Wednesday, 20 September 2017

John Wesley, Enthusiasm and Today’s Church

Recently, while on holiday in Pembrokeshire, I passed a plaque in the town of Haverfordwest dedicated to the memory of the pioneer Methodist evangelist, John Wesley.  My family and I have been on holiday in this area each year for over 30 years so I must have passed it many times, but in 2017 I noticed it for the first time [1]. Easy to miss; perhaps easier to miss than John Wesley would have been in 1790!
Plaque to John Wesley in Haverfordwest
The plaque reads:
Near this spot on August 16th 1790 REV. JOHN WESLEY, M.A. then in his eighty-eighth year and on the last of his fourteen visits to the town PREACHED to the people of Haverfordwest. His text was,
"The Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." Mark, 1:15

The early Methodists were called enthusiasts, a derogatory term in their day. I have used the word to represent the sort of person whose Christian beliefs are infectious, so that they pass it on to another person, some of whom also become enthusiasts. Religion then spreads like a disease, typical of church growth in times of revival.  If the church in the UK is to stop its current decline and grow again then it needs revival, and it needs enthusiasts of the sort in Wesley’s day. It made me think what sort of lessons we can learn from his day that would help the contemporary church. 

1) The Time

Wesley preached through the 18th century. For much of the century churches were in decline, with sparse attendance and absentee clergy. Buildings were in disrepair.  On one of his previous visits to Pembrokeshire, May 1781, Wesley noted of St David’s Cathedral:

The cathedral has been a large and stately fabric, far superior to any other in Wales. But a great part of it is fallen down already, and the rest is hastening into ruin [2,3]

The effect of the Reformation and the Puritans was long gone. The Christian religion was mocked by rich and poor alike, whose preference was for entertainment and alcohol.  In many ways the time was similar to 21st century Britain – Christianity looked as if it was on the way out.

Wesley was not daunted by the situation – he, and the other Methodists, saw it as a great opportunity to spread the gospel and glorify God. Enthusiasts do not look at the situation, but to the God who has commissioned them to make disciples despite the situation. 21st Century secular Britain is a great opportunity for enthusiasts!

2) The Man

Wesley never stopped preaching, he never retired. This was his 88th year and he still saw it as his mission to convert the lost and build the Methodist societies. He travelled extensively. Before his final tour of Pembrokeshire in August 1790 he had travelled from Lincolnshire, and afterwards visited Bristol. [2,4].
He was persistent. This was his 14th visit. When he started there was no Methodist cause in the town. By his final visit there was a flourishing church and education among the children and poor [5]

He laboured despite poor health. On January 1st he wrote

I am now an old man, decayed from head to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning; I have a lingering fever almost every day; my motion is weak and slow. However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labour: I can preach and write still. [2]

Enthusiasts have a zeal for the work of the gospel that need not waver with age, health or the passage of time. The UK church has many former enthusiasts from the evangelical and charismatic renewal of the late 20th century who have given up the fight and fallen asleep spiritually. The lesson of Wesley is that they can be enthusiasts again and spread revival until their last breath.  

3) The Culture

Wesley was preaching in Wales, at this time predominately Welsh speaking. His normal practice of preaching to the poor and uneducated could not be used as they could not speak English, the only language Wesley could use [6]. Fortunately there was a separate Welsh speaking Methodist connection that ministered to the poor in Wales.

Wesley, not put off by the culture, changed his strategy. Instead of preaching directly to the poor he preached in places like Haverfordwest where there were a number of wealthy families, who could speak both English and Welsh. He then inspired them to teach the poor, especially the children, and bring them to faith. One member of the Haverfordwest church was a Miss Catherine Warren, a member of the local gentry who Wesley corresponded with regularly to encourage her in her work [5]. Wesley expected conversions from all levels of society, culture or class were no handicap. All were expected to change, rich and poor alike. Then culture changed accordingly.

Enthusiasts are not put off by the culture of society. Whether it’s atheists, humanists, Muslims, or “Diversity” and LGBT ideologies, enthusiasts expect conversions that change behaviour and lead to cultural changes that reflect God’s kingdom.

4) The Method –  He Preached

Wesley’s text that day was “repent and believe the gospel”, one he had no doubt preached many times. His message was simple and direct, sin is the problem, Jesus is the answer. His was no message of acceptance and inclusion, popular in much of today’s church, but of one of justification and transformation. No one had to stay the way they were – through repentance and faith they could be put right with God immediately, and become what He designed them to be. Enthusiasts preach directly to the heart of the problem.

