The results of a new survey of Christians across Scotland, seen by the Sunday Herald, shows a record low of just 390,000 people now go to Sunday services, down from 854,000 in 1984, when records began.
Statistics show that only seven per cent of people in Scotland now attend Christian worship, and the fall in numbers since 2002 is the equivalent of losing ten churches a month.
The Scottish Church Census – backed by every Christian denomination - saw almost 4,000 congregations surveyed in Spring 2016 so that clergy can respond to churchgoing trends.
The first study was carried out in 1984, and subsequent surveys in 1994 and 2002 recorded a steep decline in churchgoing.
The Sunday Herald has exclusive access to the results of the most recent census conducted last year and the attendance figures are at the lowest point yet.
A key finding was that two-fifths (42%) of Scottish churchgoers are 65 or over, suggesting there could be a sharper decline in numbers unless churches can attract a new generation of worshippers.
Projections based on new data gathered by statisticians who carried out the survey for Scottish churches show that the numbers attending services will likely fall by a further 100,000 in the next eight years. It is predicted that only one in twenty people in Scotland will go to church by 2025.
Lead researcher Dr Peter Brierley said: “The main reason for decline is the death of people who go to church. Part of the problem is the proportion of people in the church who are elderly is much greater than in the population of Scotland as a whole. So, you have a great number of churchgoers dying.
“The rate of replacement is not as many. That’s the basic reason for decline. It’s not that people are moving away from the faith, although I’m sure some are, but in general terms that is not the case. There are also quite a lot of invisible Christians who used to go to church, still believe in God, but they have moved house, perhaps to a rural area, and simply haven’t found a church to go to.”
Data was gathered from 40 per cent of Scotland’s 3,689 congregations in May 2016. The total attendance on or around so-called “Census Sunday” on May 8 was 389,510 people.
However, the report stressed that “this is not the total number of Christians in Scotland - 2.9 million according to the 2011 Census”.
Numbers attending church fell in all but one of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas between 2002 and 2016, with the report suggesting Aberdeenshire bucked the trend by recording a 2 per cent rise because there is a steady stream of oil industry employees coming into the area from overseas.
The steepest decline in numbers was recorded in West Dunbartonshire and Dumfries and Galloway, both down 47 per cent, closely followed by Clackmannanshire and Stirling, both down 46 per cent.
Scotland’s big cities also show a sharp decline in the number of churchgoers with a fall of 26 per cent recorded in Glasgow, 20 per cent in Edinburgh, 33 per cent in Dundee and 19 per cent in Aberdeen between 2002 and 2016.
When asked whether the new figures indicate a crisis in Christianity in Scotland, Brierley was definitive. “Yes, absolutely,” he said, adding: “Although it is true that many people don’t go to church today, that doesn’t mean that the whole of the historical influence of Christianity on Scotland is negated. It may become less in the generations to come, that may be true, but you still have a vast interest in religion.“The Scottish census still shows a majority of people who would call themselves Christian. That’s a very big positive and you have to note that. That the numbers are declining is unquestionably true and the fact that it’s difficult to attract people, especially those in their teens and 20s, is not unique to Scotland. So, Scotland in a sense is typical of a general trend in what is sometimes called a post-Christendom age.
“We are living in the 21st century and one of the features of the 21st century is that people’s allegiance to particular faiths is no longer as strong as it used to be.”
The full results of the survey are expected to be released by Brierley Consultancy on April 24.
Scotland's top clergy in state of panic over decline in number of churchgoers
by Peter Swindon
The dramatic fall in the number of churchgoers has plunged Christianity in Scotland into an ever deepening crisis, according to senior clergy.
One Catholic Bishop admitted he “loses sleep” over it and warned that there must be a huge shift in church culture to stem the decline.
The leader of the United Reformed Church said most young people think the concept of God and Jesus is “irrelevant” and suggested they now believe they have better things to do on Sundays than go to services.A high-ranking Church of Scotland minister bemoaned “changes in working patterns, leisure activities and family life” which mean churchgoing is no longer “instilled” in children, while an Episcopal Church Bishop admitted most Scots no longer have “loyalty” to churches.
The stinging results of the Scottish Church Census 2016 shows the number of people attending church regularly has halved since the first survey was carried out in 1984.
The Reverend Dr David Pickering, Moderator of the United Reformed Church Synod of Scotland, said: “It’s a crisis and an opportunity. The Scottish Church Census doesn’t make terribly happy reading. But it also presents a new opportunity for the church to portray the love of God and the good news of Jesus in a new way for a new generation. That’s an opportunity and a challenge for us.