Friday, 13 May 2016

Where to Plant a Church?

Big City, Small Town, or Rural?

Despite church decline, church planting continues at a fast pace. In the cities of the UK the church landscape has a generous number of recently established, glossy, relatively wealthy, contemporary churches. It would appear something in church growth is working.

Reflecting on current trends in evangelicalism, in the light of a visit to Scotland by an American prosperity preacher, David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland suggested that modern-day church planting was motivated by a similar prosperity ethos [1]. That is, churches prefer to plant in the big cities, where there were plenty of people and influential networks, rather than the smaller towns of the UK. He suggested the reasoning may be due to the “trickle down” theory, that once churches are established in the big centres of London, Edinburgh etc, then Christianity will eventually trickle down to the likes of Hull and Kilmarnock [1].

It is true that new religions use big centres with their changing populations as their bases. Christianity started this way, and that is the current state of Islam in the UK. But Britain has a Christian history, and there are Christians (still) in most towns and villages. Church planting here is about re-evangelisation, not introducing a new faith. David Robertson compared the contemporary approach with that of the Independent Methodists, who planted their churches in small, rural and poor communities, and did so quite effectively despite the seemingly limited prospects of such places [1].

So what is the best planting strategy, go to the big, or go to the small? I will try and show a system dynamics view of church planting using some of the church growth models that I have developed [2]. Three models should be enough to capture the difference between the contemporary and historic approaches to planting.

Supply & Demand Model

In this model the church supplies its religion in a society where at any time there are some people who demand it. Supply is according to the size of the church, reinforcing loop R, figure 1, and demand is according to the size of the unbelieving society, balancing loop B1. Initially demand exceeds supply; thus early growth is determined by how well the church supplies the needs of those seeking a church. However at some point demand will fall below supply, as the pool of potential converts shrinks, thus slowing church growth. Church size reaches a limit when demand B1 matches the leaving process B2 [3].

Figure 1: Supply and Demand Model of Church Growth [3]

Thus to get a bigger church, a church plant needs to be in a bigger community, for example a city. The bigger the city, the more the demand, the more converted. Thus as long as the new church can compete favourably with the existing ones in the city then it will have a big demand. The key is to do things better than the others, be it worship, discipleship, Sunday Schools, so that it is attractive to the whole city, not just a local area. It may also be attractive to those in other churches as well, perhaps hastening the decline of the ineffective ones. 

This suggests that planting in the big cities is the best strategy for a new church, if its growth is the only criterion [4]. But things are not as simple as that. There are other limits to congregational growth.

Bounded Resource Model

A church may face limits on its growth before the effects of demand are significant. Most churches cannot increase their supply in proportion to their size because conversion and recruitment involve generating resources, loop R, figure 2. As they grow they become less effective at increasing these resources further, loop B3.  Such resources as Sunday Schools, teaching programmes, physical space, organisational complexity and friendship networks all become harder to increase the bigger they become [5].

Figure 2: Bounded Resource Model of Church Growth [5]

Thus the church’s growth is limited for internal reasons, leaving much of the external demand untapped. In figure 2 the potential demand is made infinite to drive home the point! Of course such churches are big and lively, and may not realise it is they, rather than the lack of potential converts, that have slowed their growth. Growth stops when the effect of recruitment, loop R, has been reduced by the organisational “lethargy” loop B3, to the point where it matches the leaving B1.

The church in the big city now has less of an advantage because the new church plant needs to be very well managed to ensure that potential demand is met. This favours the wealthy contemporary church, but it could also suggest that smaller cities and large towns would be just as suitable places to plant. The extra potential demand the large city offers cannot be realistically tapped.

Limited Enthusiasm Model

The flaw in the above arguments is that they can apply to any organisation, not just a church. Surely there needs to be something different about the way a church grows! David Robertson makes the point that the Independent Methodists came out of the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries [1]. They grew not because of the size of the demand (there was little), or the effectiveness of their church organisations (they were not professionals), but the efficacy of their individual Christians, who were so full of the revival life of Christ that they imparted it to others.

Growth by infectious faith is captured in the Limited Enthusiasm Model [6]. Here only a subset of the church, the enthusiasts, make converts, loop R figure 3, but some of those converts become enthusiasts, thus the lively Christians reproduce themselves in others. Although enthusiasts do not stay effective for ever, loop B2, they do so long enough for the revival contagion to keep being passed on, effectively creating demand, loop B1, rather than waiting for it.

Figure 3: Limited Enthusiasm Model of Church Growth [6]

This mechanism matches the experience of the church in the New Testament. They did not seek demand for salvation through Christ, or organise a great church to attract people – they went into places and created demand through the Holy Spirit in individual believers. The faith spread like a disease, adding to their number, and they spent the rest the time trying to put any sort of organisation on the ensuing mess, hence the need for the New Testament letters!

Such a church in revival is therefore more effective where people have the most meaningful contacts. The place you stop to talk to those you meet, rather than pass a thousand in the street. The place where you see the same people over and over again,  building a relationship, not the place where you may not see the same person again, hoping to attract a stranger. Essentially, the village is a better place than the city. The small town is better than the big one.

