Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Conversion – Hearts Strangely Warmed

The Meaning of “Conversion” in Church Growth Models

When I present my models on church growth I invariably refer to the process by which a person joins, or starts attending, a church as their conversion. Like the words “believer” and “unbeliever” this often causes some discussion with people, and various suggestions for renaming the conversion process as join, or recruit, etc. The latter are perhaps less threatening as they indicate an outside view of the process, rather than a comment on the inner state of a person’s heart. Nevertheless I stand my ground, and it usually gets me into trouble!

I realise a word like “conversion”, can comes as a threat. The King James  translation of Matt 18:3 says: Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. And Acts 3:19: Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out. Pretty blunt stuff! Unless something happens – you are lost. Of course modern translations have eliminated “convert” and replaced it with “turn” or “change”; no doubt more literally correct, but perhaps lacking the profundity of what is required[1].

Of course controversy over the use of the word “conversion” is not new. John Wesley caused a stir when he wrote in his journal, May 24 1738:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Although he does not use the word “conversion” here, this event has been described ever after as the moment of his conversion, as stated in the plaque at the spot in Aldersgate Street, figure 1, figure 2. Certainly his journal entry has all the hallmarks of conversion: “change which God works in the heart”, “trust Christ alone for salvation”, “taken away sins”. This journal entry is displayed outside the London Museum on Aldersgate Street, figure 3.
 
Figure 1: Plaque on the location of John Wesley's Conversion, Postman's Park, Aldersgate Street

Figure 2: Aldersgate Street as it is today

Figure 3: Stone of the Journal Entry of Wesley's Conversion, Near The London Museum

What is more controversial about John Wesley’s conversion is that he was already baptised, confirmed, an ordained minister, been doing works of Christian charity and had even conducted evangelistic campaigns in America. He wrote in his journal January 24 1738: I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me? Clearly he believed that even being a minister was no proof of a person being converted.  However, as I hope to show, this is not how I use the word “conversion” in church growth models.

Conversion Model of Church Growth

Consider the following simple system dynamics model of church growth, figure 4:

Figure 4: Conversion Model of Church Growth


The meaning of “conversion” depends on the interpretation of  “believers”, which in turn depends on how the number of believers are measured. For most models two measures are used: either the number of regular attendees at church, using the definition of “regular” relevant to that church; or the number of members of the church, again using the church’s definition of membership. 

If attendance is used, then “conversion” means those start attending in a given year. They are converted in the sense that their Sunday habit has changed. If membership is used then it is their willingness to identify with a church that has changed. They have publicly changed their identity.

Clearly these meanings are not the same as the theological view, which sees conversion as an inner change in the heart. This inner change can happen to church attendees, or church members, not just unbelievers. Thus there may well be unconverted people, in the spiritual sense, in the stock of believers; John Wesley would have been one. Indeed there could be spiritually converted people in the stock of unbelievers, though hopefully only for a temporary period.  There is no attempt, or intention, in the church growth models to model the change in numbers of spiritually converted people; it would be impossible to gain the data necessary to validate the model. Indeed because church people mix together in a different way to the way they mix with those outside church, the system dynamics model of figure 4 would be rendered too simplistic for spiritual conversion[2].

"Conversion" is The Correct Word

Yet there are two senses in which “conversion” is a good word to use for the flow. 

Firstly, the word “conversion” refers to something instantaneous, which is necessary for a flow. Louis Berkof states: conversion in its most specific sense denotes a momentary change and not a process like sanctification. It is a change that takes place once and that cannot be repeated[3]. That is very much the essence of a flow in system dynamics, events that occur at a moment in time. Indeed it is measured as “people converted per year”, but could equally be “people converted per second”, it is that instantaneous.

