Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Cowboys for Jesus

Recently my wife and I spent a month in the USA, firstly at a conference in Cambridge Massachusetts, then a few weeks touring Utah and Colorado. We have been to the States many times before and really enjoy the scenery, places and people. Whenever we go we try to find a church where we can worship on a Sunday. This time we tried to keep to churches within walking distance of the places we were staying – quite a challenge.

So we arrived at Colorado Springs, staying in the west part, Old Colorado City. To my surprise we had a choice of at least 12 churches we could walk to, everything from Word of Faith Pentecostal to the Metropolitan Church of Christ, and all shades in between and around. Funnily enough there were no Episcopal or Anglican churches, unless we drove, so they were ruled out.

The choice was bewildering, but one church jumped out as different – the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Church. Now I had always wanted to be a “Cowboy for Jesus” ever since I heard the legendary UK children’s worship leader, Ishmael, do a song of that title at a Spring Harvest in the 90s. I wanted to “love the baddies, not want to see them die, but want to see them living for the Lord!” [1]. So a church of that name was a “must visit”.

We did wonder if we would be going to worship, or to a concert, but within minutes of arriving at the church our fears were allayed by listening to the conversations of the people arriving. These were people looking forward to being with Jesus, not a musical experience. Then there were the trappings of a church building, the open Bible, the Lord’s Table, and an amazing sign in front of the drum kit that said we were “talking to the Boss”.

So we did just that – started by talking to Jesus in prayer. Now most of the men were in cowboy clothes, including the hats! Hats in church? What about the Apostle Paul saying we pray with heads uncovered? But at the start of the prayer the hats came off, a lovely mark of respect. Then back on for the opening song.

The songs were all country songs, on gospel themes. We opened with “He Took Our Place”, a song popularised Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, two heroes of mine [3]. The chorus went:

His hands are gently knocking on your door.
Outside He's pleading to come in.
His heart is breaking as He waits for you,
to wash you free from every sin.

This was worship that was back to basics; simple, direct and drawing us to the Saviour. I needed it. I had spent the last week dealing with all the comments on my blogs on Anglican decline [4]. It was time to put the data and theories to one side and enjoy the One for whom church is about.

Meeting Place of the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Church

After a few more songs, with fiddle and mandolin solos, it was time for the offering, collected in hats, of course! The song was Hank Williams “I Saw the Light” [5]. Not sure I ever thought I would sing a Hank Williams song in worship – but so glad I did. Again great words:

I was a fool to wander and stray,
Straight is the gate and narrow the way.
Now I have traded the wrong for the right,
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

Perhaps if the Anglican churches in the West traded the wrong for the right they might stop declining!! But the words are aimed at the individual, a reminder to us all to make sure we have “seen the light”.

The worship was led by one of the pastors, Vern Thomson, with his co-pastor, Joe Stephenson, on fiddle. Joe also preached a very helpful sermon on discernment. I learnt many things, but one thing stood out, part of discernment is “horse sense”. That is cowboy speak for common sense, one of those gifts that is, perhaps, in short supply in the Western church at present.

Pastors, Vern Thomson and Joe Stephenson [6]

I guess if people from the UK were trying to classify the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Church they would say it is a “fresh expression”, ministering to a niche market of country/cowboy culture. It is true that anyone in this culture would feel really at home in the church. But I think the church’s real success lies in the their simple straightforward spirituality, and their devotion to the Lord. A church with “horse sense”!

After a time of prayer, with requests drawn from the congregation, we were all too soon at the end. A big thank your to Vern, Joe and the congregation for a really blessed time in the Lord’s presence. One of the most inspiring and sincere worship services I have ever been to.

But there was one trick left – the closing song. In the last weeks I have read so many people’s thoughts about church decline, what causes it and what we should do about it. What decisions should we make? What are the choices? If you have been one of those people then the closing song has words that might be especially helpful to you:

In the valley of decision,
tell me friend what will you do
This life has many choices,
eternity has two! [7]

Have you made the right choice?

Joshua 24:15, Matthew 16:15-16, Acts 2:37-38, Acts 16:30-31, Philippians 3:7-11, [8].

References and Notes 

[1] The website of the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus describes their history and ministry. http://www.coloradocowboysforjesus.com/default.html

[2] “I Want to be Cowboy for Jesus”, Ishamel (aka Ian Smale), words and music at:

[3]  He Took your Place. Flatt and Scruggs.
Learning Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs guitar and banjo licks are a must for any budding electric guitar player.

[4] Anglican Decline in the West:

[5] “I Saw the Light”. Hank Williams Snr.

[6] For more publicity photos see the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Facebook Page:

[7] Eternity has Two. Dee Gaskin and John Swain. Performed by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver

[8] The central thesis of the limited enthusiasm model, on which the church growth models are based, is that church growth comes through the production of enthusiasts – the Christian believers who not only makes new converts, but turn them into enthusiasts. They also renew existing believers into enthusiasts. Enthusiasts become self-reproducing, a reinforcing feedback loop that drives exponential growth. Every God-sent revival tells this story. Conversely decline comes from the inability to reproduce enthusiasts.
Thus if you want to generate more enthusiasts you need to be one! To be one, you need to make the right choice. “Set our hearts on fire with a passion for your Son,
oh but Lord, start with me.” (Bryn Haworth)

Monday, 3 August 2015

Anglican Church Decline in the West – Possible Reasons

In the previous blog, I looked at attendance and membership data of four Anglican churches: Church of England (C of E), the Church in Wales (C in W), the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), and the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA).

