FOCUS ON RELIGION: Methodist and atheist groups are growing in Preston

WORSHIP: Free Methodists at King's Church, Penwortham
WORSHIP: Free Methodists at King's Church, Penwortham
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While Free Methodists claim strong and growing congregations, atheists are Preston’s single biggest growing ‘faith’ group. Brian Ellis speaks to members of each group.

Faith, to Pastor Mike Faun and his flock, is something worth smiling about.

Some may dismiss it as “happy clappy” worship, with acoustic guitars and plenty of arm waving from a congregation engrossed in song.

But whatever image Free Methodists evoke in more traditional circles, they are certainly hitting the spot for a growing band of Christians who demand more from their Sunday experience than three hymns, a psalm and the Book of Common Prayer.

“We feel we are a church that is tuned in to where people are today,” explained Pastor Mike, who has been at King’s Church in Penwortham for the past 18 months.

“We feel we are friendly, informal, relevant and down to earth. We try not to be boring, stuffy, out of date, or impersonal.

“In fact, hopefully, we are not what most people normally expect of church.”

While other faith groups in the Preston area struggle with the age-old problem of connecting with young people, King’s Church prides itself in being child-friendly.

Youngsters play an important part in church life, with features like regular puppet shows helping them to engage with worship.

One couple with young children described why they chose a church based in a school hall at Penwortham Girls’ High, in Cop Lane.

“We were looking for a lively church where the children could learn about the Christian faith and its relevance to the modern world,” said the dad.

“There is a wonderful atmosphere and we are one big family who meet to worship God and learn more about our Christian faith in action.” The Free Methodist movement in England has its roots in the North West. The first FM fellowship was founded in 1971 in Heysham, followed by others at Wigan and Garstang.

There are now 12 churches in the region, including Fulwood, Bartle and Bamber Bridge.

“We have started two new churches since 2004, which is positive as most denominations close churches, rather than start new ones,” explained Pastor Mike, who worked in retail management and training before he became a minister.

“We wouldn’t claim we are packing them in. But attendances across our 12 churches in Lancashire are quite healthy. Why do folk, including young people, attend King’s Church? Well I feel we are popular because we run many things in the community, like toddler group, kids’ club, youth club, job club, parenting courses, money management courses and supporting international students from UCLan.

“We aim to work hard to be a church for today – warm and welcoming with a message of God’s love that really means something to people who come and helps them to live their lives better in today’s world.

“In fact, our vision statement is that we aim to be a ‘relevant church in a real world.’

“There have always been relevant and youth-friendly programmes and activities. There have always been opportunities for young people in the church to be involved in different aspects of church life, including playing in the worship band, being involved with the media side of the church, or involved with the children’s or youth work.

“All the people at King’s Church are always willing to adapt to activities to a new generation of young people. There is a family-friendly approach and engagement with parents to provide a safe and secure environment for activities.

“People tend to look at church in a negative light. But that is maybe because they have been looking in the wrong places.”

Believe it, or believe it not: the faith group with the biggest growth in Preston in recent years has been those with no faith at all.

The number of people in the city declaring they have no religion has doubled in a decade.

Non-believers totalled 12,700 in the 2001 Census, but by 2011 that figure had shot up to 25,754, a huge 18.4 per cent of the population.

“That reflects a trend throughout the country,” said retired policeman Ian Abbott, chairman of the Lancashire Secular Humanists group.

“Every decade since the 1950s there has been an increase of around 10 per cent of people identifying as non-religious. The growth has been steady and relentless.

“Maybe the reason is people are more prepared to come out and admit it. In the past they maybe ticked the box because they came from a culturally Christian background.

“Groups like ourselves make it acceptable to say you are not religious.”

The increase in non-believers is in contrast to a fall in those describing themselves as Christian.

The number of Christians in Preston – mainly Church of England, Roman Catholic and Methodist – fell by more than 7,000 between 2001 and 2011, although they still represent 61 per cent of the city’s total population. Muslims rose from 10,678 to 15,769.

The largest concentration of “no faith” people is in Lancaster, where there are now in excess of 33,000 from a population smaller than Preston’s.

“Those figures don’t surprise me,” said Ian Abbott, who is Lancashire Police’s first Humanist chaplain.

“And if you take Christianity out of it, then there are more people saying ‘no religion’ than the other faith groups added together.

“Why is that? Well, that’s a big question. And I’m sure there are many answers.

“When I started with the Lancashire Secular Humanists about 15 years ago we quite often encountered people who thought we were being ridiculous saying we had no religion. It’s becoming more and more acceptable now.

“I have no problem at all about someone saying they are religious. It doesn’t float my boat, but I wouldn’t knock them for it.

“I am very open about being an atheist.

“But I’m not confrontational about it. The number of people I meet who tend to agree with us that religion doesn’t make sense has increased.

“The growth of Humanist funerals is an example of how things are changing. There are more than ever now.

“I think the increase in people with no religion is going to continue in the future.

“But I don’t think it is anything for anyone to be concerned about.

“I get my morals from humanity, not religion.”