Of course “seconds” would not be very appropriate as most people cannot pin down the time of their conversion that clearly. It is much easier for people to decide which stock they are in, Unbeliever or Believer, than to give the time at which the change occurred![4]

If instead of using the word “convert” the expression “start attending” were used, then this does not carry the same instantaneous sense, because of the interpretation of regular attendance. Many people start attending gradually; it is an ongoing process, not momentary, thus not a good name for a flow. Likewise “recruit” can be an extended process, in this case carried out by the church through campaigns and the like. “Join” can be treated as instantaneous, the act of having one's name put on a book. But, as the second reason will show, it sends out the wrong message.

There is a second, and more important, reason why “convert” is better than “join”, or “recruit”. The word “convert” leaves open the agency of that change. “Join” implies the agency lies with the person joining – their choice, whereas “recruit” emphasises more the agency of the church in bringing it about – they went out and got them!

I have always intended my church growth models to be as broad as possible, modelling the choice to take up religion by unbelievers, achieved through the action of the church in evangelistic campaigns and witness, empowered by outpourings of the Holy Spirit, or revivals, where the emphasis is on God’s agency in the conversion. If the model tries to tie down the agency in the change from unbelievers to believers too much to any of these three, then it will restrict the understanding and application of the model, and worse, restrict the approach to dealing with church decline.

There are three components in conversion: the demand side of  human agency, activities of the unbelievers in their conversion such as believe, commit, repent; the supply-side of human agency, preaching, evangelism, persuasion; and the Holy Spirit’s agency, the divine-side, new birth, conviction, new life, opened hearts. A model that so ties down the agency as to rule out one or more of those sides is too restrictive. It will set up model boundaries that are narrow and reduce the ability to draw conclusions.

Restrictive Thinking from Narrow Model Boundaries 

An example of this restrictive thinking came about recently in an article in Future First [5] about the perception UK society has of church, Christianity and the like. Not surprisingly the less connected people were with church the more negatively they viewed it, Christians and the things of Christianity.  The article ended by saying that it was deeply troubling that the church’s message of grace appeared to be masked by a perception of judgmentalism, anti-homosexuality, hypocrisy and being old-fashioned.  The writer concluded by saying that the church had much to do to change perceptions and present the unique selling point that no-one else offers, the grace and love of God.

Despite being an interesting and well-researched article, the conclusion to me appears to be too narrow, that the church’s lack of growth results from the way the church presents itself. The focus of the solution was all on the supply of religion by the church, which is inadequate because of the image it portrays. The advice was that the church needs to change its image to one more in tune with society. This is a solely supply-side solution because the problem is perceived as supply-side, the barrier set up by the church to those who wish to join. It has left out the demand-side, that the people’s perception is negative because the people outside need converting! They demand the wrong things. It has left out the divine-side, as it needs God to warm their hearts as much as he did with John Wesley!

Indeed if the church proclaimed its real unique selling point: the death and resurrection of Christ, I would expect there to be more unbelievers with a negative perception of church. The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, 1 Cor 2:14. The unbeliever may have no problem with the grace and love of God, many religions have this, it is not unique to Christianity – but it makes no demands. On its own, it reduces church growth to one of  “attract and recruit” rather than “persuade and convert”. The grace and love of God are in the context that people need conversion, the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, as John Wesley said. God’s grace and love provided the means to carry this out, historically on the cross, and effectually in the heart by the Holy Spirit.

This is why I always use the word “convert” in my models. They need to encapsulate the three sides of the process of moving from unbelievers to believers: the message the church must supply, which may well incur hostility; what must change in unbelievers’ demand, the desire for God on his terms;  and the work of God which matches the demand with the supply – demand for salvation in  Christ. I like to think that my models can proclaim the gospel as well as model church growth! 

Notes and References

[1] Perhaps modern translations of scripture are translated by academics and scholars, whereas the Authorised/King James version and its immediate precursors was translated by evangelists and pastors? Just a thought!

[2] The difference in mixing within church and without is a matter of the mechanism. Most churches are embedded in large enough communities that the number of contacts a church member makes with unbelievers is limited by the member’s available time, not the size of the community. However Christians form themselves into different churches whose numbers are such that some degree of regular contact and friendship can be maintained. Thus the contact believers have with each other is limited more by the size of their church community, than their available time, unless that church is large. These differences affect the maths; the former is called standard incidence, the latter mass action. The model is described in Church Growth via Enthusiasts and Renewal, 28th International Conference of the International System Dynamics Society, Seoul, South Korea, July 2010

[3] Berkoff  L Systematic Theology, p.485, Banner of Truth,  1988 edition.

