Heartaches by the numbers

By Geoff Griffiths

The main problem with Spiritualism is that most church committees are unaware that there is a problem. That’s because – as our national leaders have told us – we are far too inward-looking. We don’t really know what is happening outside our own churches and, in many cases, we don’t really care. God is in his heaven, we are on the committee, the congregation is much the same size as it was last year – what could possibly be wrong with the way things are?

Well, quite apart from churches who don’t know that their first duty is to grow, grow, grow, a good deal is going wrong and some figures have emerged which tell us clearly just what is going wrong. Some, however, tell us what is going right. And, as bad news (and statistics) tend to turn people off, maybe I should start with some good news that most people will have missed.

4,242 reasons to be cheerful

Each year, just before its AGM, the SNU issues a record of the memberships of its churches over the last five years. I have to focus on those because other Spiritualist organisations do not publish comparable figures. They would probably tell a similar story. Don’t worry, I shall just give you membership numbers as at the end of the last two years – figures for 2010 will not be ready until June 2011.

They are typical of the annual net decline over the past 20 years or so:

Year end Full members Associate members
2008 14,970 2,215
2009 14,629 2,121

It shows that in 2009, 14,629 had renewed their membership – a net loss of 341 from the 2008 figure. This may seem reasonable, but there is much more going on than that. The 2,121 associate members were new recruits. This is a huge growth of 14 per cent over our 2008 figure. But it is easy to miss that — because people remain associates for only six months — this 14 per cent is only a half of our new recruits, from July1 to December 31. What about the recruits signed up in the first half of 2009?  As these figures are not yet collected, let’s assume another 2,121. That’s 28 per cent!

I doubt that any other religion is recruiting 28 per cent of its adherents each year, as the SNU is. Is this down to superb marketing skills? Or is it one of those instances where the spirit really does move people? I think we know the answer but we need more detail. Especially at a time when the SNU is putting together a 10-year strategy.

4,583 reasons to be glum

Sadly, we seem to be record-breakers at losing members, too. You will also see that, instead of SNU membership now being a healthy 19,212 at the end of 2009, it has dropped to 14,629. We lost the same number of our established members as we had recruited new ones – plus another 341. That’s 31 per cent – almost a third of SNU members. Not even the beleaguered Methodists can lose members at this rate.

Much of the fault can only lie with our churches. Revolving door recruitment is no good to anyone. Perhaps we need cheering up again?

32,404 more reasons to be cheerful – and counting!

In the middle of 2008, we had a late bit of welcome news from the 2001 census. There were, it turned out, 32,404 Spiritualists in the UK – far more than our figures led us to believe. And that was the England and Wales census – it didn’t include Scotland and Northern Ireland. But let us not get complacent with cries of “We’re the eighth largest religion in the country”. That sort of talk may be good for morale, but only feeds the delusion that we are on some sort of roll at a time when an occasional dose of reality is called for. At number seven, incidentally, are the Buddhists at 144,453. So we are the biggest of the little religions, I suppose.

52,041,920 – The whole population: time to be glum again. Sorry!

Out of a population of just over 52 million, our 32,404 stacks up as just 0.06 per cent. Which means that a massive 99.94 per cent of the population is, well, not impressed. Put another way, after 162 years of Spiritualism, just one person in 1,666 claims to be a Spiritualist. It’s not very good, is it?  In a Wembley-sized crowd of 100,000, you will find just 62 Spiritualists. Just 28 would be SNU members. The orthodox have recognised in their figures that loyalty lasts much longer than actual involvement. At least the current SNU members are paid up to date and involved…

This is either a soul-destroying figure or an inspiring challenge at how huge our list of prospective recruits is – once our complacent, inward-looking churches wake up and learn how to stop driving away the huge number of recruits we sign up! So that’s another 52,009,516 reasons to be cheerful, if you are thinking the right way. Think how many undiscovered natural mediums that number might contain should we ever start to put our message across in a savvy and strategic manner.

Unlike most movements, the SNU has no trouble attracting people. All their churches have to learn is how to keep them. That means training our church leaders – not in just ‘running’ a church – but leading and growing it. This is something we have never done. Church leaders are doing their best, but without training and know-how, their efforts come to nought.