Go through the history of revivals and see how many flourished in the small places, rather than the big. The Welsh revival centres were Llangeitho, Loughor and New Quay, not Cardiff and Swansea. 

Evangelism is primarily personal not organisational. It seeks to persuade people not attract them. Thus the best place for a new church plant is the small community not the large. Of course it requires long-term commitment, and it does require the reviving work of the Holy Spirit. But there will be no recovery of the church in the UK without revival because church decline is caused by the lack of revival, as I have tried to show many times [7]. The rural communities clearly show this need of revival. Sadly the big churches of the larger cities, thriving on good organisation and large populations, mask this lack of the Spirit; and as David Robertson put it, act as a cover for decline [1].

Rural Areas

I often travel through the rural parts of Wales and Scotland and see so many areas with no church at all, just closed or converted buildings. In those where a church remains it is usually an established one – part of a denomination now facing division through the spread of the new ideology that promotes sexual diversity [8]. As a result many more will close, or become unacceptable to a Christian seeking a church with Biblical standards.  There is a desperate need for rural church planting; that is for revived Christians to move to these places.

Ah says someone – “I will plant the church when the revival comes”. No! The revival will come when you go and plant! Paul the apostle did not wait for the Spirit to come before he went somewhere new – he went, and as he preached the Spirit fell. It is a time to go, not a time to wait – the church has been waiting very effectively for far too long.

References and Notes

[1] Creflo Dollar, The Independent Methodists, the Gospel of Power, Health and Wealth, and Revival of the Church in Britain Today. The Wee Flea, David Robertson, 8/5/2016.

[2] A description of the church growth models can be found on the Church Growth Modelling website

Some have been published in academic journals and conferences:

[3] The Supply and Demand model of church growth is described in the blog:

Further details of the model construction and results are on the website:

[4] It could be argued that the growth of the planted church should not be the only criterion. The needs of the lost, who are in small places as well as large, and the effect of its competition on the existing churches are also important, to name but a few. I am deliberately staying clear of discussing the moral case of planting a new church to compete with existing ones!

[5] The Bounded Resource model of church growth is described in the blog:

Further details of the model construction and results are on the website:

[6] The Limited Enthusiasm model of church growth is described in the blog:

Further details of the model construction is on the website:
Long-term change with demographics:

Revival and application to revival data:

Application to long-term growth and denominations:
Application to long-term decline and denominations:

Church Growth via Enthusiasts and Renewal. Presented at the 28th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Seoul, South Korea, July 2010
A General Model of Church Growth and Decline. Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 29(3), 177-207, 2005.
A Dynamical Model of Church Growth and its Application to Contemporary Revivals. Review of Religious Research, 43(3),218-241, March 2002.
Growth and Decline of Religious and Sub-cultural Groups. Presented at the 18th International System Dynamics Society, Bergen, Norway, July 2000.
Mathematical Modeling of Church Growth, Journal of Mathematical Sociology. 23(4), 255-292, 1999.

A good introduction for the non-specialist is Tipping the Church into Growth.

[7] See the blogs
Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversion

Church Decline Caused by Lack of Revival

Why Revivals Stopped in the UK

See also the 1999 and 2005 papers in [6].

[8] I talked about the New Ideology in the blog Rewriting History

I will describe a model of how it is replacing Christianity in the West in a forthcoming blog.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Rewriting History

The other day I was visiting a mining museum in Wales. The lady showing us around was describing the poor working conditions in the early 1800s, 10 hours a day underground, plus a long walk to work and back. She then said: “they worked like this six days a week, then had to go to church on Sunday. It was a grim life.”

I immediately thought, “HAD to go to church?” What version of history was this? She made it sound that early nineteenth century Britain had full churches; full of people who really did not want to be there. The truth was rather different.

Missing Church

In Medieval times people sometimes got fined if they missed church, but given the services were in Latin, not much participation would have been required. Generally the ruling was applied to the influential and wealthy, with the poor noticeable by their absence. Such laws were dropped.

A law was brought back in 1559 making attendance at the now Protestant national church compulsory. But this was done to counter the remaining illegal Catholic services, rather than any desire to fill up churches. Dropped in Commonwealth times it was restored in 1657, mainly to stamp out nonconformity. but it failed to have much impact.

By the early 1700s the established church was in a desperate state, run down buildings, poor attendance, clergy absent for weeks on end, and many holding deist beliefs rather than the official doctrines of the church [1]. The non-conformists, though largely orthodox in belief, had withdrawn into a shell after they had been legalised.

One Anglican, Bishop Butler, had noted:

It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is, now at length, discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it, as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained, but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world. [2]

Christianity was a laughing stock, church ignored, moral behaviour owed little to Christian teaching, and the church leadership had lost sight of the doctrines of salvation and mission. You had to be brave to go to church in that climate. A bit like now really!


What changed this situation was a series of revivals from 1735 onwards. These first occurred amongst the Anglicans, who formed religious societies, the Methodists as they were nicknamed. This gave steady growth in church attendance to the end of the century, but nothing dramatic, see the graphs in [3]. The Methodists left the established church, but they left a changed and partly renewed church. The non-conformists also benefitted considerably from this new movement.