[4] There will of course be people who cannot decide which of the two categories they belong to. It would be easy to invent a third category Don’t Know and connect more flows. However as the model is counting membership or attendance then an unsure category is not usually required.

[5] Will Bissett, Perceptions of Those Outside the Church, Future First, No. 34, Brierley Consultancy, August 2014. ISSN 2040-0268.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Membership Decline in the Southern Baptist Convention


Every year the new edition of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches publishes the membership figures for all the Christian denominations in the USA [1]. Heading up the list of protestant churches is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), very much the flagship denomination of Evangelicalism [2]. However, despite a century of strong growth, the SBC has turned a corner and is now showing an annual decline in membership. Decline was once the province of the liberal churches; the conservative ones typified by growth [3]. Not surprisingly such decline in the heartland of American Evangelical Christianity has not gone without note [4].

Back in 2002 I applied the Limited Enthusiasm model [5] of church growth to a number of USA denominations, including the SBC. At that point the model showed that the SBC had experienced the sort of growth associated with revivals, but it had slowed before 2000. The model predicted growth would continue to slow and would be followed in the 2000s by a small decline.  That decline would be a natural phenomenon called overshoot, often seen when there has been previous rapid growth.

Overshoot occurs in a population when it exceeds its natural equilibrium value, often caused by its growth mechanism depending on a smaller subset of the population than that which governs its decline [6]. The subsequent decline ultimately causes the population, the church in this case, to re-balance at its equilibrium value, albeit over timescales of many generations.

The SBC result was published in a paper in 2005 [7]. So with news of that denomination’s actual decline, I was keen to apply the model again to see if the decline matched the predictions. If so, the decline in the SBC could be a temporary re-balancing, rather than the start of a long-term trend.

Membership SBC 1980-2012

To get a sense of perspective I will look at the SBC data from 1980 onwards in comparison to earlier figures.  Figure 1 shows membership from 1950 [8]. The growth of the SBC is impressive, and the decline from 2006 is quite small by comparison. This is not a church that is going to disappear in the next 20 years!


Figure 1: Membership of the SBC from 1950-2012

To get an idea of how much of this growth was making inroads into converting the USA population, the membership figures are compared with the population, expressed as a percentage (figure 2). This graph looks less dramatic, showing that the SBC has been losing ground on a growing population since the 1980s. Its downturn from 2006 is not just a result of factors in the 21st century, but must include the outworking of forces at least 20 years earlier. The SBC should have been growing much faster that it was in the 1970s and 1980s to have been considered a strongly growing denomination.  


Figure 2: Membership of the SBC as a Percentage of the USA Population

That this membership percentage had been rising up to 1980 indicates that conversions were a significant part of its growth prior to that date. There is no evidence that I am aware of that family size among SBC members was significantly larger than the USA norm, the other possible cause.

Before going any further it should be noted that the largest protestant denomination in the USA, the SBC in this case, has never been much more than 6% of the population. The strength of Christianity in the USA lies in its diversity rather than in a single denomination, in marked contrast to European countries.

Data Fitting

To compare the Limited Enthusiasm model with the data, the1980 figure is taken as the starting point. The data fitting technique treats all points equally, so starting earlier will give the past too much priority over recent figures.  As the aim is to see if the decline is a natural outworking of the previous growth the data fitting is stopped in 2006 but the model is allowed to run to 2012 to compare with actual data.

Because some parameters in the model are difficult to estimate, a range of scenarios are produced, based on whether they predict a moderate growth, or a small decline, between 2006 and 2012. Two such scenarios are given in figure 3, and compared with membership figures [9]. All data fits up to 2006 indicate the church is well above the extinction threshold. However it is clear that even the most pessimistic scenario cannot explain the post 2006 downturn.