It was clear that all four denominations were declining, but that in Wales, Scotland and the USA the Anglican churches were declining much faster than the Church of England. Both the C in W and the SEC had potential extinction dates about 2040, with ECUSA possibly lasting 10-15 years longer. Indeed, although the Church of England is declining, it is only on the margins of extinction if the current pattern remains, thus unlikely to face extinction this century.

Potential Causes of Decline

Rather than just repeat the standard reasons given for church decline, in the light of the contrasts in decline patterns, I would rather look at a different question: What does the Church of England have, that the other three denominations do not, that may have helped reduce the effects of numerical decline?

Here are some suggestions, not exhaustive, and some may be a bit controversial:

(a)     Establishment by law. The Church of England is established by law and is thus seen as the nation’s church. It has more connections with the “Establishment”, has inroads into parliament, appears at state functions and has the monarch as its head. It is so established it was once nicknamed the Conservative Party at prayer! Although in Wales the C in W does have a more limited form of establishment when it comes to marriages and schools, both it, SEC and ECUSA, have no real benefits of the state. They are merely one of many denominations, with some others being larger [7].
(b)    Uniformity. ECUSA, SEC and C in W, are all Episcopal by conviction. It is having bishops and prayer books that set them apart from the other denominations. By contrast the C of E is the national church, which just happens to be Episcopal. It is defined more by being national, and less by being Episcopal, as it is the national and established element that really sets it apart from other denominations. Thus the C of E has more variety between congregations than the other three.  To give an example from Wales, one Church in Wales clergyman described his denomination to me as like a Henry Ford car, “any colour you like as long as it’s black”! Generally speaking I have found in Wales, Scotland and the USA a fairly rigid uniformity when visiting different parishes, more so than I have seen in England. Thus the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are narrower, and thus almost sectarian in their relationship with non-Anglicans, compared with the C of E.
(c)     Establishment by state attachment. All four churches are established in the sense that they reflect national life and trends. By that I mean that they do not want to be sectarian in their relationship with the government, the media or national institutions. Rather, they wish to be seen to be such institutions themselves, perhaps no longer the Conservative Party at prayer, but still the “Establishment at prayer”. However, due to their relative narrowness, the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are also able to change more rapidly in response to changes in society and in the Establishment. All three have changed fast since the 1950s, and very fast in the last 10 years, being more open about their modernism. As such the C in W, SEC and ECUSA have been able to respond more to societal liberalisation, keeping themselves in line with the heartbeat of the land: perhaps being the “liberal progressives at prayer”. Not surprisingly they are much further ahead with adopting same-sex marriage, and gay-affirming beliefs, than the Church of England, where there is more resistance to change [8].
(d)    Theology. All four denominations have a variety of churchmanships, however The C of E, in contrast to the others, has a stronger evangelical wing, making it generally more conservative. Due to theological liberalism many conservatives have left ECUSA, leaving it a predominately liberal denomination. In the Church in Wales evangelicalism was always thin on the ground, especially in the industrial south east, which tends to be “liberal high”. In the Scottish Episcopal church there are a small number of evangelical churches, mainly confined to the big cities. Though some have high attendance, the bulk of parishes in the SEC are not evangelical [9].
(e)     Revival. Of the four denominations the C of E has been influenced more by Charismatic Renewal than the others, despite the “Renewal” starting with a US clergyman [10]. Additionally The C of E’s expression of charismatic renewal has also  been more evangelical, including a revival in expository preaching. Perhaps the C of E has been more open to revival than the others.
(f)     Rural. Both Wales and Scotland are more rural than England, and many of their congregations are in areas of low population. The Church in Wales especially has a difficult job maintaining a parish system over the whole land. In addition rural congregations often have an older age profile. However the USA has many big cities, which should have given ECUSA an advantage over its British cousins. So this reason is less convincing.

Putting the above together I would suggest that the reason for the decline being slower in the Church of England, compared with Anglicans in Wales, Scotland and the USA [11], is primarily due to internal factors, not external ones in society. I would go further and say, it is beliefs, not actions, that are the source of the problem. When congregations ask for my advice on why they decline I first ask them what they believe, not what they do. Actions follow from beliefs. Perhaps the Church of England has, on average, stronger beliefs than the other three; beliefs that encourage growth.

All these churches want to grow to survive, to have healthy congregations and have a positive impact on society. However the C of E perhaps has a proportionally larger group of people, who believe in evangelism because they want to rescue people, save them from their sins for their own sake. This belief in reaching people, regardless of organisational needs, would lead to greater recruitment activity and a stronger sense of purpose that helps retain and motivate members. Church growth comes from a strong identity rooted in a mission that is bigger than the church itself.

It could be that the Anglican churches are all examples of the institutional lifecycle I have talked about previously [12], and that most of the pre-1900 denominations are coming to an end because they have put too many resources into themselves at the expense of mission. The way forward is not to work out how to save the organisation, but let it fade and try saving the lost. Something new will then emerge. Perhaps the Church of England, with its greater diversity, is much further down the road of that reinvention.