341 SNU churches – 341 net loss of members

It is just a neat coincidence that the Union ended up with 341 churches at the end of 2009 and the same net loss of lapsed members. Simplistically, we each lost a member, so might shrug our shoulders at this – if we even noticed. As we have seen, the loss was actually much greater, but this has been masked by those remarkable recruitment numbers. Those who have gone have been replaced by those who have arrived. Yet, each church has – in the round – lost one more member than it has taken on board. And we have been doing something like this since 1992, the SNU peak out of the past 58 years.

A movement with all the attributes that we have should be growing, not shrinking.

Five simple things the movement should find out before we start to strategise

There are a lot of important figures we just don’t collect – that churches of all affiliations could easily provide – which would give us all much more insight into what is really going on.

Here are just four, based on the above, and one extra much-ignored number:

  1. A simple return of associate members as at  June 30 to give SNU leaders a fuller picture of recruitment.
  2. An annual lapsed members return. A list of members who did not renew their membership could be provided. Apart from how many had actually died, how long had they been members? Had they been recent or long-standing members? Was cost a factor?
  3. Why did they leave? A questionnaire from national level would be invaluable for highlighting what our ex-members really expected from their church and didn’t get. Locally, this might not tell us much, but nationally a more meaningful picture would emerge.
  4. What caused new members to come to a Spiritualist church? Again, invaluable information which would help us to market our movement to the general public much more effectively.
  5. Church attendance.  We know our membership figures, but no-one knows the size of our congregations. The orthodox churches have a regular census, which tells them a great deal about the ongoing trends in churches. Most of our churches count heads in their services, but do nothing with the figures. Totalling them and dividing them by 52 – or however many services were held – could easily show the average congregation and build up to show the trends both locally and nationally. (See our spreadsheet offer at the end of this article.)

The root problem of our movement is that most of our churches are too small to be much more than  slightly pious social clubs with messages. Small congregations cannot support a range of activities varied enough to engage those who need to be fed by more than just constant demonstrations of mediumship. And talents that do exist in small churches can only be enjoyed by that small congregation – and then only if an activity can be built around them.

Hopefully, the upcoming 10-year strategy will assist and incentivise a move towards larger churches. Otherwise, eventually our number really will be up. Heartache indeed.

Want to calculate your church’s congregational trends? E-mail us at spiritofpn@gmail.com using  the title SPREADSHEET PLEASE and we will send you one. This will help calculate your annual and monthly averages from week by week totals. Let us know if you would like an Excel, Lotus or Open Office version. Give the name of your church and its affiliation (SNU, Greater World, Unaffiliated, etc).  Among other things, that will tell us who SPN is reaching and how we can tailor future content.

17 responses to “Heartaches by the numbers

  1. Well done Geoff, the wembly stadium figure sums it up for me!
    I left spiritualism (SNU) after many years of B-Membership because I got fed up with the religion, religion, religion bit! With magazines with new ministers with dress like the orthodox, it sickens me.
    When I first started out in spiritualism mediums from the platform would proudly state the the ‘movement’ (backwards?), was more a philosophy and way of life. They used to comment on how orthodox attendances were falling. So what hope when spiritualism simply copies them!! It’s total madness!
    The only way forward is without hymns and churches but with spiritual teaching and healing centres.
    As for the snu I now call them ‘orthodox spiritualism.’
    Regards, Jim

  2. Mike Goodall

    Nice article Geoff.

    I think the reason people are leaving the SNU is threefold…

    Firstly, these are hard times for many, and if it’s a choice between renewing class B membership or paying the latest exorbitant Gas or Electric bill I guess there’s no choice.

    Secondly, I think the SNU’s reputation has fallen in many people’s eyes, especially the way they handled the Psychic News episode; that’s going to cost them in legal fees many times the cost should they have saved it.
    I would bet that that episode will cost them more disgruntled members who leave this year.

    Thirdly; too many rules; too many committees; too much regulation; many members are getting sick of it. You need to read the Rules for Churches before you dare organise or do anything for your local church.

    The way forward? Less restrictive SNU rules; let the churches be free of all these rules and restrictions and let them run their churches to suit their local congregation; it could well increase the numbers of bums on seats and promote Spiritualism a little more.

    Just my opinion.


