuses


The results indicate that 77.1% of survey respondents, given these choices, would opt for ‘annually’ or every ‘5 or 10 years’.  Within the ‘other’ responses, four indicated that their preference would be somewhere between the two options given for another census with respondents suggesting possibly every two or three years, thereby making the aggregate for another census within the ten-year period of 78.8% of respondents.  This overwhelming endorsement by ministers of engaging in a process of gathering regular attendance data would obviously provide an encouragement to the central church authority to consider a more systematic and regular gathering of data of this type.


There was a small number in the ‘other’ choice, who indicated their strong belief that data of this type has little or no value or that it may even be harmful to the organisation or its ministers, by way of demotivating and demoralising the workers.


Survey Question 11

This question is similar to Question 5 above except that here the question, ‘Would it be your intention to read/study the full report on the Scottish Church Attendance Census when published?’, looks at whether ministers are interested and motivated enough to do additional reading around the Church Census figures.  Obviously, the table is one which reflects aspirations but, none the less, it does highlight a significant level of interest and engagement on which the Church of Scotland could build.



Number of Responses














Table 24: Ministers intending to read the full report on Scottish Church Attendance Census


Survey Question 12

In the wake of Press reporting about the Scottish Churches Attendance Census, there was much social media comment about the nature and timing of the headlines and the stories carried by the Herald newspaper as well as the reaction of the Church of Scotland Communications Department.  This survey question set out to ascertain what ministers thought and felt about the different kinds of press coverage.  The question presented to them was, ‘Church statistics can be presented either positively or negatively. (examples of both are shown for the Church Attendance Census below.)   How do you react to these different presentations?’  The images referenced in the question can be viewed in Appendix 6.


This question generated 231 responses and contained the greatest levels of expressed emotion.  There was, with respect to the Herald headline, a great amount of criticism focused around a headline which, for some, exhibited a lamentable level of Press ignorance about the true state of Christianity in Scotland.  Many respondents expressed a level of upset that the Herald ran this story at Easter, during a treasured Christian festival, when many churches were reporting higher than usual attendances.  This timing was perceived by some as a direct attack on the churches in Scotland and somewhat anti-Christian in nature.


There was a general view expressed that the Herald newspaper was being sensationalist simply to sell newspapers by appealing to the concerns and interests of their readership or grabbing the attention of those browsing the newsstands.  A word used repeatedly by respondents in respect of what many saw as a deliberate distortion or partial telling of the truth was the word ‘spin’.   The idea that statistics can easily be manipulated for the purpose of ‘spin’ was also strongly expressed, causing a number to conclude that this makes numerical data potentially unreliable or, in some way, unsafe.


The perception of press ‘spin’ was further advanced as the rationale behind what many saw also as ‘selective reporting’ by the Church of Scotland.  Whilst some saw the Church of Scotland story as positive and encouraging and even as a necessary balance to the negative production by the Herald, it was still recognised as only ‘partial’ truth.   This led some to suggest that the Church of Scotland appeared ‘desperate’ and that the bias they exhibited was no more truthful than that of the Herald.   Indeed, a number of contributors suggested that the real truth lay somewhere ‘between’ the reporting of the Herald and the Church of Scotland.


Ministers in the survey were wary of accepting news reporting at face value, whether from secular or church sources and a number of participants noted that the raw data would be much more helpful.


Survey Question 13

The final question of the survey gave participants the opportunity to add any final thoughts on the value or practice of a Church census.  The wording for the question was, ‘Do you have any additional comments or reflections on the use of the Church attendance census for ministry and/or mission purposes?’


In the main, the 127 responses offered were restated or reinforced statements made earlier in the survey.  However, what many answers had in common was a concern to express the view that statistics, however positive they might be viewed by individual ministers, and however accurate they might be, still presented only a partial picture of the life a local congregation.  Many contributors were anxious that numbers should not be used as the sole or key measure of what constituted success for a church.


There were a few comments which dismissed the role of statistical information in church assessment or planning as anti-spiritual and a few others which saw the part they might play as marginal.  Others were concerned that numerical measures beyond church attendance were included, or that the idea of attendance went beyond that of Sunday or Midweek worship.