However in the early 1800s, with more revivals across most denominations, church attendance increased much faster than the population, making church attendance a significant fraction of the population, and at last a respectable pursuit.  Church held its ground until the twentieth century then, as most people know, started its slow decline [3].

So in the period the lady at the mining museum was telling us about, revival was common, but church attendance less so. There would have been a number who did not go to church worship – they would have had Sunday free. For those who did go, they went because they WANTED to, not because they had to. They had been converted in revival, born of the Spirit, saved from their sins. It was these convictions that drove them to church. Far from being grim, it was a joy!

Rewriting History

What this lady was repeating was a piece of modern day historical revision where past religious observance has been reinterpreted by a secular age in non-spiritual terms. Of course she did not originate the viewpoint but was merely repeating what is now the standard secular narrative.  

Rewriting history is what always happens when a new ideology takes hold in society and replaces the declining one. People’s identity is partly determined by past events. With a new ideology the old past becomes an embarrassment and must be revised to support the new identity, and ridicule the old one.

That is the situation for Christianity in the West. However many people still believe it as a faith, it is yesterday’s ideology as far as wider society is concerned. The void it has left in society is ripe for a new ideology, in this case one that is atheistic, man-centred and secular. The unbeliever cannot understand spiritual things, such as revival, conversion and the work of the Holy Spirit; such things are foolishness to them:

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians 2:14.

So neither can we expect society, with its new ideology, to understand church history. So no blame on the lady at the mining museum, she is a product of our current culture.

What is this new ideology? How can its competition with the church for the heart of society be modelled? Is the church, as currently formed, up for the challenge? That is another blog, or two.

Notes and References

[1]  J.C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, Banner of Truth Trust.

[2] Bishop Butler, The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed. Quoted from the advertisment prefixed to the first edition. Also quoted in J.C. Ryle [1].

[3] The rise of the Presbyterian Church of Wales (Calvinist Methodists) is in the blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Revival,

The rise of the Wesleyan branch of Methodism is in the blog:  Institutionalism and Church Decline

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Church Growth Limited by Inadequate Resource Production

Limits to Church Growth 3 

In two previous blogs I looked at congregational growth being limited by:
  1. Demand from society [1];
  2. Supply by the church [1];
  3. Lack of enthusiasts [2]. 

However, even if there is an unlimited potential demand for Christianity, there are still barriers to church growth that occur from the way the church goes about its mission. Specifically, growth is limited by the church’s inability to generate the resources needed for growth.

Limit 3: Lack of Resource Production

The types of resources I have in mind are:
  1. Physical resources such as the attractiveness and functionality of the church buildings, and  their capacity.
  2. Human resources, such as pastoral staff, lay leaders of Sunday Schools, housegroups.
  3. Programmes such as marriage preparation, bereavement follow up, social engagement in the community.
  4. Social Networks such as friendships and interactions in the church, opportunities to serve and make a contribution. Sense of belonging. Social, religious and spiritual capital.

The model contains two variables, called stocks: Church represents the numbers attending church; Resource: represents all the resources that enhance growth. The central hypotheses are that church generates resources according to its size, and the resource in turn enhances recruitment to the church. This is the reinforcing feedback loop R in figure 1, where the two stocks are shown as rectangles. Opposing this is the balancing feedback loop B1 where I have assumed people leave church at a constant per capita rate.

Figure 1: Bounded Resource Model of Church Growth

The stock Resource is a soft variable, one that has meaning but is hard to quantify [3]. If it is not being generated then there is a natural depletion process, loop B2. Just think if people do not try to maintain housegroups, evangelism courses, Sunday Schools, buildings, friendships etc., then they will become less effective and get smaller.

The key dynamic with resources is that as they get larger they become harder to increase further. For example a large number of housegroups are harder to manage and replicate. More people are harder to keep track of pastorally. Larger teams of people need more attention. There is a limit to how many friends you can have. All these effects are captured in the balancing loop B3, which can be thought of as a “brake” on resource generation. Easy to start off, but increasingly more difficult to keep growing [4].

Resource is easier to measure if you think of a maximum possible resource. That is whatever the number of groups, buildings etc, it has reached its maximum effectiveness. This maximum is set at unity, which means 100% effectiveness for the resource.

Limit Determined by Resource.

Consider a church of initially 10 people with a total leaving rate of 6% per year, including deaths. Church members are assumed to be very effective at building the resource, enabling growth at 19 recruits per year per resource unit. However the resource starts low, at 12% of capacity, due to the small size of the church. The resource is an easily depletable one at 50% per year. It is built at a rate of 0.0075 per person per year, assuming there is no resistance to building from the resource itself.

Such a highly effective church grows over 60 years to get near its equilibrium value of 250. This is an upper limit that becomes increasingly harder to approach due to the difficulty in generating the resource, figure 2, curve 1.
Figure 2Church Growth Through Resource. 1 = Church, 2 = Equilibrium, 3 = Dominance of Feedback Loops

Initially the growth of the church (curve 1, figure 2) accelerates as the recruitment loop R has the strongest impact on the church. The loop with most impact is indicated by line 3 [5]. By time 20 this impact has fallen so that the leaving loop dominates. Church growth now slows. The slowing period is much longer than the acceleration period and occurs when the church is well below its final equilibrium value. Thus most growth is slowing growth, not accelerating, because of the difficulty of making resources more effective.