Such reinvention, one that restores the fundamental beliefs and spiritual vitality of the church, does not come by organisational management or cultural accommodation. These are spiritual issues and the solution comes through spiritual means. Not by putting motions through synods, but by seeking the face of God. If the above analysis is true, the Anglican Churches of Wales, Scotland and the USA do not have much time left to seek to “humble themselves, and pray, and …..” 2 Chronicles 7:14.


Reference numbering continues from previous blog.

[7] The Church in Wales now is the largest church in Wales as non-conformity has declined much faster than Anglicanism. There is still a general perception that Wales is non-conformist and chapel, even if it is no longer true

[8] ECUSA voted to introduce same sex marriage at its recent convention July 1st 2015-07-02 http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/07/01/why-the-episcopal-church-is-still-debating-gay-marriage/

The Scottish Episcopal Church voted in its synod, June 12 2015, to modify its laws to be “silent on marriage”, thus enabling their ministers to conduct same-sex weddings, probably not until 2017.

The Church in Wales governing body is due to vote on the introduction of same-sex marriage in the middle of September 2015. So far of the 6 dioceses, St David’s has voted firmly against, Llandaff firmly for, Monmouth narrowly against, and St Aspah narrowly for. There are two more dioceses whose results I have not found yet. Normally with 2 dioceses against a proposal, change would not go ahead, however the governing body has the final say.

[9] There are two large Scottish Episcopal Churches in Edinburgh that have 10% of the attendance of the whole denomination of 277 parishes. The two have nearly 30% of the attendance of the 50 parishes in the Edinburgh diocese. It gives some idea how under represented Episcopal Evangelicals are in terms of the number of parishes. It also shows the skewed nature of congregational attendance.

[10] The charismatic movement is often deemed to have started with Episcopal clergyman Dennis Bennett in Van Nuys California in 1960. The reality was a little more complex than that. Hocken, P. Streams of Renewal: Origins and Early Development of the Charismatic Movement in Great Britain, Paternoster Press, 1997.

[11] There are other Anglican churches in the USA, outside of ECUSA, such as the Anglican Church in North America, and the Anglican Church in America. These were excluded from the study. There are at present few Anglican churches outside the “official” ones in the UK, and I think they are all in England, but that may well change in the future.

[12] Institutionalism and Church Decline

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Anglican Church Decline in the West – The Data

The Anglican Church, once a key institution in the English-speaking world, has suffered decline for over half a century. Although in both the UK and North America there are many examples of growing and lively Anglican churches, as national denominations the trend is downwards. This decline is in marked contrast to continued Anglican growth in Africa and other parts of the world. There the church is healthy. In the West it is sick. The question is – is the Anglican sickness unto death?

In this blog I explore the different patterns of Anglican decline through four denominations: the Church of England (C of E), the Church in Wales (C in W), the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), and the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA). The study is not perfect, nor is the data, but I hope it inspires debate and other studies. A subsequent blog will suggest possible reasons for their differences in decline.

1. The Pattern of Decline

Which of the four denominations is the healthiest, and which has the worst decline?

First look at the attendance data since the beginning of the century. Such a short period is used as churches tend to change their method of measuring attendance over time, which will skew any predictions. A shorter time frame will help reduce this effect.  The attendance data is graphed in figure 1 [1][2].

Figure 1: Attendance of C of E, ECUSA – left scale; C in W – right scale.

It is clear the Church of England is the largest of the 3 denominations; indeed it is larger than ECUSA (left scale) even though the USA is over six times the size of England.  Numerically ECUSA has never had the position in the USA that the Church of England has had in England. Nevertheless it could still command influence on US society, perhaps because it inherited the C of E’s prestige.  By contrast the C in W is much smaller (right scale), reflecting its place in a much smaller country.

Bigger differences emerge when the rate of decline is examined. One measure of decline is the slope of the line through the data points. Here the C of E has the slowest decline, ECUSA has the fastest, and the C in W somewhere in the middle. Clearly the Church of England is healthier that the other two.

When looked at as percentages, ECUSA had a 2.7% per annum decline in 2010, whereas the C in W had 2.9%. So why is ECUSA declining faster? Simply because it is much larger; 2.7% of a big number is a big number! Percentages are misleading as the above declines are not exponential but largely linear, as aging is part of the process. As such the percentage decline of all will increase in time.  In 2010 the C of E had an annual decline of 1.1%, which means it is losing less in absolute terms than ECUSA. Thus ECUSA is the worst declining of the three.

2. Extinction

How likely is it that these denominations will become extinct if current trends continue?

Attendance and membership data for all four denominations are fitted to the limited enthusiasm model of church growth, a model that is able to use data and decide whether a declining church is heading for extinction or not [2] [3].

The Church in Wales, Scottish Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church of the USA are all firmly under the extinction threshold. By this I mean that for the range of model parameters that calibrate to the data then all resulting simulations indicate future extinction. By contrast the Church of England is on the margins of extinction, some calibrations say yes, just; some say no, just [4]. Again there is a clear distinction between the C of E and the others.

The limited enthusiasm model was not set up to predict when extinction may take place [5], only that it will. To estimate an extinction date linear extrapolation is used on the basis of the recent attendance and membership data, as they are approximately straight, noted previously. The results are displayed in table 1, with the graph of the attendance results in figure 2 (membership used for the SEC [2].)

Expected Extinction Date
Church of England
Church in Wales
Scottish Episcopal Church

Table 1: Predicted Extinction Dates Using Linear Regression and extrapolation (note *).