In general, there was an appreciation that numerical data, such as that contained within an attendance census offered a helpful tool for ministry and mission but that it must not be the sole measure relied upon for insight or decision making.



The message which is heard loudly from this survey is that the majority of ministers view statistics and data positively and as a helpful tool in the ministerial toolkit.  The Church Census results, by the timing of their release and the negative image it presented of the Church of Scotland, clearly upset or annoyed the Church of Scotland establishment.  The attempts by the Church of Scotland to negate the negative press around the census results by producing only positive comment appears to have given the impression of a church running from the full truth of the hard facts – an assessment made by their own ministers.  The level of dissatisfaction expressed about this particular response was significant even if it was not publicly expressed.[13] 


The other area where there appears to be something of a gulf between the central administration of the church and parish ministers is in the desire to engage a programme of more extensive data gathering, which would include regular church attendance censuses.  This type of data would, of course, benefit the national church with specific local information which could be linked to resource and ministry allocation management by presbytery and by central bodies.


Over three quite different surveys, related to the role of quantitative data in ministry, there have been consistent messages.  The majority of ministers recognise that statistics of various kinds can be helpful for their work.  Ministers are well aware that numbers provide only some pieces of information they require but pieces which are necessary, even if they also need to be handled carefully.  To that end there is a general understanding that they might, at times, require the assistance of those who can translate the bare numbers into something meaningful and relevant for the local situation.  In this survey, there is an appreciation that, where statistical data is gathered and produced by the Church of Scotland, there is also a level of trust afforded to that information.  This fact, allied to the call to have a census on a more regular basis would argue for the church itself being the originator, organiser and publisher of such a census.  Such an undertaking would surely need to come with a promise for full and open disclosure of the statistical reality, not seeking to hide or deviate from the full truth, whatever it might be.  This may require a fundamental cultural change within the organisation.


In the following chapter, I examine the historical interaction of the church nationally with regards to congregational statistics and why there is at least some cause to be concerned with attitudes exhibited previously towards the collection and collation of statistical information.

 Chapter 7

[1] In the National Mission report to the General Assembly of 2002 it was suggested that if church membership trends continued then the Church of Scotland would cease to exist by 2050 (Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2002 20/6 1.1.3).

[2] Report from Board of National Mission 2004 notes that the census took place and that the results were published and that a number of roadshows were arranged by Christian Research, but no details are given or discussions presented on the data as it related to the Church of Scotland (Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2004 20/34 17).

[3] The ‘Church Without Walls Report uses data from the Scottish Census of Attendance from 1994 to make its point that the Church of Scotland must change because attendance is in decline (Church of Scotland, 2001, p. 11).

[4] I raised the possibility both privately and at the General Assembly, but no progress was made.

[5] The figures were subsequently adjusted to give computed figures for the whole population of congregations.  It is suggested that a 40% return rate is ‘statistically sufficient to give valid results’ (P. Brierley, 2017, p. 29).  As a comparison, we might note that as part of  Barna’s Transforming Scotland survey 2300 churches were contacted with only 200 completing a survey, a response rate of 8.7%  (Barna Group, 2015, p. 170).

[6] The date was chosen to attempt to avoid special service with elevated number of attendees and advice was provided to informants that an alternative date could be used to avoid special event Sundays in a particular congregation.

[7] Previous censuses did not include the Pentecostal grouping as a separate entity but the growth of that group in recent years has given it greater significance.

[8] A fact highlighted by the Scottish Catholic Observer newspaper (Dunn, 2017).

[9] Derived from downloadable Council area data tables published by Brierley Consultancy (P. Brierley, 2016).

[10] There are of course reasons to be cautious with this statistic since it may reference people having come to a congregation by various means not related to outreach or evangelism activity, e.g. Christians moving into an area because of work or retirement.

[11] Given that 3% of the attendances relate to children under 5 that number should be borne in mind.

[12] Information received via personal email correspondence with Peter Brierley

[13] Expressions of dissatisfaction found in the survey were seen in some sections of closed social media sites used by ministers, little of which made its way into the public domain.  There was also little comment made at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, held in May 2017.