Figure 3: Limited Enthusiasm Model Compared with SBC Membership 1980-2012

If the cause of the downturn is not overshoot resulting from the prior rapid growth, then what could be its cause? I suggest three:

1.     The leaving rate from the SBC is increasing. If the leaving rate steadily increases from 5% in 2006 to 5.8% in 2012 then this is sufficient to explain the data. A higher leaving rate could be due to members switching to more contemporary churches, or even to more liberal churches; the former being more likely given the even faster decline of the liberal ones.

2.     The ability of the SBC to make converts has been falling. This could be due to a lack of confidence among members of the SBC undermining their witness, or an increasing sense of intimidation by non-Christian society.

3.     The general population is becoming less open to the SBC, whether other Christians who could potentially join, or unbelievers. Either way a greater proportion of non-SBC people are hostile to the SBC.

The decline could be a combination of all three effects [10,11].

If the leaving rate continues to rise, as suggested by the recent data, then the effect on the SBC membership figures will be dramatic (curve 1. figure 4). The church will drop to almost 12 million by 2025, well below its 1980 figure. If the cause is falling conversion rate (curve 2, figure 4), or an increasing hardening rate of potential converts (curve 3, figure 4) the decline is more dramatic, under 12 million by 2025.



Figure 4: Scenarios to Explain SBC Decline

Conclusion


If the SBC is not to see serious decline, the source of its drop in membership figures needs to be identified and dealt with. However the model shows that small changes in the parameters can make significant differences in the numbers in the church, thus there will be realistic measures that will improve the parameters and halt the decline. As the SBC is one of the most successful denominations in the USA, has clear beliefs and a commitment to mission, there seems no reason to believe it will not do what is needed to see more conversions and to keep people in church. As such there is no reason why the pessimistic scenarios of figure 4 should happen, provided action is taken now and not delayed.


References and Notes

 
[1] The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, National Council of Churches, USA.  http://www.yearbookofchurches.org/

[2] The 15 Largest Protestant Denominations in the United States, Thom S. Rainer, The Christian Post. March 27 2013.

[3] Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Dean Kelley. Mercer University Press, 1986.

[4] The Decline of Evangelical America, John S. Dickerson, The New York Times Sunday Review, 15/12/12.

Southern Baptist Churches Growing in Numbers, Declining in Membership, Marty King,  
Charisma News  6/11/3013 

Southern Baptist ranks decline, once again, Cheryl K. Chumley, The Washington Times, 6/6/13

[5] A description of the Limited Enthusiasm model of church growth is on my website.

[6] The hypothesis of the limited enthusiasm model is that growth is primarily caused by a subset of the population, called enthusiasts, who are responsible for the conversion of those outside the church. Typically enthusiasts are a small proportion of the church. However decline results from people leaving, which affects the whole church, a much larger number of people. Conversion slows when the number of enthusiasts starts dropping, but losses do not drop immediately as the church is still large. Thus the church sees a period of net decline after its rapid growth

Overshoot can also occur if growth is dominated by births rather than conversion. This is a cohort effect due to changing birth rates and the delay between deaths and births.

[7] A General Model of Church Growth and Decline, John Hayward, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 29(3), pp.177-207, 2005.

[8] Membership figures for the SBC from 2004 are obtained from the Southern Baptist Annual Reports, http://www.sbcec.org/. Earlier figures are obtained from adherents.com, http://www.adherents.com/,  who use a variety of published sources.