The resource follows a similar pattern, figure 3, and approaches its equilibrium at 79% of is possible maximum, faster than the church approaches its limit. It is not the limit on the effectiveness of the resource that has stopped church growth but the increasing difficulty of resource generation [6].

Figure 3: Resource Generation by Church. 1 = Resource, 2 = Equilibrium, 3 = Dominance of Feedback Loops

Note the resource starts slowing before church, around time 10. Slowing resource generation is a sign that church growth will also slow in the near future.

Extinction Through Lack of Resource Generation

If none of the parameters change then a church will reach an equilibrium value – its growth limit. If any of those parameters change so does its equilibrium.  If they change too much the wrong way, the church may head for extinction.

Consider a church of 70 people at equilibrium, whose ability to generate/maintain the resource drops, perhaps due to the unavailability of key personnel through congregational exhaustion, the loss of a popular minister or a decision to end a Sunday School, figure 4. Initially the resource declines fast, with church declining steadily. However, although resource decline slows down it is not enough to allow church numbers to stabilise, as there are now even less people in the church to maintain remaining resources. The church has fallen below a threshold that leads to extinction, probably much faster than figure 4 indicates if aging is taken in to account

Figure 4: Extinction Caused by Lack of Resource Generation


The effect of secularisation on church growth can be illustrated in this model by allowing the effect of resource on recruitment to drop as secularisation rises. This scenario reflects the increasing difficulty the church has of convincing a more hardened population to become believers. Additionally increasing secularisation also increases the rate of resource depletion, representing the pressure secularisation puts on the commitment of church members.

Let a small church grow through resource generation until secularisation starts at time 45, figures 5-6. Resource growth turns to decline straightaway, figure 6, curve 1, with church following a few years later, figure 5, curve 1. The reinforcing loop R is now acting in reverse, setting the path of decline to extinction. Decline is slow. Secularisation is a very long-term effect and church numbers are always healthier than the declining “equilibrium” value it is heading towards, figure 5, line 2.

Figure 5: Effect of Secularisation on Church Numbers

Figure 6: Effect of Secularisation on Resource

There is a period of around 80 years for which the equilibrium values for church numbers and resource are still positive. If secularisation could have been halted at that point, church would stabilise rather then go extinct. It is interesting to speculate which of our current denominations are still in this phase, and which have passed to the later phase where extinction is inevitable. Short of fitting data there is no definitive answer to this, but combating secularisation is an important strategy in preventing church decline by keeping the recruitment resources of church effective [7].

Strategies to Raise Limit to Growth

This model suggests 5 strategies that coul raise the limit the church numbers reach.

1. Fewer Resources Done Well are Better than Many Resources Done Poorly.
Easy-to-generate resources with little potential to recruit should be avoided. For example a few high quality social engagement projects are better than many projects where the quality and effectiveness suffers.

2. Do Not Rely on One Resource Alone.
Relying on one resource for most of the growth is risky. If for any reason factors outside the church's control affect that resource, for example the loss of a key pastor, or Sunday school teachers, then there is no alternative driver of growth. Thus two or three good resources enable a church to get through a difficult patch if one of those resources is suffering, or if secularisation renders one less effective.

3. Improve the Quality of the Resource Before its Quantity.
Give due attention to improving the effectiveness of the resource. Such improvements will better aid growth than just generating more of the resource. For example a higher quality Sunday School that attracts more people is better than just making it bigger. The higher quality that gives higher church recruitment will naturally increase church size. Likewise improvements in the quality of pastoral care, the sort that people outside the church find helpful, will aid growth more than just making more care available.

4. Reduce the Leaving Rate.
Closing the back door of the church always helps raise the capacity limit of the church. A lower leaving rate makes the resource more effective on net growth.

5. Prevent Resource Depletion.
Many resources deplete, people leave the church for natural reasons, leaving Bible studies, Sunday Schools, social programmes etc. But others leave due to events in the church that hurt them, hinder them serving God etc. Good pastoral care of people will help reduce this resource depletion, and of course make more contented people. As church grows the likelihood of such adverse effects on people increases and leaders should be on the look out for early signs of difficulties.

References and 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] For the background to soft variables in System Dynamics see the following and the references therein.
Hayward J., Jeffs R.A., Howells L. & Evans K.S. (2014). Model Building with Soft Variables: A Case Study on Riots. Presented at the 32nd International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Delft, Netherlands, July 2014

[4] Further details of the model construction are given on my website:

[5] The Loop Impact method is a relatively new tool for investigating the dominance of feedback loops. I designed to help me understand church growth, but of course I was building on the works of many others. One for the System Dynamics enthusiasts! See:

Hayward J. &; Boswell G.P. (2014). Model Behaviour and the Concept of Loop Impact: A Practical Method. System Dynamics Review, 30(1), 29-57.

Hayward J. (2012). Model Behavior and the Strengths of Causal Loops: Mathematical Insights and a Practical Method. Presented at the 30th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, St. Gallen, Switzerland, July 2012.

Hayward J. (2015). Newton’s Laws of System Dynamics. Presented at the 33rd International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Cambridge, MA, July 2015.