Figure 2: Projected Attendance for C of E, ECUSA – left scale; C in W, SEC – right scale.

ECUSA, C in W and SEC attendance figures all predict extinction dates around 2040 [6] figure 2. This date is confirmed for the latter two by the projected membership data, with the ECUSA membership predicting an extra 15 years, table 1. Membership data for Anglican churches tends to be unreliable as it relies on electoral roles that are only maintained periodically, and have fairly minimal criteria for inclusion. Thus I would go with the figures predicted by attendance.

By contrast the Church of England’s extinction is at the end of the century, so far away that it effectively says it is not clear if its decline results in extinction or not. Again there is a clear difference between the C of E and the other three denominations.

There is a certain amount of “wiggle” room in all these results, but not enough to delay the extinction of the denominations by much. If current trends continue, the Episcopal churches of the USA, Scotland and Wales are near the end of their lifespans, and will be seeing massive church closures from around 2025 onwards.

3. Long Term Patterns

Where does this church decline sit in the broad scheme of the churches’ histories?

There are no reliable attendance figures going back into the 20th century. Instead membership figures are used, taken as a percentage of the population of each country. This will allow for population growth. The results are compared, on the same scale, in figure 3, from 1900.

Figure 3: Membership as percentage of population for C of E, ECUSA, C in W, and SEC.

In the past both the Church of England and the Church in Wales have had a greater share of their national populations than that of either SEC or ECUSA. This could reflect the fact that they were the “conformist” traditions in their lands, unlike Scottish Episcopalians, who were non-conformists among Presbyterians, and ECUSA who were merely one of many denominations. It may also reflect considerable over-reporting of electoral roles by the established churches earlier in the century. The steeper decline in the C of E from 1970 probably represents a better definition of membership coming into use! It has stabilised in this century.

By 2000 the C of E and C in W have similar membership percentages, despite differing attendance percentages, 2.4% compared with 1.6% respectively. It is likely the C in W, with almost double the number of “members” compared with attenders, has much over-reporting on its electoral roles.


Thus, generally speaking, the Church of England commands more loyalty among society than ECUSA, Scottish Episcopal Church or the Church in Wales. Its decline is slower, and it is unlikely to face extinction this century, unlike the other three, which have 25-35 years remaining.  Given the likely acceleration of church closures that will start in the next decade, these three Anglican denominations probably have less than 10 years to address the issue of their impending extinction.

I should also note that none of the four denominations has ever commanded widespread public loyalty in terms of membership or attendance. Churches in the West have never been as popular as they have perceived themselves to be. The church might find the future easier to face by keeping in mind its mission, and its Lord, rather than some idealistic picture of a past golden age that never really existed.

A subsequent blog will explore some reasons for differences in decline between these denominations.


[1]  Data Sources

Church of England
Statistics for Mission 2012, (2014), Archbishops' Council, Research and Statistics, Central Secretariat.:

Church in Wales
Church in Wales Membership and Finances, 2013:
 http://www.lphparish.org.uk/mf_2013.pdf, and previous editions.
The Arthur Rank Centre:
Wales Online:

Scottish Episcopal Church
The Arthur Rank Centre:

Episcopal Church of the USA
The Association of Religious Data Archives: http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D_849.asp
Epsicopal Church of the USA website:

Other UK membership data: Various issues of UK Church Statistics and Religious Trends, Peter Brierley, Brierley Consultancy and Christian Research.

[2] There was too little attendance data to use for the Scottish Episcopal Church.

[3] The limited enthusiasm model was developed to describe the dynamics of revival, see A General Model of Church Growth and Decline, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 29(3), 177-207, 2005.
When modelling decline it is possible to cut the model down and aggregate leaving rates with birth and death rates making model calibration simpler, yet still giving the same results on extinction thresholds.

[4]  See two previous blogs on the Church of England

[5] The limited enthusiasm model does not deal with age categories and assumes constant death rates. In the last few years of a church’s life aging dominates, death rates rise, and decline is faster. However the model’s prediction of the threshold of extinction, and church numbers through most of history, is accurate.

[6] Official attendance data for the Scottish Episcopal church is too limited to draw a clear conclusion on an extinction date, nevertheless a date is provided by its membership figures.

[*] This note added after writing. It always interesting to read what others make of your work. Models need to be critiqued, and become healthy for it. Two external comments worthy of note

Comment 1
I found this comment at http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?p=13201259

"One huge red flag: it makes absolutely no sense to say that the C of E will become extinct in terms of membership 18 years before people stop attending. Much more likely to happen the other way round. That fact alone calls into question whether this "analyst" has any idea what he is talking about"

A great comment. Firstly I computed the extinction data for the C of E with the two sets of data just to show that the extinction date predicted by either was so far in the future that it confirmed the Limited Enthusiasm model's prediction of "margin of extinction". That is, it is too close to call. 10-15 years of data cannot predict dates 50+ years in the future by any method, so their difference is of no significance. All that can be said is if the actions that affect the C of E's decline continue the same way, then extinction this century is unlikely.

Secondly the C of E has been revising its method of measuring attendance by electoral role, making it more realistic, as such it may be artificially declining faster as revision takes effect. Eventually this effect will fade and membership and attendance will be closer.