Wesley preached. He was not a social activist, though he did much social good. He did not organise discussions or debates, perhaps where a group of people could decide what is true. Though no doubt his preaching left many people discussing and debating! He preached, that is he took a text explained, it and persuading people to obey is implications. He did not do it to be popular. Preaching was no more popular in his day than in ours; Wesley was sometimes stoned and often verbally abused. He preached because Jesus commanded it. Enthusiasts obey the command and preach.

Wesley preached everywhere. He did not wait for people to come, but went to them. Enthusiasts are not locked away in church buildings, but out and about, speaking to people whether ones and twos, or in crowds.

Wesley preached the Bible; he had confidence in its message and in the truth of its words. Recently I was at a church where the minister read out some words of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel ,And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”. The minister then said, “This couldn’t have been the words of Jesus. Something must have got lost in translation between him and Matthew!” Sadly that lack of confidence in scripture has been common in the church for a few generations and has undoubtedly assisted its decline [7]. Enthusiasts have confidence in the truth of scripture, so much that they live by it, and must bring it to the attention of all they meet.

If Wesley was around today, it is not clear what he would have made of a plaque in his name. But he would have recognised society, the plight of sinners, and the state of the church. No doubt he would still be an enthusiast and behaved exactly as that day in Haverfordwest. Today’s enthusiasts need only to follow his example.

The plaque's location in Dew Street, Haverfordwest

References & Notes

[1] The plaque was unveiled on the 18th May 1956 at the town’s grammar school. It was later moved to the town’s library, date not known.

Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol 30, June 1956

[2] John Wesley’s Journal

[3] As a result of the 18th revivals started by the Methodist, all the UK Christian denominations experienced revival in the first half of the 19th century. Thus, in the 50 years following Wesley’s 1781 visit to St David’s, the Cathedral was rebuilt by a now flourishing congregation, as were most of the decaying parish churches in Britain.

Of course there was revival and church growth among the Methodists from the 1730s onwards. But it took to the end of the century before it spilled over into the other denominations in a big enough way to repair the damage of their long period of decline and neglect.

[4] John Wesley kept a private diary separate from his published journals. Although his journal makes no mention of the 1790 Wales tour, his diary gives the following details for Haverfordwest:

Sunday 15th  

5 Prayed, letters ; 8 tea, conversed, letter, chaise ; 10 St. Daniel's, prayer, Acts xi. 36 ! meditated ; 1 1 Rowl[ ], communion ; 12.30 writ narrative, dinner ; 3 [ ], boat, chaise, Hav[erfor]d ; 5 tea ; 5.30 read, Mark i. 15 ! the bands, visited, supper, prayer; 9.15.
Monday 16th
4 Tea, conversed, prayer ; 5 chaise ; 8.30 Tavernsp[ite], tea ; 9.30 chaise, prayed; 12.30 Carm[arthen] ; i at T. Taylor's, writ narrative, dinner, the preachers, letters ; 4 Isai. xxxv. 8 ! on business ; 7.30 supper, conversed, prayer ; 9.30 lay down ; 11.30 sleep.

The square bracketed letters indicate missing letters from his abbreviated diary entries. In some cases the missing letters cannot be determined, hence [ ].

He actually preached in Haverfordwest on Sunday August 15th. He left the town on the 16th. Thus the plaque records his last day in the town, rather than the day he preached.

See also “John Wesley in the Cardiff Area - Part 2: 1747-1790” by David Pike for extensive material on Wesley’s time in Wales.

[5] Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol 30, June 1956
In 1785 John Wesley wrote to a Miss Catherine Warren, a lady from a renowned local family, who had the care of 50 children to encourage her to continue her good work. Spiritual progress was also expected in this work. Wesley wrote in his journal of these children: “Several of them are much awakened, and the behaviour of all is so composed that they are a pattern to the whole congregation.

There was no Wesleyan Methodist church in Haverfordwest in 1769. But by 1782 it was established and thriving, mainly due to the enthusiasm of Miss Warren.

Bulletin of the Wesley Historical Society in Wales, Number 1, P76, 2011.

[6] Haverfordwest Society: “Wesley enjoyed coming to south Pembrokeshire because he knew that it was one of the few areas in Wales where his preaching would be understood.”