  3. I have been working as a medium for over 50 yrs. I now live in Spain, where I continue to serve Spiritualist Centres. During my time in the UK, I demonstrated nationally and worked at the Arthur Findlay College, Stansted, with mediums Gordon Higginson, Albert Best and others.
    I find that searchers who are looking for evidence of life after death, do so with a fairly ‘open’ mind, and the one barrier that they find difficult to overcome, is the emphasis on Religion. Mainly of course because they have tried the route of Orthodox Religion which failed to convince them, and they are looking for answers that can be explained logically in 21st Century language. However, most Churches where I served, insisted on many lengthy hymns, restricting the length of time for the address, and demonstration of survival evidence! Also, few offered the members discussion evenings, (essential in my view) to enable the ‘thinking’ newcomer to become a contributing part of the movement!

  4. Mike Goodall

    I agree with you on the subject of lengthy hymns Ray; it will be the death knell of our church services.

    Luckily our church only has the Healing Hymn (very short) at the beginning; two ‘pop’ type songs and a normal hymn at the end followed by the Vesper Hymn (also very short). It’s interesting to note that the only ones sung loudly by the congregation are the pop songs.
    I find they lift the spirit of the place far more than the drudge of the old type hymns.

    If we are to get more youngsters into the services and the movement I think we have to move with the times and also get our services away from the conventional C of E type. Although there are just a few left who prefer the old format the vast majority prefer something a little more modern and uplifting.


  5. I think you may find the number of Associate members of the SNU will remain constant due to the dictatorial introduction of the Induction Course by the SNU to enable associate members to be upgraded to full members. Therefore it could be suggested that Associate members are not upgrading as most churches are against this induction course and if they were upgrading then the full membership total would reflect this? So there are basically no reasons to be cheerful. The SNU is in decline on all counts.

  6. I agree the SNU seem in decline but they still aren’t short of money. Someone told me they just bought a new centre for half a million pounds. How could they do that if things are failing for them.

  7. Thanks Geoff, a very good article.

    Way back when we started the Spiritualismlink forum in 2008 I looked at the numbers per available data for the world (http://spiritualismlink.forumotion.com/t15-how-many-spiritualists-are-there#5197).

    It is a sad problem we face. On the numbers in Australia I should almost know everybody in South Australia, who said they were a Spiritualist in the census, personally.

    The movement has a worldwide problem, although given the success of the Spiritists in Brazil and the excellence of some of their websites, maybe we could learn from them as well.

    I tend to agree with the other comments about the overly religous approach. I cannot see this lessening in the SNU. In his incoming address David Bruton indicated a high priority for significant increase in the Ministry. Could one see the day a Minister was appointed to every church?

    The independent Mission I am involved with here is very determinedly non-denominational and pretty informal. Music yes but no hymns, prayers to Spirit for opening, healing, on the offering and closing. Address, healing and healing meditation, demonstration. We welcome people who cover a wide range of beliefs from traditional Christian to Pagan.

    Clearly this is important to do, to draw newcomers through our doors, yet even our approach is seen as churchy by some people and still we have problems drawing people in.

    We also have to respect their fudamental belief systems but ensure that they realise that the Mission is about Spiritualism. This is a very difficult balancing act to do, to remain a rational Spiritualist organisation, avoiding being pulled either to orthodoxy or to the ways of the New Age Metaphysical Spiritualism. In some ways it calls for a bit of the old fashioned free thinking approach, which used to be Spiritualism in the early days, while preserving the essential integrity of the core of Spiritualist beliefs.

    In honesty, as one who has been described as a fundamentalist Spiritualist, this can be tough to do. However, Spiritualism never set out to convert people, just to place the information in front of them, so they can decide of their own free will. We just have to ensure that in the end the organisation remains Spiritualist but all attendees feel included.

    What challenges we all have, I really feel we need a new federation which is not about control, rules and regulations but about standards of talks, healing, mediumship and ways to help each other project our wonderful philosophy.

    Maybe Spirit of PN with the constructive ideas coming from the contributors articles, in combination with the comments submitted, can help all of us in this task.


  8. Geoff Griffiths

    The figures don’t seem to bear out Spirit1941’s assertion that Induction Courses are harming church membership – see my figures below, which show our gradual decline, with the same high percentages of membership inflow in mid to late twenty percentages and outflows often nudging into the thirties. In principle I support the Induction Course move as it cultivates interest in deeper aspects of Spiritualism before they become message junkies or – if they are more intelligent than that – just to up and leave. This is a good strategy for one of the categories of leaver – the ‘is that all there is?’ leaver.