Thirdly. Membership tends to lag attendance as people take time before they join a church, and there can be a delay before departed members are taken off the role. Thus membership tends to be higher than attendance in declining churches, other way around in growing ones. There can also be age difference, with the membership  in a declining  church having an older profile than attendance. Young people more likely to attend before settling on membership; older people stop attending due to infirmity but remain members. This would give the membership an artificially higher loss rate.

Fourthly when the numbers in the church get low then the type of "deterministic" model used here no longer works to well. Deterministic models give exact numbers at any given time and are reasonably accurate due to averaging. But with small numbers averages get unreliable and modellers prefer "stochastic" models and deal with probabilities. For example the 2039 extinction date for the Church in Wales is an average figure. When numbers get small all you can give are probabilities that it will be 2039, 2042, 2036 etc. There will be a probability it is 2050 - but it will be a very small probability.

I realise the Christian Today review of this blog, on which the comment was based, called me an "analyst". Sounds a bit like an expert in finance trying to gain some legitimacy for their views. I prefer to be called a mathematician - less pretentious! Scientific work should be judged on its own merits not on the description of the author.

Comment 2
Related to this, a comment was made at

"I find the idea that you can extrapolate church attendance figures decades into the future with a simple linear model, well … is this a joke? Even if you wanted to extrapolate decades into the future (which strikes me as way beyond the realms of sanity), the simplest imaginable model would be logarithmic – assuming the church halves in size every N years. A linear model makes no sense at all."

I would completely agree, but ....

Strictly speaking decline through people leaving, and deaths, should be negative exponential, and thus slow the decline down. This is called first order balancing loop in system dynamics. This is exactly what the Limited Enthusiasm Model of church growth predicts, the model I used to decide which side of the extinction threshold each church fell. However the data is NOT negative exponential but linear. The reason, as many of the people who handle church statistics know, is that the church is also aging. The leaving rate and death rates exerts a force that slows the decline, but aging exerts a force that counterbalances it - net result almost linear. Sadly it shows aging, death and leaving have far more effect than retaining children or conversion.

In an ideal world I would build aging into the Limited Enthusiasm model and let that model predict the extinction date rather than the straight line fit. Unfortunately mixing aging, a discrete time process as far as measured ages are concerned, and the social forces of the model, a continuous time process, is a notoriously hard maths problem. It is still an area of research and there was a papers at this year's International System Dynamics Conference on this. Added to that the age profile over time is not that well know.

Sorry the reply is technical, but the issues are technical!

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Limits to Church Growth - Part 2

The Reproduction of Enthusiasts

In a previous post I investigated two barriers to church growth: Lack of supply of religion by the church; and lack of demand for religion in society [1]. For those barriers to be removed a church needs to take action to increase recruitment and not take demand by the population for granted. In particular, the church needs to create demand for religion, “to seek and save the lost”, to engage with the population and convince those who don’t want the religion to embrace it.

In this blog a model is presented where the church creates demand by contacting unbelievers and persuading some to accept Christ, and thus become Christians. This is the limited enthusiasm model, which has been published and tested with data a number of times [2]. Here, it is re-interpreted in terms of supply and demand.  However creating demand brings about another barrier to church growth, one connected with the behaviour of the Church members involved in demand creation, the enthusiasts of the church.

Limit 3: Lack of Enthusiasts

Enthusiasts are the name given to those in the church who actively engage in spreading the gospel, in particular in recruitment to the church. These enthusiasts are the ones “supplying religion” to society by “creating demand” through their persuasive actions within that society. As such, unlike the previous models [1], supply matches demand. However not all the church are such enthusiasts, thus supply is proportional to the number of enthusiasts, rather than the whole church.

The reason not all the church are enthusiasts is that few Christians remain enthusiasts throughout their lifetime. The most effective enthusiasts are new converts, as these have the most contacts amongst unbelievers. After a time they settle in to church life and exchange their old unconverted friends for new converted ones. As such many eventually cease to be enthusiasts. Even if they keep unconverted friends, those friends get used to the new religious ways of the convert, whose witness becomes less effective.

Added to that, some enthusiasts also lose enthusiasm for the faith; perhaps the novelty has worn off, or the new religion has not met their expectations. Yet again it means that enthusiasts do not remain so for ever.

The model is expressed in system dynamics form in figure 1 [3]. Feedback loop R represents the action of the enthusiasts supplying the church’s beliefs by creating demand in society. Loop B1 is the reaction of society, the extent to which society really demands religion. B2 represents the fraction of enthusiasts who become inactive over time. The model is similar to that of the spread of a disease with the enthusiasts the “infected” Christians.

Figure 1: Limited Enthusiasm Model
For supply and demand to match, assuming contacts between enthusiasts and society are uniformly mixed, then the enthusiasts become less effective as the number outside church falls, making potential converts harder to find.  Thus the loss of enthusiasts creates a barrier to growth as that loss eventually exceeds the ability of enthusiasts to reproduce themselves from the diminishing pool of unbelievers. The result is that not all outside church are converted, and church reaches a limit much less than the size of the population.

Let a church number 60 people initially, with 5 of them enthusiasts. Let the number outside church be 2000.  The results are in figure 2. The enthusiasts peak about time 20 (curve 3), after which church growth slows (curve 1). Church stops growing at 540, because it has run out of enthusiasts, with over 1,500 in society remaining unconverted, curve 2. The inability for enthusiasts to reproduce themselves is a barrier to church growth.

