The number of regular churchgoers in Scotland has more than halved in three decades, prompting clergy to describe the dramatic decline as a “crisis” for Christianity.

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.

“Although I wish it were different, I think we must acknowledge that most congregations have more older people than younger, and most young people simply do not see the relevance of God, of Jesus, of the church, to their lives. And, of course, there are now more things to do on Sundays than there were even a generation ago.

“I think if the church doesn’t respond [to the decline in numbers], it is a crisis. If it does respond and it embraces the situation, that’s positive.”

Canon Thomas Boyle, Parish Priest of St. Mary’s in Greenock, and former Assistant General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said: “It cannot be denied that recent scandals must have had some effect on the commitment of individuals to church attendance.”

Bishop of Paisley diocese, John Keenan, set up a synod which saw clergymen hold regular summits with their congregations over two years, to flesh out ideas which he hopes can “renew” the Catholic Church.

The key finding of the synod was that parishioners must now do more than just show up at Mass on a Sunday - and this new strategy could be rolled out across Scotland.

Bishop Keenan said: “The real crisis that’s going on is not that people aren’t coming to us, it’s that we’ve stopped going to them. It’s a geographical and a human reality. Essentially, we’ve stopped being part of the homes and lives of ordinary people.

“To be honest with you, I lose sleep over the declining numbers. If the numbers are declining because there’s something we could be doing that we’re not doing then that’s something we should lose sleep over. There’s a sense that we could do this better if we thought about this, came together, and had some kind of a plan.

“Scottish Catholics have been used to going to mass and keeping their heads down. They’re happy with the cultural identity of being a Scottish Catholic but they’re really not sure about what it means to share their faith.

“One of things that came back all the time from lay people in our synod was we really want to do this but we need some information about how we’re supposed to share our faith in a way that doesn’t frighten someone by Bible bashing.

“The tough part will be the implementation. We’re trying to change a culture here. Changing cultures is always a difficult thing.”

The Scottish Episcopal Church is seeking to take a similar tack. The Most Rev David Chillingworth, Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, said: “Institutional patterns of religion may not hold the loyalty which they did in the past - but people everywhere are on journeys of spiritual exploration and yearn for spiritual experience.

“In recent times, the Scottish Episcopal Church has had a renewed focus on mission, offering engaging expressions of faith, caring for those in need and having a strong passion for justice.”

The Church of Scotland acknowledged the decline and set out the steps it will take to “foster growth”.

Reverend Norman Smith, Convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council at The Church of Scotland, said: “Changes in working patterns, leisure activities and family life have all contributed as has increasing secularisation.

“Within our society, Sunday is increasingly no longer seen as Sabbath or the Lord’s day but another day to cram full of activity. In addition, churchgoing used to be something you learned from your parents so the pattern of going to church was instilled in you as a child.

“However, as each generation has moved further and further away from that inherited pattern less people have learned about going to church. All of this has contributed to the decline of churchgoing in Scotland.”

Among the measures the Church of Scotland is taking to halt the decline is an outreach programme.

Reverend Smith added: “We have created five new pioneer ministries in areas as diverse as the farming community of Ayrshire, the arts community of Glasgow, the student community of Stirling, the inner-city community of Paisley and a new housing development in East Lothian.

“Our ‘Path of Renewal’ initiative, which is helping 40 congregations engage with today’s world in new ways has proved so successful that we are looking to run it again.”

Meanwhile, the Baptist Church has faith that its message will encourage more people to convert.

Rev Dr Jim Purves, Mission and Ministry Advisor to the Baptist Union of Scotland, an organisation that represents more than 150 churches, said: “The heart of Christianity is the news that Jesus Christ is alive and that He brings God's life and light into people's lives. Where people are coming to know and experience this in their lives, we see growing churches.

“Congregations active in sharing the hope that Jesus brings, among people of our nation, are experiencing this. People no longer just go to church out of habit or tradition. We are confident that we will have more and more good stories to tell of how Jesus brings hope and healing into people's lives.”

The Sunday Herald also contacted the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland but no one responded.