David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

Whatever Happened to the Brethren? by Graham Brown

Whatever Happened to the Brethren?

A survey of local churches in 1998-1999

by Graham Brown, with an introduction by Neil Summerton

Partnership / Paternoster Press 2003

This new book describes the results of a major survey of churches of 'Open Brethren' background in the United Kingdom.

The Open Brethren began in the 19th century with a group of British Evangelical Christians who wanted to return to the purity of the New Testament Church. Their desire was to base church practice on the Bible, rather than on the traditions of a particular denomination. Key early Brethren leaders included J N Darby, A. N. Groves, and George Muller. Some of the distinctives of the Brethren are:

  • The autonomy of the local congregation
  • Leadership by a body of lay elders; opposition to the idea of a paid professional ministry
  • The Lord's Supper - a Communion service which is open for any (male) member in good standing to teach, give a Bible reading, pray, announce a hymn etc.
  • The baptism of believers (i.e. not infants), by immersion
  • Usually (but not always) a very conservative interpretation of the Bible's teaching about the role of women; in particular, no place for women in leadership or public teaching.

The Brethren have been a major force in world missions (out of all proportion to their size), and are now a worldwide movement. Although the Brethren would insist that they are 'not a denomination', there are some key organizations and networks that link Brethren churches. These would include 'Echoes of Service' and - more recently - Partnership.

Almost half (46%) of the churches in the survey are small (40 or fewer members), and only 4% of the churches have over 200 members. However, the larger churches still account for 20% of the total number of people, while the smaller churches only account for 18% - so there are actually more people in larger churches than in smaller churches.

Overall decline

The survey paints a bleak picture of overall decline in Open Brethren numbers (parallel, of course, to the decline in most streams of church life in the United KIngdom over the same period):

The Open Brethren were probably at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s. From 1959 to 1990, the number of congregations fell by about a fifth. The rate of this decline has been increasing: there was a further decrease of one sixth to one fifth between 1990 and 1998. The survey says:

The number of churches with Brethren roots has been in decline over the past years with the decline in the past decade continuing apace. (Page 13)

The number of attenders has fallen less sharply than the number of congregations, because the individual churches that remain have grown. But their growth has not been fast enough to offset the fall in the number of churches, so over-all there has still been a decline:

In 1998-9, the great body of the churches surveyed were four or so members/regular attenders smaller than they were ten years before, on a median size of less than fifty. That is, most churches were 10% smaller in size than they were ten years earlier. Numerically, the Nineties were not a good decade for these churches.

And:

The surveys have been taken during a deeply sensitive period in the evolution of this group of churches. It has been a period of rapid decline, haemorrhaging of leadership and others to other church groupings, soul-searching, crisis of identity, and pressure from the emergence of new church groupings with, in many respects, a similar ethos. The self-sufficient confidence and sense of divine appointment which this group of churches possessed up to the mid-1960s quickly collapsed in the face of these pressures.

Average churches

This survey found that in 1998-9, the average Brethren church in the United Kingdom:

  • has 58 members / attenders
  • is growing by 2% a year
  • has had five conversions and four baptisms in the past two years
  • still centers its worship around the Breaking of Bread service
  • allows women to take some part in services
  • Focuses evangelism on family services and youth activities

Changing picture

But the picture is changing:
  • larger churches are growing (fourteen of the churches surveyed had more than two hundred members / attenders)
  • growth has come from both conversions and transfer growth (both medium and large churches show a 3% growth from conversions)
  • 6% of the churches reported no conversions. However, another 27% would not state a number. It seems reasonable to assume that many of those that would not state a number did not know of anyone being converted, so the real figure is something like 33% of the churches having no conversions
  • the number of churches having family services is growing fast, from 46% ten years ago, to 75% now
  • just over half the churches allow women to take part in the services. However, this masks a key difference - for larger churches, the figure was 83%, whereas for smaller churches, it was just 21%
  • 33% of churches have at least one full time or part time worker. Another 45% plan to have one within the next two years

Possibly the most important finding of this survey was a widening gap between small churches and medium-large churches.