[9] For other parameter values see Church Growth Modelling website http://www.churchmodel.org.uk/LongDecline4.html

[10] There are a number of conditions associated with these results. See Church Growth Modelling website http://www.churchmodel.org.uk/LongDecline4.html

[11] On a technical note, observe that the down turn in the membership data after the highest point in 2006 is faster, or more curved, then the approach to that point. In social diffusion theory such a turning point is normally explained by a single feedback loop that changes the way it impacts on the population variables; it flips polarity. The result is a symmetrical curve. In the case of the SBC data the down turn is more curved than the growth side, suggesting at least one more process has come into play, possibly another feedback loop. Thus the effect is most likely persistent. Identifying the new processes with certainty would require detailed knowledge of conversion and leaving rates.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

George Carey and Church Decline


It is not often church decline makes the national newspapers, but when a former Archbishop says the church is on the brink of extinction I guess such news is too hard to resist, even for a largely non-religious media [1]. What George Carey actually said was: “we are one generation away from extinction”, meaning the Church of England [2]. Contrary to the Daily Mail headline he did not use the word “brink” in the transcript of his speech. However in the light of the data fitting I have done recently, where the Church of England’s attendance data was compared with the Limited Enthusiasm church growth model, the Mail’s headline is quite prophetic as the church is just on the extinction threshold [3].

Rather than rely on the newspapers I thought I would look at what George Carey actually said and see how it squares with my church growth modelling.  In fact his talk was very insightful and the warnings of decline were balanced with some very encouraging advice to the church. One of his opening remarks sets the tone:

My time when I was a Minister in Durham – now a long time ago – convinced me that churches can grow, should grow and must grow. I firmly believe that the most dire situation can be redeemed and the most impossible church can be turned around.

That is the sort of comment I wish I had come up with, but then he is a former leader of the church so he does know more about this than me! It summarises what I have been trying to show with my models that small changes in effort in church life can change decline to growth, even revival growth. This is what tipping point theory in any form of social diffusion is about, small things making a big difference. The principle is analysed in the academic world [4] and popularised as a best seller [5]. So there is always hope, and especially so for the church where we have God’s promises to grow the church and take the gospel to all nations, and His power to deliver it!

The former archbishop set out four challenges for the church:

1. Let us appreciate the church but let us re-imagine it.

He further explains this by saying “What I am urging is a return to basics where our expectation is for transformed lives” [2]. The church needs to recognise that the preached gospel changes lives.

Now I have just come back from a sociology of religion conference in the USA. As ever I get in trouble because my models use words like “unbeliever”, and “conversion”. I get suggestions to change conversion to recruitment [6]. I agree if I were modelling a political party, a pressure group or the local tennis club “recruit” would be an ideal word. But Jesus does not recruit people, he changes them, they are converted from the world to Him. The event as far as the church is concerned is entirely different. New Christians do not just join a club; they are changed people.

Yet often I find churches prefer to think in non-spiritual terms, as if the spiritual side of church embarrasses them. When the church thinks in the world’s terms it gets the world’s results. Thus George Carey is spot on when he says the church needs to re-imagine itself and think of itself in spiritual terms. He presents various pieces of evidence to show that the world is crying for spiritual fulfillment, and only the church can meet that, as only Christ can deliver it.

By the way I will not be changing my “convert” variables to “recruit”. I will continue to get in trouble!

2. Our task is to nurture fellow Christians but also to grow authentic disciples.

It is not enough to encourage believers; they must also be discipled. That is, there is growth in quality, not just quantity. He quotes the Saddleback Church approach of four discipleship categories: membership, maturity, ministry, and mission. The aim is to release all Christians into ministry and mission, and thus be part of the process that builds the church and gathers new converts.

Like my models there is recognition that there are different categories of Christians and the aim is to progress people through. This is the basis of the Discipleship System Dynamics Model developed by some church pastors and myself [7]. Once we have recognized that there are such categories of Christians, strategies can be developed to get people where they should be. The right resources, in the right place at the right time.  In particular Christians should be able to reproduce themselves by making new converts, the enthusiast category, even though it makes big demands on people. So yet again the former archbishop was right, “If the gospel is as we say, a matter of life and death, then we must make demands …  May I encourage you to make discipleship one of the key targets of the coming year “ [2],  

3. Let’s acknowledge the role of Christians in society but let us aim to be agents of social transformation.

Lord Carey explains, “Every church should have one or two relevant ministries to the world around [2]”. By this he means ministry in society, i.e. outside the church. Of course the primary reason to serve communities is for their benefit, in particularly the individuals in need. But the very important side effect is that it widens the church’s influence in society. The gospel reaches more people. In modeling terms we say there is a larger susceptible pool of potential converts. The size of that pool has a disproportionate effect on growth, and even a moderate increase can tip church into growth, a growth that goes viral. Yet again George Carey’s suggestions hit right at the heart of church growth.