[6] This can be proved with mathematics but I must confess I have not written up yet either in a publication or on my website. It has probably been proved by someone else in a different model. Such is science!

[7] Further details on the model results website are given on my website:

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Why Revivals Stopped in the UK

And The Churches Declined

In two previous posts I showed that the growth of the Presbyterian denomination in Wales came from a sequence of revivals that gave it a high conversion rate. Consequently its subsequent decline was due to a drop in its conversion rate resulting from the demise of revivals [1,2].  As the growth and decline of this denomination is typical of all the major pre-1900 denominations in the UK, I have put forward two complementary theses:

  1. The growth of the church in the UK from mid 1730s to 1870s was due primarily to revivals giving a large number of conversions.
  2. The twentieth century decline of the UK church is due to a lack of revivals and their associated conversions.

A key graph is reproduced from [2] to illustrate these theses, figure 1. The graph shows the growth of the church as a percentage of the total population up to the 1870s, together with the various Welsh revivals that drove that growth. Percentage growth indicates the presence of conversion over and above the retention of the children of church members regardless of the birth rate. After the 1870s there is decline with only one major revival left in 1904/5. The pattern of membership percentage in figure 1 is typical of most pre-1900 denominations, where data is known, hence the establishment of the two theses across all such churches.

Figure 1
The Presbyterian Church grew as a percentage of the population from the first revival in 1735 up to the mid 1870s. After this date it failed to keep pace with population growth (although it continued to grow until 1905 [1]). The 1870s was the end of the period of major revivals bar the 1904/5 one. The church has lost ground in society ever since, and is back to its 1760 percentage.

It was shown [1,2] that the change from growth to decline was due to a falling conversion rate. For the period 1767-1869 conversion was around 4% [2] with a revival peak of over 6% typical [1,2]. However the conversion rate by the 1890s was down to 1.26% and by the 1960s it was 0.46%.

Thus the hypotheses that revivals cause high conversions, which in turn gives growth, is established with the end of revivals leading to the downturn. I will implicitly assume in what follows that the past revivals were a work of God. I appreciate not everyone holds this view and propose other explanations. These issues are dealt with in a separate post [3].

Clearly the 1870s period contains the turning point of church percentage membership, a drop of conversion rate, and no more major revivals, bar one in Wales. Thus to understand the cause of church decline the significance of the period around the 1870s needs addressing [4].

Six reasons for the ending of revivals are proposed. They are not independent nor are they alternatives, but are causally intertwined.

1. Institutionalism
As denominations grew they needed more formal structures to operate. For example, the Welsh Presbyterians opened their first training school in 1837 and by 1845 they insisted that all churches should be in the charge of an ordained minister [5]. The first general assembly to regulate the church met in 1864 [5,6]. Indeed Griffiths in his 1906 history of the church identifies four periods of institutional development: The revival period 1735-1785, the organising period 1785-1811, the preaching period 1811-1860 and the educational period 1860-1900 [6].  Although such institutionalism was done with the good intention of improving quality and organisation, there was also the danger of stifling lay involvement, the very enthusiasts needed to generate revival.

Likewise as all denominations grew through the 19th century their structures became more formalised. This resulted in the churches having to put more effort into servicing their infrastructures at the expense of mission. This could have distracted churches from pursuing revival, which is much messier. Additionally it put more power in the hands of a small number of leading ministers and seminary teachers, which would make it easier for a different ideology to take hold in the churches, perhaps one hostile to revival.

Institutionalism perhaps is not the direct cause of the demise of revivals, but it may have created a context that would make such an end easier.

2. Rationalism
Some people see the middle of the 19th century as the rise of rationalism and its undermining of religion.  In particular the year 1859 is seen as a watershed with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which was followed by many years of claims that science had made religion redundant, especially supernatural events such as revival, miracles and the work of the Holy Spirit. Modern man had supposedly grown out of such things.

However, on its own, rationalism in the 19th century is not a convincing explanation for the end of revivals. The rise of rationalism and “reason” as competing ideologies to supernatural religion occurred two centuries before this, but although it produced the likes of the French Revolution, the works of Thomas Paine, and the like, it did not prevent revivals in Britain and America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Rationalism does not spell the end of religion.

Even the effect of controversies between religion and Darwin can be overplayed. Theories of evolution predated his work by some years, and the geological revisions of the age of the earth were settled in the late 1700s [7], without undue effect on a supernatural framework, or the authority of scripture.  Many Christians had already adopted Calvin’s principle of accommodation in such matters, but it did not stop them seeking and receiving revival from the Holy Spirit [8].

3. Liberalism
If rationalism as a competing external ideology had limited effect on the occurrence of revivals, the same cannot be said for the spread of rationalism within churches. From the 18th century onwards a growing number of theologians were advocating that human reason rather than divine revelation was the determining factor in matters of Christian doctrine and behaviour [9]. This spread within Presbyterian and Independent churches on both sides of the Atlantic and spawned Unitarianism. However much of the church remained unaffected, largely because there was still no centralised training for ministers in most denominations. In the case of Wales the dominance of the Welsh language until the mid-1800s also helped prevent its spread.