Larger churches (those with 70 or more members):

  • have 116 members / attenders, on average
  • have been growing by 5% in the last two years
  • have an age profile close to the over-all population of the UK
  • have had 10 conversions and 8 baptisms in the past two years
  • center their worship around a Sunday morning event
  • Focus their evangelism on family services, youth activities and seeker Bible studies
  • Let women take part in services
  • Offer a wide range of activities
  • Have a full or part-time worker

Smaller churches (those with 30 or fewer members):

  • have 17 members / attenders, on average
  • have been decreasing by 3% in the last two years
  • have an age profile markedly skewed towards the elderly
  • have had two conversions and 1 baptism in the past two years
  • center their worship around the traditional Breaking of Bread service on Sunday mornings
  • Do not let women take part in services
  • Focus their evangelism on traditional Sunday evening Gospel Meetings
  • Cannot offer a wide range of activities, but often try to
  • Do not have a full or part time worker, and do not plan to get one

Emerging pattern

There is a clear pattern emerging from this research, which is also seen in other strands of church life, and which is vitally important for us to identify. The survey shows that there are two very different kinds of local church in the United Kingdom today:

Type A churches are

  • small
  • elderly
  • extremely reluctant to change how things are done (e.g. the kinds of services that are held, the times of services, the role of women in leadership etc).
  • declining in numbers

Neil Summerton, in his introduction, describes these churches as

...smaller churches which retain the basic approaches and style which were characteristic of the Brethren movement for over a century...

Type B churches are

  • medium size or larger
  • with a wide age range
  • flexible with regard to methods   (e.g. types of services, role of women in leadership, etc)
  • growing

Summerton characterizes these as

... medium-sized and larger churches whose character and style has changed decisively over the period of these surveys, while maintaining a commitment to certain key ecclesiological insights of the movement.

It is important to notice that the difference between type A and type B churches is a matter of style, not theology. Type B churches are as theologically orthodox as type A churches. However, people in Type A churches will often confuse flexibility of style with theological compromise.

It is very likely that the number of Type A churches will continue to decline steeply in the next two decades:

...because of demographic structure [i.e. age] and lack of conversions, the loss of smaller churches is likely to continue for some time yet.

From this, it seems clear that the future lies with Type B churches. Does this mean there is no hope for smaller churches? Not necessarily - but if there is to be any hope for them, they will have to confront their reluctance to change, and their confusion of style and substance. The following quotation, although long, is important for the way it focuses on this key issue:

Brethren spirituality is closely associated with celebration of the Lord's Supper in this way and so any change in this area tends to be strongly resisted. So much so that any move away from what are, in effect, Brethren traditions handed down from past generations, is regarded by some as almost a denial of the faith.

... this resistance is often based more on emotional than biblical reasoning. It is clear that change in church life has to come. Churches must be able to adapt their programmes to the needs of today's worshippers - particularly those with families. Many of the larger churches have shown an ability to handle change in a number of areas of church life, especially in this area of Communion, and so meet the needs of today's worshippers. Instead of having worship services which are seen as irrelevant, uninvolving, dull and sterile spiritually to young Christians, they are seen as vibrant and motivating to faith and commitment, so that evangelism is invigorated and enabled.

Many of the smaller churches in our sample, overwhelmingly populated by senior citizens, seemingly emphasizing resistance to change in modes of worship, hymnbooks, and Bible versions, to name just a few of their practices, offer little that is attractive to today's generation of young Christians and their families. These people are looking for spiritual stimulus necessary for nurturing faith, but these churches, bound up in observing practices which owe more to the past than to today's imperatives, seem unable and unwilling to walk the life of faith. Hence these Christians turn away from churches which could use their vigour and liveliness. They detect a spirituality which has long since withdrawn into a ghetto, which is often no longer able to deal with a 20th Century Church, let alone the bustling world of the 21st Century which is crying out for a faith to combat the essential emptiness of everyday life. (Page 40)

The key question, then, for members of these churches, is whether my personal comfort with 'the way we've always done things' is more important to me than reaching the lost? Sadly, the results of this survey indicate that for many people in our churches - especially those who have been Christians the longest, and who should have grown the most spiritually - the answer is 'yes.'

Partnership's web site: www.partnershipuk.org