See also

[7] See the series of articles on church growth and decline on the Presbyterian Church of Wales as illustrative of the post 19th century decline of the church. This decline is attributed to a fall in conversions, caused by a lack of revival, rooted in a mixture of institutionalism, rationalism and liberalism, which undermined the church’s confidence in Scripture and the God who reveals himself through it.

Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions

Blog: Church Decline cause by Lack of Revivals

Blog: Why Revivals Stopped in the UK

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Church Growth Limited by Evangelistic Purity

Limits to Church Growth 4

In three previous blogs I have looked at congregational growth being limited by:
      I.     Demand from society [1];
    II.     Supply by the church [1];
  III.     Lack of enthusiasts [2];
  IV.     Inadequate resource production [3].

When congregational growth stalls and appears to hit a limit, the obvious question is to ask “why?”. In particular, has growth ended because of factors within the church, or factors in society? If there are no internal limits to growth then society will always eventually hinder growth, limit (I) above. However churches often cause their own growth barriers, not evangelising enough, (II); have enthusiasts, the evangelisers, who cease to be effective, (III); or not generating enough resources in the church to attract, disciple and retain people, (IV).

Church congregations are a mixture of people, some are enthusiasts, wanting to reach people and see them converted. However some are inactive in conversion, preferring to spend their time on other aspects of church life, worship, socials, good works and the like. The balance of people in the church determines its culture. Thus I will put forward the hypothesis:

The balance of enthusiasts and inactive believers in the church determines the evangelistic effectiveness of the church.

I will call this effectiveness the church’s evangelistic purity, and propose the conjecture:

Falling evangelistic purity will limit the congregation’s growth, regardless of the size of society.

The Model

The model to represent this situation is given in figure 1. People are converted to church from outside. The cloud in the left hand of the diagram represents and unlimited supply of potential converts [4]. The reinforcing loop R1 captures the action of the enthusiasts, the more enthusiasts the more converted, thus even more enthusiasts. I have assumed all new converts become enthusiasts first. Enthusiasts do not stay active in evangelism indefinitely, thus they become inactive after a fixed duration, balancing loop B1.

Figure 1: Evangelistic purity model of church growth

Following the hypothesis, the conversion rate for each enthusiast depends on the evangelistic purity of the church. If the number of enthusiasts increases then the evangelistic purity of the church also increases. This reinforces the growth of enthusiasts, R2. However the more inactive believers the lower the evangelistic purity; a balancing loop resisting the growth of enthusiasts B2. If B2 is large enough then church growth will stop.


A simulation of the model, for a given conversion rate, duration enthusiast, and ratio of enthusiasts to inactive in the church, is given in figure 2 [5]. Church numbers are the sum of the enthusiasts and the inactive believers.
Figure 2: Falling evangelistic purity results in a limit to church growth

 A church of 30 people grows rapidly over 40 years, but is limited to just over 200 people as its evangelistic purity has fallen, figure 2. This limit is reached even though the pool of potential converts is infinite. It is a purely church induced limit, not affected by society.  Looking at the two types of believers, it can be seen that although the number of enthusiasts rises, their growth eventually slows as they become increasingly ineffective in a church becoming dominated by believers with no interest in evangelism, figure 3. Enthusiast numbers peak and afterwards fall away.
Figure 3: Falling evangelistic purity results in enthusiasts who are unable to reproduce themselves indefinitely

Analysing the cause of the changes in enthusiast numbers shows that it is the impact of the loop B2 that causes their numbers to fall and eventually halts church growth. Impact is a measure of the extent to which a feedback loop influences the curvature of the graph [6]. Figure 4 shows the regions of loop dominance on the enthusiasts.

Figure 4: Periods of loop dominance on enthusiast numbers

Enthusiast growth initially accelerates due to R1, their rising numbers, and R2, the influence of the enthusiasts on evangelistic purity, figure 4, first phase. The growth slows due to the generation of inactive believers, B1, and their negative effect on evangelistic purity, B2, second phase. Loop B2 becomes so powerful it causes the number of enthusiasts to change from growth to decline as conversions fall below the loss of enthusiasts. This is the third phase.

The decline in enthusiasts becomes faster, reinforced by falling conversions R1 and R2, the fourth phase. Decline finally slows as the remaining enthusiasts drain away, loop B1.

Thus the conjecture is demonstrated, falling church purity limits church growth, because the negative effect of inactive believers limits the generation of enthusiasts.