The former archbishop expands this concept to youth work, which triggers the remark picked up by the Mail and the Telegraph. He says that without work among young people the church is only one generation away from extinction. He is of course correct, if there are no converts and young people brought up in the church are lost, then the church dies out in one generation, about 70 years to be a bit more precise. Of course there are always some children retained and even some converts, so it actually last a few generations, but at numbers well below what it is now.

It has been a thesis of mine that for most denominations and congregations there have not been sufficient conversions in the church since the middle of the 19th century, the 1859 revival to be precise. Since then the church has largely grown and survived by retaining sufficient of its own children, and a high birth rate in society. Once the birth rate fell in the 20th century, and then child retention in church dropped with the post-war rise in wealth, the lack of conversions was exposed and the church has declined ever since. It could no longer live on all the good work done in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries. So in practice it has been many generations from extinction through a slow and drawn out death, but the reasons are exactly what George Carey has said.

But Carey makes a second observation under this heading, he says there is a lack of “energy” in church, and contrasts it with the much higher energy among Muslims. In our [8] modeling, that energy we call spiritual life and can be thought of as the common resource generated when like-minded people work together effectively [9]. As Christians we would also say there is a genuinely spiritual dimension to this concept, coming from the Holy Spirit himself, but such shared non-physical resources occur in all organisations, sometimes identified as social capital.  If this energy increases then the effect on growth is dramatic. Lord Carey is right; lack of energy is the source of our problems, lack of the Holy Spirit! He suggests the need for “spiritual renewal and the touch of the Holy Spirit” [2].

This energy, or spiritual life, has a direct impact on the reproduction potential of enthusiasts. In our modelling we find the reproduction potential among Muslims much bigger than that of the Christian church, and well over the revival growth threshold. This will not have to continue for much longer for there to be more practicing Muslims than church attenders in England [10]. The lack of reproduction in the church is a direct result of the lack of energy, or spiritual life, in the church producing little community involvement and low conversion rates of unbelievers. But the archbishop gives the solution, get involved with society, replenish your spiritual energy, and sow for the future among the youth.

4. The fourth area is to continue to encourage giving but to promote authentic stewardship.

George Carey expands this by saying: “my long experience of serving in the church has convinced me that lack of resources is one of our biggest challenges and yet one of our greatest opportunities” [2]. He has now moved from spiritual resources to physical resources, money and time, as determined by the level of commitment to Christ. Indeed he says this giving is a “proclamation and demonstration of belonging to Jesus”.[2]

Again he is right in saying that such sacrificial commitment is key to growth. In the church growth models the most effective Christians are called “enthusiasts”, because they have the most commitment. They are the ones sold out for the cause of Christ.

This level of commitment can be contrasted with other forms of social diffusion. In our modelling we have been trying to explain why there has been such a massive swing of opinion in society in favour of same-sex relationships, when only a generation ago most of society were opposed [11]. This change is faster than generational, so older people must have been changing opinion during that time. One factor has been the huge commitment of the gay rights activists, who have been working to change opinion in various sectors of the community, especially churches, through well-organized campaigns [12]. They have brought large corporate companies on their side [13], and  have been particularly successful in employing social media [14].

To be fair gay rights activists have only been seeking to change opinions, an easier option than that of Christianity which seeks to change lives, hearts, souls, minds and behaviour.  Christianity is about conversion, not recruitment to a cause. Nevertheless the commitment of gay rights activists to their cause puts the commitment of many Christians to shame, especially given that Christians are offering Christ and eternal life to people who know they will die! Same-sex marriage was won because its activists and supporters had higher commitment than that of their counterparts in support of traditional marriage, most of whom were silent, asleep or too embarrassed to engage [15]. Likewise the church in the UK is losing out because its members are less committed than those of Islam, Humanism or even Paganism [16].  Even in the face of near extinction most churches still seem unable to muster up more than an hour or so of commitment a week from their members, and that concerns satisfying their own needs rather than engaging in mission.