    Where my eyes start rolling with disbelief is that, having given this dictat, the education committee left the content of the Induction Course to individual churches, with some fairly bizarre and inconsistent offerings resulting. One has to ask why we have a national body if we have to do all this at church level. On the other hand, a movement that wants its religion on the cheap (a measly £5 per head capitation fee) must expect less than brilliant service.

    The table does not show up as it should on the blog, so the column headings are as follows:
    1. Year 2. Full members 3. Assoc six months 4. Full year gain % 5. Full year loss % 6. Actual number of gain or loss

    1989 19,609 2,706 29% 24% 858
    1990 18,475 3,115 32% 38% -1134
    1991 18,554 2,765 30% 30% 79
    1992 18,567 2,615 28% 28% 13
    1993 18,554 2,651 29% 29% -13
    1994 18,475 2,552 28% 28% -79
    1995 18,193 2,602 28% 30% -282
    1996 17,820 2,447 27% 29% -373
    1997 17,804 2,222 25% 25% -16
    1998 17,286 2,369 27% 30% -518
    1999 16,614 2,098 24% 28% -672
    2000 15,769 2,124 26% 31% -845
    2001 15,465 2,209 28% 30% -304
    2002 16,179 2,120 27% 23% 714
    2003 15,780 2,451 30% 33% -399
    2004 16,380 2,141 27% 23% 600
    2005 15,885 2,374 29% 32% -495
    2006 15,609 2,244 28% 30% -276
    2007 15,431 2,054 26% 27% -178
    2008 14,970 2,215 29% 32% -461
    2009 14,629 2,121 28% 31% -341

    In sixteen of the twenty-one years, percentage losses exceed percentage gains. Nothing wrong with the gains – they’re excellent – but we really need to know why people are leaving and reduce the high rate of attrition (lapses). We all have our pet theories as to why people leave, but we don’t know. Some research needs to be done and strategies formulated.
    As I write (8-1-11) the National Executive are dedicating this weekend to the first stage of the 10-year strategy. I DO hope they get professional help, rather than believe they are ‘quite capable of doing this ourselves’ as they have done in our cash-strapped past. It is too important for that.

    Finally, remember my figures in the main article are broad brush in that I have simply taken the six months total of Associate members and doubled it to arrive at a one year total. This was mainly to avoid the article becoming too complicated. In fact, although associates members have to do six months before being invited to full membership, they don’t actually become full members until into the seventh month. So, if you take the 2,121 as being the seven-month figure to accommodate this, then add a five month figure, proportionately, the inflow percentage becomes 24% and the outflow 26%. These are still huge figures in both directions, so do not let that point be lost.

    P.S. Since writing this, I have just read Jim’s blog, above. I may respond if you’re not fed up of me yet. Or that may be my next article!

    • I’d just like to say that I have run the Induction Course on four occasions now and the main effect on Associate Membership has been to delay the uptake of Full Membership beyond the former 6 months norm, because it takes place twice a year. I am in favour of new members being exposed to Spiritualist philosophy, history and mechanics etc of mediumship but even so many people who become members are only interested in joining closed circles and do not attend Divine Service as Full Members. This is sad but despite the comments of some contributors, ‘you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.’ Individuals will choose whether they are Spiritualists (religious) or spiritualists (not-religious) and I have no strong wish to dominate anyone’s thinking, even though SNU Church Full Members are supposed to have ‘changed their religion’.

    • “What challenges we all have, I really feel we need a new federation which is not about control, rules and regulations but about standards of talks, healing, mediumship and ways to help each other project our wonderful philosophy.”

      Our church has only three Hymns/Songs Usually happy,Short readings and prayers along with healing. Maximising the time for the address and demonstration. but please don’t bog us down with standards. What a horrible idea. We are amatuers, this isn’t a job. We volunteer to work for spirit not for the church. Our congregation love us being amatuers, we are then not above them nor berating then, more importantly we are friends and address each other as such. As soon as you introduce standards you destroy the very thing that attracts people to our churches.