Tipping Point

So what can be done to remove this barrier to growth? There are three possible strategies:
1.     Increase the effectiveness of the enthusiasts;
2.     Increase the duration new converts remain enthusiastic;
3.     Have a church that has a greater balance of enthusiasts to inactive.

Applying any of these three strategies raises the limit to the congregation’s growth, due to a larger generation of enthusiasts. Figures 5 and 6 show the effect of increasing the initial purity of the church, the ratio of enthusiasts to inactive. Purity 1 is the lowest; Purity 5 the highest. Thus the more evangelistically pure churches are able to reach a higher limit to growth than the impure ones.

Figure 5: Effect of increasing initial church purity on church growth
Figure 5: Effect of increasing initial church purity on growth of enthusiasts

There comes a point if the purity is increased further, church growth continues indefinitely, curve Purity 5, figure 5, because enthusiasts continue to be generated, figure 6. Thus a sufficiently pure congregation can remove this barrier to church growth, and concentrate on the other barriers that come into play, not included in this model. It is good to know some growth barriers can be removed.

One way to raise church purity is to allow the inactive to leave. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if church leaving increases, church growth increases, as long as it is the evangelistically inactive that leave. This is an example of Kelley’s hypothesis that a stricter church is stronger and thus more likely to grow [7].

The principle of evangelistic purity encouraging growth can apply across all churchmanships, not just conservative or evangelical ones, as purity refers to participation in the mission and recruitment to the church, rather than theology as such. It may be possible to show that certain theologies are more likely to encourage evangelistic purity, particularly ones that see the need for personal salvation. But that takes us beyond this simple model, which shows that having enough people in the church committed to evangelism can remove a barrier to church growth.

References & Notes

[1] Limits to Church Growth – Part 1.  Lack of Supply & Lack of Demand.

[2] Limits to Church Growth – Part 2. The Reproduction of Enthusiasts.

[3] Limits to Church Growth – Part 3. Inadequate Resource Production

[4] An overview of system dynamics is given by the System Dynamics Society

[5] It is normal to use computer simulation to produce results of system dynamics model, though not always essential. The results of the evangelistic purity model can all be proved mathematically. In this blog the graphs were produced By the Stella Architect software, ISEE systems,

[6] The concept of loop impact is related to the concept of force in Newtonian mechanics. See:
Hayward J. (2015). Newton’s Laws of System Dynamics. Presented at the 33rd International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Cambridge, MA, July 2015.
Hayward J. & Boswell G.P. (2014). Model Behaviour and the Concept of Loop Impact: A Practical Method. System Dynamics Review, 30(1), 29-57. DOI: 10.1002/sdr.1511  

[7] Kelley D. (1986). Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Mercer University Press.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Church Growth and the Perils of Second Order Feedback

Feedback is the process where an action has an effect, which in turn changes the original action. Either it magnifies it ­– reinforcing feedback; or it corrects it – balancing feedback. In the last blog I showed how such feedback loops affect the growth and decline of the church, where changes in the size of people groups within the church feed back on its growth and decline processes [1].

For example, consider the enthusiasts – those responsible for recruiting new people to church. The more enthusiasts, the more converts recruited, thus even more enthusiasts – reinforcing feedback with accelerating growth. This is an example of first order feedback – that is, it only involves one stock – the enthusiasts in this case. A stock is an accumulation – taking time to increase or deplete. Populations are stocks, and first order feedback means they directly change themselves: short-term changes, those up to a couple of generations. Church growth and decline is mainly governed by such first order feedback [2].

Second Order Feedback

Second order feedback involves two stocks. A change in a population stock, like church, affects another stock, before it comes back to change the original population through accumulation or depletion. The “peril” of this second order effect is that the feedback process has inertia, meaning that there is a delay in the feedback process, either magnifying, or regulating, the population changes. This feedback introduces long-term changes that are very hard to control [3]. The following example from church dynamics will illustrate this.


When a new church or movement starts, it is normally quite small, free of centralised control, and spiritually lively. They are often in the hands of people where growth and spiritual purity are to the fore, and they grow rapidly, generating many people who operate in the same unfettered manner.

However, as church gets larger, there is a growing need for organisational structures to regulate church life, train ministers, construct and maintain buildings and finance salaries. These are some of the traits of institutionalism. The bigger the church, the more institutionalised it becomes. It leads to an institutionalised mindset, where maintenance and acceptance by society become a higher priority than growth and spiritual issues.