Figure 2: Church Growth Limited by Behaviour of Enthusiasts
The results in figure 2 illustrate the epidemic metaphor, and are a pattern seen in a range of social phenomena, such as the spread of protests, ideologies, rumours, languages or fashions [4]. If a contagion, physical or social, spreads evenly, i.e. without targeting the susceptibles, and with a fixed contagion strength, then growth will always be limited. The enthusiasts will end up at zero.

If people leave the church, and in the future become open to joining again, then it is possible for enthusiasts to remain non-zero, but the barrier to growth remains. The church still can’t reproduce enthusiasts fast enough.

Removing the Growth Barrier

To remove, or raise, the barrier to growth a number of options are open to the church:
  1. The enthusiasts could selectively target those who are outside the church, spending more time with them rather than with church members. Practically this may prove difficult as time does need to be spent on believers in a growing church for their nurture and retention. This gives enthusiasts limited time for participation in non-church groups. Also, actually making contact with those outside church can be a problem if there are groups of people hostile to religion, and whose lives never overlap with anything church related. Whatever the strategy, as church grows, the people remaining outside become increasingly harder to reach.
  2. The enthusiasts should also reproduce themselves from inactive church members, not just new converts. This can be done by training, raising expectations of church membership, and especially by renewal of Christians in the Holy Spirit. This approach raises the barrier, but there is still a limit to church growth, albeit higher [5].
  3. Enable Enthusiasts to remain enthusiastic for longer. There could be many strategies, but if the church could just appreciate and encourage enthusiasts, rather than putting them down then ….. Enough said!
  4. Widen the pool of susceptibles by extending the church’s influence into another area, perhaps a through a church plant. This strategy quickly generates more demand, a new epidemic, and keeps up the flow of new enthusiasts. This is a standard strategy for newer churches, those yet to be established and become widespread. Unfortunately the unconverted people in the original community remain unconverted. Not ideal as the church is meant to seek and save the lost, not just grow!
  5. The enthusiasts should seek to increase their effectiveness, so the “contagion” is no longer fixed but can become larger. This is not so much about training enthusiasts but increasing their spiritual life. More life gives more growth, and thus gives even more life. This is the stuff of revival, outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and will be examined in the next blog on limits to church growth.



[1] See Blog, Limits to Church Growth, part 1

[2] See Hayward (1999, 2000, 2002, 2010) at 

[3]  For the conventional epidemiological construction of the Limited Enthusiasm Model see the above papers and

[4]  See examples among the publications at

[5] This is explored in the Renewal Model http://www.churchmodel.org.uk/Renmodel.html

Monday, 27 April 2015

Institutionalism and Church Decline

In a recent post, Gillan Scott, deputy editor of the Archbishop Cranmer blog, suggested that the Church of England might be more interested in managing decline than engaging in mission [1]. He quotes Peter Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden:
“Unfortunately, there are bishops around the place who think: ‘Well actually, we’ve just got to cater for this ongoing decline in our Church.’ And I worry about that.”
Gillan goes on to illustrate the point with his own growing church, which has been unable to appoint a much-needed assistant because of the shortage of clergy elsewhere in the diocese. Put simply, the needs of the institution have priority over the needs of an individual congregation. The implication is that institutionalism is a barrier to church growth and is a contributor to church decline. Gillan states:
But often it would appear that those churches which are growing are doing so despite rather than because of the structures and hierarchy.
Institutionalism happens when the organisation has grown to the point that it must maintain its “structures and hierarchy”, and the role of its individual parts is to service that maintenance. It stifles local innovation and thus limits growth. If decline sets in, then the organisation cannot produce sufficient new growth to recover.

Organisational Lifecycle

Institutionalism is an example of a stage in a lifecycle that can affect any organisation, religious, political, corporate, or cultural; a church, a company, or even a nation. Adizes [2, p.103] spells out the corporate lifecycle, to summarise: Courtship, Infant, Adolescent, Prime, Aristocracy, Bureaucracy, and Death. It is at the aristocracy stage where institutionalism sets in through internal politics [2, p.106], despite, or perhaps because of its success. Formality replaces informality, money is spent on control rather than sales and innovation, and the emphasis moves on to how things are done, rather than why [2, p.64].

The organisational lifecycle has been applied to individual congregations [3]. McIntosh gives the stages as: Emerging, Growing, Consolidating, Declining, and Dying [3]. By the declining stage the purpose of the church has been forgotten because of the work needed to keep afloat what they have left. Applying this lifecycle to a denomination, like the Church of England, it can be seen that most in the UK are now institutions somewhere between the declining and dying stage.

A Model of Decline By Institutionalism

Because of the generic pattern of an organisational lifecycle, the situation is ideal for a system dynamics explanation. System dynamics is a modelling methodology that links behaviour to cause and effect. To keep things as simple as possible, just consider two variables: Church, the number of people in the denomination; and Institutionalism, the collection of variables that indicate the church’s emphasis on the wider corporate needs, rather than the local work where growth takes place [4]. Institutionalism is an example of a soft variable, one that is hard to measure, but whose meaning is generally understood [5].