By the late 19th century the rationalistic ideology, now called liberalism [10], was taking hold of seminaries and universities. This influenced the training of ministers, many of whom were now acquiring their theological education through university degrees [9,11]. This is seen in Welsh Presbyterianism in Griffiths [6], who lists the education and religious experience of the ministers over its history. It is clear the ministers from mid 1800s onwards were much better qualified than the denominations founders, often with university degrees, but unlike their predecessors little is said of their conversions.  Indeed Griffiths refers to the period from 1860 as the church’s “education period”, as if learning had now replaced revival and preaching as the church’s main task.

The spread of liberalism within the church led to clashes between liberal and conservative Christians. Two examples of this clash were the down grade controversy in the Baptist church, with conservatives led by C.H. Spurgeon [12,13]; and the departure from orthodoxy of the Free Church of Scotland [11], ultimately leading to schism. The battles have continued to this day in almost all denominations.

Cleary a rationalistic approach to Christian belief will not sit well with a belief in revival as a supernatural work of God, thus it would be easy to lay the blame for the end of revivals with the rise of liberal Christianity. But it needs to be asked in what specific way did ecclesiastical rationalism prevent revivals.  Sheehan [12], in commenting in the late 1800s, gives a clue:

It was not that error was openly propagated or that truth was denied. Rather it was that the truths of the scriptures were ignored and replaced by inoffensive generalities.

People notice the presence error more than the absence of truth. That leads to two specific truths whose demise may be responsible for the end of revival.

4. The Doctrine of Hell
Michael Watts in his lecture on why the English stopped going to church firmly lays the blame for church decline on the demise of the preaching of the doctrine of hell [13]. He argued that the fear of future punishment had been the most effective tool in winning converts during the period of revivals. With the doctrine put to one side, as occurred the late 1800s, the need for people to accept Christ as saviour became less urgent as the future consequences of the failure to make that decision was now less clear.

I would go further. The absence of the reality of hell also took the edge off Christian ministers, and witnesses, by clouding the need to make converts out of compassion for their lost eternal state. Growing churches became more important than saving souls, illustrating a shift in emphasis from the affairs of the next world to those in this world.  A shift that further emphasised the needs of the church as a religious institution over those of the individual.

Liberal Christianity was optimistic, believing it needed to create a heaven on earth that could be enjoyed now. A noble aim, though one that ignores the fact that no one can enjoy such a hope indefinitely as death is inevitable! Our need of the next world cannot be ignored, otherwise there is no ultimate hope.

5. Future Hope
Iain Murray argues that the revivals of the past were rooted in the hope of the worldwide success of the gospel through such outpourings, whose completion would usher in the ultimate hope of the return of Christ and his visible eternal kingdom [14]. Of course both these hopes, the Spirit empowered spread of Christianity, and the second coming of Christ, are firmly supernatural in origin. Thus these two positive hopes, along with their negative counterpart, the fear of hell, were inevitable casualties of the lat 19th century rationalistic infiltration into Christianity.

The result is a version of Christianity devoid of a future eternal hope, leaving it as just another humanistic movement along with all the others that have come and gone. Christianity becomes an ideology of the here and now, rather than the world to come.

American theologian Geerhardus Vos sums up this change in the life of the believer: The gauge of the health in the Christian is the degree of his gravitation to the future eternal world [15].  The loss of emphasis on future hope creates unhealthy Christians. He further says:

The modern, humanistic movement prefers to cultivate the secular and earthly in part because it has come to doubt the heavenly and eternal; its zeal for the improvement of the world often springs not from faith, but from scepticism. The Church by compromising and affiliating with this would sign her own death-warrant as a distinct institution. When religion submerges itself in the concerns of time and becomes a mere servant of these, it thereby renders itself subject to the inexorable flux of time.

Not only does the loss of the future hope give unhealthy Christians, but it also leads to an unhealthy church. This is a church with no reason for conversions, no mechanism of supernatural revivals to bring it about, and ultimately no engine for growth. The consequence is a slow decline to extinction; trying unsuccessfully to compete with all other ideologies on temporal issues; unable to confidently deliver the one thing it had that was different to everyone else: the transcendent King of Kings, Jesus Christ who pours out his Spirit, saving souls.

6. The Hand of God
But surely, if revival is a supernatural work of God, how can the all-powerful Lord of Glory be stopped by an ideology of human origin? Surely God can just send a revival and blow rationalism away?

When the elders of the churches in the Outer Hebrides were faced with the poor state of their churches after the Second World War, they quickly diagnosed the problem: the Most High has a controversy with the nation [16]. Or as it says in Micah 6:2 the LORD hath a controversy with his people. They understood the absence of revival as a sign of Divine displeasure.

Could it be that God withdrew revival from Western Christianity at the end of the 19th century in order to bring a wayward church back to himself? A church that had constructed a rationalistic narrative for its own existence, a narrative without a need for divine revelation or divine intervention, and without a regard for an eternal future and God’s ultimate glory?

We know that time and again in the Bible God deals with his people when they go astray. Psalm 78 gives a good overview of this phenomenon. God is not just the author of their flourishing, but also of their downturn, as it is ultimately for their good and rooted in his compassion for them. Her adversaries have become the master; her enemies prosper; for the LORD has afflicted her because of the multitude of her transgressions (Lam 1:5).

