At St Benet’s we have seen several successive years in which total attendance over our Christmas liturgies has increased.
Our PCC committed several years ago, amongst other things, to focussing on increasing attendance at Christmas liturgies, and to reflecting on the patterns that characterise how people worship with us, visit our church, and grow in faith. Here are some thoughts on what has prompted the increase in attendance we have seen, and on the statistical trends and patterns that seem to be emerging.
The background in which our figures are set is one in which many cathedrals and larger churches are reporting increased interest in the traditional liturgies of the Christmas season, such as carol services and Advent liturgies. There seems to be renewed interest in the power of traditional liturgy to speak to people in our culture of the divine, especially at Christmas. Many have also commented upon the capacity that sacred space has to enable God to speak to those who enter churches or explore faith for the first time.
Broad contours and patterns
The broad pattern at St Benet’s which seems to be emerging is one in which large amounts of the increase in attendance can be put down to more people attending carol services and the children’s crib service rather than increases being seen at Eucharistic liturgies.
The two liturgies which seemed to show the greatest increase were either very liturgically traditional or very informal and orientated to children (i.e. the Christmas Carol Service and the Children’s Crib Service). Very large numbers indeed of the people who attended these services were new to St Benet’s or didn’t worship with us at any other time of the year.
More services means more opportunities for worship
One specific thing we have tried to do at St Benet’s is introduce a new service each year at Christmas to reach out to a different group or a new category of people.
In 2018, for example, we held our first carol service for our local residents’ association, Homezone. Although it was and remains a small affair, it attracted a number of local people who said they had never been in our church before.
This year, we trialled an Advent Carol Service in German for our German speaking community, in addition to offering our usual Advent carol service in English. 63 people attended the German Advent Carol Service, which was well above what we were expecting (our usual monthly German Mass usually gets around 10-20). Although numbers were slightly down at the English Advent Carol Service, the over all attendance over both Advent liturgies was substantially higher than the one liturgy we had the previous year.
The German Carol Service prompted a considerable number of people who has never been to St Benet’s before to worship with us, and were clearly attracted by the presence of a specific language chaplaincy here.
It seems axiomatic that the more Christmas liturgies on offer, the more likely people are to attend a service.
Advertising, advertising, advertising
We put renewed effort into our advertising campaign this year which seems to have shown some fruit.
In addition to delivering 5000 leaflets – one to every home in our parish – we significantly increased advertising on Facebook, and in other social media. We used the local website Next-door for the first time to let people in our local area know about service times. Facebook was also a crucial way of reaching out to German speakers, through posts in German and Austrian ex-pat pages.
More traditional means of advertising also seem still to be potent. We had a 10 metre long banner made advertising the Christmas Carol service, which was unfurled on our church fence for just the last week before the service. This was one of the liturgies which saw the greatest increase in attendance. The banner was located on a street corner with considerable foot fall. Traditional ways of communicating through physical posters still seem to be an excellent way of informing local people who live around the church.
St Benet’s invested substantially higher amounts of money this year in the music we offered at several of our liturgies. Services at which the traditional musical repertoire of the Western liturgical tradition formed part of the liturgy attracted high attendance.
It seems unquestionably to be the case that high quality traditional church music is popular at Christmas, and that the liturgies at which this was a significant component saw some of the largest increases in attendance.
Gradual growth and word of mouth
One further dynamic at play may simply be the way in which it sometimes takes many years for a liturgy to grow and become known about.
Our Children’s Crib Service was very popular indeed this year but has grown gradually each Christmas to an attendance of 170 over several years. It may be that as a local tradition it is becoming better known, and that word of mouth plays a role in attracting people. Several people spoke about having heard from a friend or neighbour about this liturgy.
The Crib Service also had a very large number of families present from our parish school, who had clearly heard about it through our advertising at school.
What’s happening to Midnight Mass?
There seems to be a definite decline in the popularity of Midnight Mass. Conversation with priests in neighbouring parishes reveals this to be a trend across many churches.
It may be that a cultural shift is taking place in which carol services are more popular. Equally, it may simply be that parents with children and the elderly increasingly don’t want to come out so late at night.
In 2018 we introduced a Vigil Mass at 7.00 pm in an attempt to attract those who didn’t want to come out so late. That consistently attracts between 30-40 people. It may be that these are simply a portion of the Midnight Mass congregation who now come earlier rather than later in the evening. Adding the Vigil Mass numbers and Midnight Mass numbers together reveal a mixed picture in which Eucharistic worship on the Eve of Christmas is certainly holding its own, but isn’t increasing in popularity like other liturgies.
It will be intriguing to see how statistics around Midnight Mass develop.
School Carol Services
We have not listed our school carol services in the figures above because the Church of England asks for them to be collated separately. We usually have two carol services each year from our parish school, with about 300 people at each liturgy.
However, for the first time this year we hosted a carol concert from a local non-church school which has out grown their hall. They were looking for a larger space in which to hold the carol concert, at which 510 people were present in the end.
I specifically noticed a number of parents come back a few days later to our Sunday Carol Service who has been present at this carol concert. I wonder whether coming into St Benet’s with their school and feeling welcomed made a difference to their decision to come to a carol service.
I would argue that reaching out to new community groups, schools, and institutions can play a crucial role in increasing the number of people who worship with us at Christmas.
Many factors coming together
It would appear a number of factors have come together to produce a range of increases in Christmas attendance that have resulted in a significant trend of growth.
The advertising campaign undertaken by our parishioners in their efforts to deliver leaflets, as well as invite their friends and family is clearly important.
Participation in social media has unquestionably helped attract may more young people, and has focussed on our local vicinity.
Word of mouth is clearly crucial, as some liturgies have gradually grown in popularity oner several years.
Of equal importance are our efforts to reach out to different categories of people and different groups of parishioners with specific liturgies aimed at particular groups.
In terms of “style,” traditional liturgies seem no barrier at all to increased attendance. Indeed, a traditional liturgical idiom appears to be very popular. Liturgies which are either quite traditional, or alternatively aimed at children were unquestionably the best attended.
Eucharistic liturgies appear to be attended principally by those who are already committed worshippers at St Benet’s. They don’t appear to be over all in decline, but they also don’t attract the numbers of new people that other services do.
Thanks be to God for all he has helped us achieve this Christmas. A huge thank you must go to all who helped in so many ways with the liturgies of the season with prayer, welcome, advertising, music, church cleaning, and the reparation of refreshments.
The statistics described in this article give us much to reflect on as we think about how God is working amongst us, and how he is calling s to respond to the world around us. These figures are, of course merely the beginning of a conversation which our PCC and parishioners will continue to have as we think about our mission here in Kentish Town. Crucial questions remain: how do we prompt people who worship with us for the first time to start exploring their faith more; how do we support those who want to approach the sacraments of initiation; is “bums on seats” necessarily the best measure of how “well” a church community is doing? Nonetheless, we thank God for all he is bringing to pass in our parish and we commit ourselves to his service afresh in the coming year.
Fr Peter Anthony