  9. Good article, but with too much emphasis on the figures. Our congregation, (an orthodox word), has grown steadily over the last two years from about 10 to varying between 23-30. How’s that for growth.
    True we shed some members on the way, some didn’t like a service with humour, some didn’t like the new uplifting hymns or songs, (one service consisted of Beatle songs and quite some humour as we tried to sing along).
    We tend not to use orthodox religious words like congregation. Neither do we dress up. Those on the platform are expected to be clean and smart, but other than that it is up to them. We don’t have music but sing together without it.
    The SNU to which we are affiliated is becoming increasingly rule-bound and I know of some churches now considering dropping their affiliation. Certainly as they now seem to be attempting to teach upcoming mediums to insist that spirit communicates only in specific ways. Surely we should be working with spirit not telling it!
    It is all down to philosophy. We are all spirit and all friends working together, no one greater than the others. From the president down we are all amateurs, volunteers and happy to laugh at our errors. The congregation like us as we are not stuffy, our hymns or songs are usually only three verses, the readings are short, and we dislike long addresses. We, like our friends, are probably hoping for a good medium and maybe a reading. Now our problem is to convert the increase in the number of friends attending into membership and helping hands. This is the hard bit. Any ideas?

    • I hadn’t heard that before. What specific ways are Spirit being told to communicate? Sounds awful, who’s telling them?

      • When learning/training as a medium you are instructed to request from spirit identification for the recipeint ie:, name information, description and proof. Evidence is almost demanded now. Yet to me it is all quite simple. If you need a message spirit will deliver the message you need, Why should a medium then demand proof and evidence. What if the message is from someone I wouldn’t know but who know’s me. That statement may seenm odd but I have received messages from a grandmother I never met but who in spirit knows and watches over me. If I hane never met them how can I expect a medium to provide evidence.

        Trust to spirit to provide what the recipient needs and the evidence the recipeint needs. The messages are not for the mediums to judge but to deliver. It is for the recipient to judge and act on.

  10. Mike Goodall

    So many points in the above posts that I have to agree with.

    Firstly the point that anyone wishing to be an SNU member has to sign that they will basically give up any other religion they were attached to and change it to ‘Spiritualist’. Over the years we have had people of many religions attend our services but apparently they would not be welcome as church members. Not a good policy for attracting new members.

    Secondly, the point that prospective members have to attend the ‘Induction Course’ which can last 2 hours or more I believe. Many would be put off by this. There are plenty of books and internet sites where they can learn about Spiritualism at their own pace. Again, not a good policy for attracting new members.

    Thirdly, The SNU rule that does not allow you to be a member of any other Spiritual organisation, let alone any other religion. A rather Draconian rule that I thought only applied to our political parties. Not a good policy for attracting new members who may wish to be a member of more than one organisation.

    Over the years the SNU has been more and more bogged down with rules and committees; more being instigated every year.

    If they are to flourish then I think the only way is to burn the rule book, scrap the committees and start all over again with minimal rules for churches and let them run them in the way they want. Unlikely to happen with such a staid and Draconian organisation.

    The fact that it is reported that they have spent £500K on new property whilst allowing Psychic News to go into liquidation, owing just £12K, strengthens the idea that they had no interest in saving the publication; in fact it was a good excuse for killing it off, probably because they didn’t like the fact that it was ‘Independent’ and could criticise some of their ideas.

    The drop in members that Geoff published beggars the question as to whether it is necessary to be a class B member of the SNU or even a church member, as we all know you don’t even have to attend a church to be a Spiritualist; it’s more a way of life.


  11. SNU what is it good for?

  12. For the moment it should remain as a focus point for churches, but it should also be aware that the internet is increasingly becoming an area where churches can and will work together, supporting and helping each other and reducing reliance on such an autocratic body. We all need a focus and if only the SNU would stop trying to appease big business and so on and get back to just beng spiritualist it may, just may save itself. Spiritualis are not tied to the SNU, most are volunteers for spirit and want to be allowed to work without rules and regulations.

  13. The majority of people are satisfied with a materialistic life, and never think of religion, or other philosophies, or of the possibility of dying until they lose a close friend or loved one. It is then that they begin to feel vulnerable, and investigate different religions, when they arrive at the Spiritualist door they find a truth that gives them security, and a certain peace of mind.
    At this point, with the immediate need satisfied, they either want to ‘belong’ to the Church or Centre and become active in it’s affairs, or they ‘put their newly found truth into the bank’ and then go back into the materialistic race.
    What they don’t want is a set of mandatory rules, rules do not keep converts
    rather it is the atmosphere of welcoming harmony and mutual investigation into the newly found way of life.

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