Look at figure 1 again. There are many Christians who can look at the rise of the church from 1730s to the 1870s through all the indicated revivals and say with certainty “this is the Lord’s doing”. Perhaps you are one of those. But can you also look at the subsequent decline and say the same? That the absence of revivals, conversion, and thus the decline of the church, is due to the action of God himself because we have turned from him?

Can we apply the truth of 1 Kings 9:8-9 to church decline? And as for this house, which is exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and will hiss, and say,  ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’  Then they will answer, ‘Because they forsook the Lord their God’

I appreciate this is not a rationalistic answer to the absence of revival and church decline. But seeing the issue in terms of reason alone, and not relying on revelation, IS the source of the problem. It is not that rational thinking is not helpful. We do need to think it out; that is why I use church growth models! The models are rooted in mathematics and the laws of logic, about as rational as you can get. The six reasons for the absence of revivals given above could be linked together in a causal loop diagram, using the rationalist thinking of system dynamics. But such thinking is not enough – rationalism is bounded by human finiteness. We need to settle the controversy that God has with us because of what we have done against him.

The good news is that such reconciliation with God is possible if we are humble enough to admit we went wrong. The Bible is also the story of God’s deliverance of his people, their restoration and the glory of God filling the land. He is already reviving his church around the world. There is no reason why we in the West cannot repent of past errors and again be a church offering people an eternal hope, based on his revelation, seeing conversions brought about by revivals where the Lord Jesus Christ, not man, has the pre-eminence.

References & Notes

[1] Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions,

[2] Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Revival,

[3] Blog: Revival and Church Growth – Dealing with Objections

[4] Michael Watts [13] argues for the 1880s. There may well be different years for different denominations, however all are in the latter part of the 19th century.

[5] The Presbyterian Church of Wales: Our History.

[6] Griffiths, E. (1906). The Presbyterian Church of Wales Historical Handbook 1735-1905. Hughes and Son, Wrexham.

[7] Roberts, M. B. (2007). Genesis Chapter 1 and geological time from Hugo Grotius and Marin Mersenne to William Conybeare and Thomas Chalmers (1620–1825). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273(1), 39-49.

[8] Calvin wrote at the time that the astronomical theories of Copernicus were causing controversy within the church, both Catholic and Protestant.  It wasn’t so much that the church was anti-science but that astronomy was deemed a branch of pure mathematics, not of the physical sciences, thus his theory was seen at the time as an unnecessary mathematical trick. It would take later generations, Kepler and then Newton, who would bring astronomy into physics and give it scientific respectability.

Despite this Calvin in his commentary on Genesis deliberately stays away from the Copernican controversy, stating that the Bible is not the place to learn astronomy.

For example on verse 6 he says: He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.

On verse 16: Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.

The principle of accommodation probably did not originate with Calvin, but he does express neatly at a critical time for the church. The principle means that there is no need to reconcile every thing in scripture with everything in science as the two disciplines are addressing different issues in different ways. It does mean that at any time there will be things that cannot be understood using both the Bible and science. But as scientific understanding is changeable that is a tension that can be lived with as it often sorts itself out with hindsight. Living with lack of understanding is fundamental to science as its scope is limited to explaining one proposition from another, but it still leaves the original proposition unexplained. Science can’t construct something out of nothing!

[9] Murray I.H. (2000). Evangelicalism Divided. Banner of Truth, chapter 1.

[10] I think the names liberalism, or Liberal Christianity, are the wrong descriptions, as the word “liberal” has shades of meaning, such as free, tolerant, abundant, moderate etc.; it is used in politics; and it is used in approaches to life generally. Christians can be liberal in one thing, e.g. dress code, and conservative in something else, e.g. alcohol consumption. A “liberal” church could be one allowing any beliefs, or one with a strict adherence to one form of “liberal” theology and intolerant of conservative theologies. D.M. Kelley argued for a division of churches between strict and lenient, but as pointed by D.E. Miller a liberal church could be just as structurally strict as a conservative one. Thus I would suggest Liberal Christianity is better named Rationalistic Christianity, and for the influence of rationalism to be both variable and multi-dimensional.

Kelley D.M. (1986). Why Conservative Churches are Growing. Mercer University Press.

Miller D.E. (1997). Reinventing American Protestantism. University of California Press, p.186.

[11] Murray I.H. (2015). How Scotland Lost its Hold of the Bible, Banner of Truth Magazine, August/September.

[12] Sheehan, R.J. (1985). C.H. Spurgeon and the Modern Church. Grace Publications.

[13] Watts, M. (1995). Why Did the English Stop Going to Church? Friends of Dr  Williams’s Library, lecture 49.

[14] Murray I.H. (1971). The Puritan Hope. Banner of Truth.

[15] Vos, G. (1920). Eschatology of the Psalter.  The Princeton Theological Review 18, 1-43.

[16] Campbell D. (1954). The Lewis Awakening 1949-1953. The Faith Mission.
Reprinted as Revival in the Hebrides, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform and available on Kindle.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Revival and Church Growth – Dealing with Objections

In two previous posts [1,2] I used the growth and decline of the Presbyterian denomination in Wales to put forward two complementary theses:

  1. The growth of the church in the UK from mid 1730s to the 1870s was due primarily to revivals giving a large number of conversions.
  2. The twentieth century decline of the UK church is due to a lack of revivals and their associated conversions.