Consider 3 hypotheses:
1.              The more people in church, the more are added to the church. This is feedback loop R1,  figure 1.
2.              The more people in church, the more leave, feedback loop B1, figure 1.
3.              The  more people in church, the more it becomes institutionalised, thus the less are added to the church, loop B2, figure 1.
Figure 1: Causal Loop Diagram of Church and Institutional Growth

The feedback loops are causally circular, with the effect “feeding back” to change the original cause. R1 is a reinforcing loop, a virtuous cycle, giving exponential church growth. B2 is a balancing loop, limiting the growth of the church due to rising institutionalism. Lay people and clergy move from innovative agents of evangelism to people whose role is merely to “turn up, pay up and shut up”, servicing the institutional needs. B1 is also balancing, reducing the size of the church.

R1 can be thought of as a positive force, with B1 and B2 as negative forces opposing it. The future size of the church depends on which force “wins”.

In order to examine the outcome of the hypotheses, a system dynamics model is required. This will enable computer simulation to illustrate the models behaviour. Readers who prefer to avoid technical details can skip the next section!

System Dynamics Model

The model is given in figure 2. There is one stock for the church, where both R1 and B1 come from connections to its flows. Institutionalism is also a stock, the loop B2 being formed, through the flows: growth of institutionalism, and add to church.
Figure 2: System Dynamics Model of Church and Institutional Growth
Three further hypotheses are needed. B3 is a resistive force that represents the difficulty of increasing institutionalism when it gets near the organisational capacity. R2 is a positive force coming from people within the church who want to increase denominational institutionalism, perhaps for their own self-preservation or power. B4 represents attempts to reduce institutionalism.

Model Results

Assume there are no attempts to reduce institutionalism. Instead it is allowed to grow to capacity, the situation that perhaps represents many denominations.  A new denomination grows rapidly, through R1, for around 50-70 years figure 3, curve 1. Institutionalism also grows although its growth is delayed compared with that of the church, figure 3, curve 2.
Figure 3: Results of Church and Institutional Growth Model
 Around the 70 year mark church growth slows and reaches a peak because the effects of institutionalism, B2, have slowed the growth, allowing additions to the church to just about balance the number leaving (which includes death), figure 4. After that point the losses exceed the additions and the church denomination continues to decline until it is eventually extinct, figure 3. In reality the extinction is faster, a straight line rather than the slowing curve of figure 1, as aging becomes a factor. This extinction has come about because institutionalism has been allowed to saturate at capacity, and no attempt has been made to reduce it.

Figure 4: Comparison of Additions to, and Losses from, Church

Note that extinction has resulted regardless of the size of the target population (unlimited in this model). Extinction in this model is due to a lack of supply, not alack of demand.

As this model is for illustrative purposes only, the values of timescales and the church size should not be taken literally. They are merely relative. They may have different values depending on the denomination, or their social setting. It is in the shape of the curves that the model illustrates reality [4].

Combating Institutionalism

A policy is introduced whereby the church attempts to reduce institutionalism (B4) in proportion to the amount of net decline it experiences. That is, the policy is not enacted until decline takes place. The policy is allowed an average of a 30 year delay to take full effect; a high number because it needs to effect most of the denomination, not just a few parts [6].

One such result shows church decline slowing from about 110 years, but it is insufficient to bring about growth, figure 5, curve 1. The oscillation in institutionalism is due to the delay between policy implementation and effect. Once it is perceived to have some effect on reducing decline, the policy backs off, before it has time to have full effect.

Figure 5: Attempt to Reduce Institutionalism in Proportion to Net Church Losses

 Of course the effect of the policy on halting decline depends on its effectiveness in dealing with institutional resistance. Figure 6 shows the base case of no such policy, curve 1, compared with 3 policies of differing effectiveness, curves 2-4. It shows that it is possible for a declining church to get back to growth. However the policy should be continue to be applied with the same intensity, and not applied less just because numbers recover a bit, as in these simulations. Complacency in results will breed oscillations, instability and eventually decline, as many companies know to their cost.

Figure 6: Comparison of Attempts to Reduce Institutionalism (2-4), with No Attempt (1).

Denominational Decline

What does actual denominational decline look like? The Church of England does not have consistent membership figures over a long period of time, and it is only in the last few decades that attendance has been measured. However the Methodist Church has good membership statistics over most of its lifetime [7]. The graph is shown in figure 7.

Figure 7: Membership of Methodist Church of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Some of the growth from 1760 to 1900 in figure 7 was population growth, but the bulk of it was due to conversion. The length of the growth phase indicates that the Methodist church successfully dealt with issues of institutionalism during its early stages, especially in the transition from the first generation of leaders. Note a split in the 1850s and the effect of revival in 1904-5, which contrary to popular belief had considerable impact in England as well as Wales.

However from 1900 onwards the numbers plateaued, and then fell from the Second World War onwards, with a blip in the 1950s, probably due to Billy Graham crusades. Comparing figure 7 with figure 3 it is clear that if institutionalism is one of the causes of Methodist decline, then it has not been tackled, and extinction is not far away.

This is not just a Methodist issue. Statistics indicate that most pre-20th century denominations will be extinct by 2050, except the Church of England, whose decline is slower, and the Baptists, who are independently organised. By the middle of the century the Christian landscape will be dominated by what are now Pentecostal and independent churches, who may well have changed and have their own issues with institutionalism by then.

Such decline is not just a church phenomenon. By 2050 the inability of most Western societies to deal with their huge debts may have led to their downsizing, (euphemism for becoming poorer!) And all nations will be hit by dwindling natural resources and climate change, with a likely decline in world population. The lack of a few Christian denominations may be the least of the problems faced by people in the middle of the century!