Institutionalism is a stock, figure 1. It takes time to accumulate, and is hard to remove once it is there. Institutional inertia is well known. Second order feedback, balancing loop B3, happens because institutionalism undermines the conversion process, the first order reinforcing loop R1. The institutional shift moves the bulk of the church from mission to maintenance, thus conversions, loop R1, fall to a value under the church leaving rate and deaths, loop B2. Thus church declines. But the second order effect means that by the time the decline becomes really noticeable, the church is not able to act fast enough to remove the institutionalism to increase conversion, thus decline continues [4].

Figure 1: Institutional Model of Church Growth

Overshoot and Decline

Figure 2 shows the effects of this second order institutional loop on church numbers. There is a long period of rapid growth, helped by the delays in the loop as institutionalism takes so long to build. This is the good side of second order feedback – it takes ages to have an impact. The bad side – the peril of the second order feedback – is that by the time institutionalism has turned growth to decline it has become too large to deal with. There is some natural depletion of institutionalism, (loop B4, figure 1), but it requires deliberate action by the church to dismantle it. Unfortunately, institutionalism is also a mindset, and that action is too little, too late, and the church heads for extinction, figure 2.  

Figure 2: Overshoot and Decline Behaviour of Church Growth and Institutionalism

The result is the institutional lifecycle of figure 2. This is the current state of most of the older denominations in the UK and other Western countries. The revivals of the 18th- 19th centuries have transitioned to organisations with much wider concerns than just saving souls. The timescale of this second order effect, about 300 years in this case, is much longer than that of the revival growth dynamics.

Thus the current decline in church is not primarily due to events happening now, or from the immediate past, but events of a hundred or more years ago being naturally worked out.  I have blogged before how the UK church reached its peak around the 1870s, about 140 years after the commencement of revival [5]. Institutionalism was too high, stifling revival, spiritual life and doctrinal orthodoxy. Decline followed, and 140 years further on again, the churches are in the same declining phase, but much nearer the end.

A Way Forward?

When one church lifecycle is ending, there is more space for another to start. The Methodist movement came out of the decline of a previous church lifecycle that had started at the reformation and, with much political turmoil, had run its course by the end of the 1600s. Methodism started as a renewal movement in the Church of England in the 1730s, then eventually separated in the late 1700s, allowing both to flourish, along with the other denominations also caught up with the revival. Separation allowed Methodism to free itself of the stock of institutionalism of the established church, especially the parish system, thus breaking the effect of the second order feedback loop – at least for the next 100 years before it developed its own institutionalism.

Perhaps now is the time for those who have been part of the evangelical and Charismatic renewal of the last 60 years to separate from the declining denominations. Just tinkering with effects of second order feedback will not turn decline into growth, instead denominations will continue to head to extinction.  The more radical approach of separation is needed.

Such separation is not a recipe for division. The division is already there as is seen in the fights between the biblically orthodox and liberal wings of the older denominations. A separation now would allow both camps to concentrate on what they see as their missions, rather than battles for control of organisations that have run their course. Recently, Free Church minister David Robertson has suggested this strategy for the Church of Scotland, but it really applies to all existing institutional churches – those that have been around for 150 years or more [6].

Some of the older denominations will no doubt wither away. Others may indeed save themselves from that fate, once the internal dynamics have changed. Hopefully, in the new separated churches, it would allow the revival work that has been simmering away since the start of Pentecostalism to flourish and result in many conversions. This is a controversial solution to church decline, but the history of the church is full of such separation. This year is the 500th anniversary of Luther and his objections to the Catholic Church that led to a major parting of the ways [7]. The time may well be right for another parting of the ways in the Christian denominations.


[1] Feedback and Church Growth, Church Growth Modelling Blog

[2] The Limited Enthusiasm Model is largely a model with first order loops

In a population, birth and death precoesses are first order, as are some capacity issues

[3] Overshoot and Collapse is archetypal behaviour caused by a second order loop. See the interaction of a deer population with its environment

[4] The Institutional Model of church growth and decline is described more fully elsewhere:

and applied to the GB Methodist Church:

[5] The connection between revival and church growth and decline is illustrated from the history of the Welsh Presbyterian Church:

[6] Lessons from the Disruption – How a Church Split Can be Positive! The Blog of David Robertson, 19/5/17,

[7] The Quincentenary of the Reformation, Lutheran Council of Great Britain