A key graph is reproduced from [2] to illustrate these theses, figure 1. The graph shows the growth of the church as a percentage of the total population up to the 1870s, with the various Welsh revivals that drove that growth indicated by vertical lines. Percentage growth indicates the presence of conversion over and above the retention of the children of church members, regardless of the birth rate. Subsequently there is proportional decline, with only one major revival left in 1904/5.

Figure 1

There are people who object to the thesis that church growth is caused by revivals. Instead they claim revival is a social fad, with church growth having natural, rather than spiritual, causes. These objections need addressing. Consider four common objections.

1. Church growth during revivals was due to population growth. I have already demonstrated that this is not the case, as denominational growth during the 19th century was faster than population growth. Figure 1 shows church membership as a proportion of society. Even if the church retained all its children then there must have been conversions in addition.

It turns out that child retention at the end of the 19th century was only 50%, a rate of 1.45% of the church per year, with conversions from outside only just less at 1.26% per year [1,2]. During the 1904/5 revival there was a sudden increase in conversions to 6% per year, far more than child retention, without any sudden increase in population [2]. Revival gave conversion far above biological growth and thus has more effect on church growth than population growth.

2. Church growth during revivals was due to miners having to join the chapels of their managers [3]. As can be seen from figure 1 most of the revivals in Wales were over by 1859/60. There were only a few very minor local revivals until the last national one in 1904. However the bulk of the South Wales coalfield was not built until after 1860. This can be illustrated by the fact that South Wales coal production in 1854 was only 8.8 million tons compared with 57 million tons by 1913 [4].

Likewise the Rhondda valley, famous for its coal production, only had a population of 3035 in 1861, compared with a massive 113,735 in 1901 [5]. Sometimes people are surprised when they see few references to the Rhondda Valley in accounts of the 1859/60 revival. The reason is that there were very few people there at the time! Industrialisation came later.

Thus the period of largest population growth in coal mining areas occurred when there were the least number of revivals. What is more likely is that the massive number of internal migrants had already been converted in prior revivals elsewhere, and then chose their chapels in line with the jobs they obtained. But this made no difference to the national increase in church membership [6].

3. Church growth was just transfer from other denominations.  Data shows that all denominations in England, Wales and Scotland grew through the 19th century. It was a century that saw a huge rise in religious participation, especially in the first half [7].

4. The 1904/5 revival had no lasting effect on Wales. In comparison to the previous revivals this is true as the churches declined during the 20th century. It was a revival out of time, see figure 1 [8]. But the previous fifteen or more revivals had effects of more than a generation, massive church growth, and a changed religious and moral landscape in Wales. That is why the country came to be known as a land of chapels and revival. 

Hopefully this deals with four of the common objections to the reality of revival as the cause of church growth in the 19th century. That century saw a dramatic rise in UK church participation due to the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in conversion. It was a time of God given revivals, as was most of the 18th century. The contrast with the 20th century decline and lack of revival is striking. Why revivals have ceased demands an explanation – that will be the next blog.

References & Notes

[1] Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions,

[2] Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Revival,

[3] That churches only grew because miners needed to join the church of their managers to get work is one I have heard many times from churches in Wales. They even claim they have seen the membership books to prove it!  For some reason it is church members and ministers who are amongst the most sceptical about revival, and that is across all churchmanships, evangelical included. Perhaps it is fear rather than scepticism that drives this incorrect theory?

[4] Wales Underground, Big Pit – National Mining Museum of Wales.

[5] The population of the Rhondda Valley 1801-1921 is given in John, A.H. (1980). Glamorgan County History, Volume V, Industrial Glamorgan from 1700 to 1970. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, and helpfully reproduced on Wikipedia: A graph is below, figure 2. 

Although there was massive chapel growth in the Rhondda from 1870 due to internal migration, this was after the main period of revivals. There was a local revival in the closing decades of the 19th century, and much evangelistic activity, but the bulk of national converts predates the development of the Rhondda Valley, except the 1904/5 revival.

Figure 2

[6] Data for chapels in the Rhondda Valley show massive increases in membership during the 1904/5 revival, far more than can be explained by a sudden rise in employment. For example chapel membership of one town, Ton Pentre, increased by 60% from 1901 to 1906, most of the growth in 1905. This growth is replicated across all the Rhondda towns. Mining and population did not increase that fast on that timescale.

Data from: Kidger M.E. (2012). Colliers and Christianity: Religion in the Coalmining Communities of South Wales and the East Midlands C1860 to 1930s with s Particular Focus on the Rhondda Valleys in South Wales and the Hucknall and Shirebrook Areas in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. PhD Thesis. University of Nottingham.

[7] Williams J. (1985), Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics, Government Statistical Service HMSO.

Currie, R., Gilbert, A. D., & Horsley, L. S. (1977). Churches and churchgoers: patterns of church growth in the British Isles since 1700. Oxford University Press, USA.

[8] Although 1904/5 revival was followed by decline in Wales, it had an enormous effect on the rest of the world. See note [12] in Church Decline Caused by Lack of Revival,