Tackling Institutionalism and Recovering Growth

Can institutionalism in denominations be tackled and growth recovered? Given countries’ inability to deal with their debts, energy needs, and climate change – always too little too late – it does not bode well. Church is an even more sluggish institution!

Gillan Scott suggests that the battle for the church’s very existence, its numerical survival, is more important than its current struggle on how it deals with LGBT issues [1]. As a “gay-affirming” ideology continues to spread in the West, the church has become dominated by debates on introducing same-sex marriage, and falling into line with government policy, rather than how it can avoid decline, extinction and see growth. Which issue is more important? Perhaps the two issues are connected.

The policy to introduce same-sex marriage in the church could be construed as a force for institutionalism, as it assists the desire of a denomination to remain relevant to society. I do not know about the Church of England, but in the Church in Wales the policy is being driven by the denominational leadership, and those it employs [8]; the ones with the most to lose if the denomination becomes irrelevant, and the least to lose if the revised marriage policy is introduced. Introducing same-sex marriage seems a classic case of a policy designed to service the needs of an institution, rather than help the individual and congregational agents of growth.  As such, if introduced, it will be a force to maintain the institutionalism that is resisting the church’s attempt to avoid extinction, part of feedback loop R2, figure 2 [9].

What could be a way forward for denominations with institutionalism issues?

If we accept that most historic denominations are heading for extinction in their current form [10], then, rather than make minor changes to that form, perhaps it is better to discontinue the form altogether. That is, policies are needed to deregulate how congregations operate. Let a denomination divide up into smaller groupings with different beliefs of liberal and conservative persuasions. Allow congregations to join the group they identify with best, or go independent.

Allow congregations to pay for their own ministers and not have to send money into a central pot. Let them keep all their income, so that if successful they can invest in their work, or that of their chosen associates. Let congregations choose ministers from outside denominational ranks, and adapt their operational management and clergy structures. What is left of central denominations can provide support services, pensions, advice etc, on a consultancy basis.

Such deregulated denominations would allow spiritual renewal to flourish with less hinderance, with healthy competition driving up standards. Enthusiasts would be generated, conversions would follow. This I think would give the best chance for avoiding extinction and encourage church growth. It would probably look a bit like the early church.

References & Notes 

Scott G. (2015). Church of England Mistakes Mission for the Management of Decline. Archbishop Cranmer Blog, 23/04/15.

The blog refers to:
Davies M. (2015). Church growth: Bishop Broadbent rounds on the critics of Reform and Renewal. Church Times, 21/4/15.

Adizes, I. (1992). Corporate Lifecycles: How and why corporations grow and die and what to do about it. NYIF.

Arn, W. (1985). Five Stages in the Life-Cycle of Churches, Pasadena, CA: American Church Growth.
Davies, G. Understanding Parish Growth Stages, Diocese of Sydney.
McIntosh G.L. (2009). Taking Your Church To The Next Level, Baker Books.
Saarinen, M.F. (2001). The Life Cycle of a Congregation, MD:Alban Institute.

This is an example of a metaphorical model, one whose purpose is to provide transferable insight, rather than exactly replicate a specific situation. See Morecroft J. (2007). Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics. Wiley. P.414.

Hayward J., Jeffs R.A., Howells L. & Evans K.S. (2014). Model Building with Soft Variables: A Case Study on Riots. (2014). 32nd International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Delft, Netherlands, July 2014.

For an example of a delay between introducing a policy and its effect, consider charismatic renewal. It started in the early 1960s, but it was not until the 1990s did the cultural change it introduced become widespread in the church. The Alpha Course, the movement’s most influential tool, came about in the 1990s. Most of the church has still not embraced the cultural and spiritual change and probably never will.

Data for 1767-1970 is taken from: Currie R. Gilbert A.D. & Horsley L. (1977). Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700, table A3. Before the formation of the Methodist Church of GB and NI the different church streams have been added together.
Data for 1980-1990  is taken from Brierley P. (1999). Religious Trends 2000/2001 No.2,  table 9.10.2 Christian Research.

Data for 2000, 2010, and estimates of 2015, 2020 are taken from Brierley P. (2014). UK Church Statistics 2015-2020, Brierley Consultancy.

The current consultation on same-sex marriages in the Church in Wales comes from its governing body and Bench of Bishops. There has been no movement of lay people or clergy calling for change; no protests at the current status quo; no congregational petitions to the leadership; no emergence of prayer-groups praying for change of the definition of marriage. The call for change is top-down, not bottom-up, suggesting it is driven by institutional needs, not congregational or individual. 

It could be argued that introducing same-sex marriage in church would attract more people because of the marriages, and the church’s increased relevance to society. These hypotheses are not in the model. They could be added by allowing the church to draw from a limited pool of people, rather than the unlimited pool in figure 2. The pool could then be divided into people who would favour the policy, the ambivalent, and those opposed. In addition, the effect of the policy on church leaving rates would need to be added. Model calibration would be difficult. My conversations with researchers in the USA denominations that have introduced same-sex blessings and marriages is that the effect on people leaving is larger than that of people joining, and that neither were major factors in the denominations’ decision to implement the policies.

It is denominationalism that is heading for extinction in the UK, not Christianity, and not all congregations currently part of historic denominations. Some will survive and grow.