Conclusion

The former archbishop, Lord Carey, has given a very insightful analysis of what is wrong in the UK church, but more importantly how it can be put right: Spirituality, discipleship, social transformation, energy and commitment. These are areas I have tried to model and will endeavour to model better. May his words [2] be read by many Christians, taken to heart and lead to sustainable church growth.


References & Notes

[1] Steve Doughty, Church 'is on the brink of extinction': Ex-Archbishop George Carey warns of Christianity crisis, The Daily Mail, Tuesday 19th November 2013.

John Bingham, Christianity at risk of dying out in a generation, warns Lord Carey, The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 19th November 2013,

[2] George Carey, Reimagining the Church, Shropshire Light Conference. November 16th 2013.

[3] Church Growth Modelling, Decline of the Church of England:

[4] For a selection see the references at: http://www.churchmodel.org.uk/Diffrefs.html

[5] Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Abacus, 2002.



[8] When I say “our” in connection with church growth modelling I mean university students of mine who work on various forms of church/religious growth, and social diffusion, as degree and research projects.

[9] J. Hayward and L. Howells. Church Growth and Spiritual Life. Future First. April 2011, published by Brierley Consultancy.

When the Presence of God persists

Effective Enthusiasts Model

[10] Of course this will not show up on census figures, as the people who identify themselves as Christian are many times larger than those who call themselves Muslim. This is because most people who call themselves Christian do not participate in church! Participation rates are much higher in the heritage Muslim community than in the heritage Christian community.  Thus even if the growth trend continues Islam will remain much smaller than Christianity for many generations. If Islam progresses along the same path of nominality that the Christian church has done then it will remain the minority.

[11] Civil Partnerships Five Years On, Population Trends 145, pp172-202, Autumn 2011, Office of national Statistics, UK. See figure 11, p 192.

Up to date figures for acceptance of same-sex relationships are at Social Attitude Survey website, http://www.britsocat.com/

British Social Attitudes, National Centre for Social Research

Daily Telegraph

British Religion in Numbers

[12]
Molly Ball, The Quiet Gay Rights Revolution in America’s Churches, The Atlantic, 14th August 2013.

The Reformation Project, http://www.reformationproject.org/

[13] E.g. Love is Changing History, AT&T, http://loveischanginghistory.com/

[14] Claire Cain Miller, Gay-Rights Advocates Use Web to Organize Global Rally, The New York Times, 14th November 2008.

Noah Berlatsky, What the Gay Community Lost While It Was Winning Gay Marriage, The Atlantic, 15th November 2013.

[15] With of course some obvious exceptions in the UK such as the Evangelical Alliance, Care for the Family, the Christian Institute, the leaders of the Catholic church and of course Lord Carey himself.

[16] There are again many exceptions. But generally, averaged across the church, commitment and conversion, is low.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Decline of the Church of England


The decline of the Church of England has been well publicised for many years. Because of the connections between church and state the future survival of the church is of interest to many agencies, both Christian and otherwise. Any new attendance figures are likely to make mainstream news, with discussion of the church’s future prospects.  In this blog I will apply one of my church growth models to the Church of England attendance figures and examine how serious that decline might be. First let me set the context.

The Christian Church in the UK has been steadily declining for over 50 years. With a total church membership reaching a peak of 10.3 million in 1930 a slow decline followed with a brief recovery through the 1950s. Since 1960 membership has fallen from 9.9 million in 1960 to 5.9 million in 2000 [1]. It was down further to 5.5 million in 2010 [2].  Not surprisingly the Church of England’s membership has fallen in a similar fashion, from 2.9 million in 1960 to 1.2 million in 2010 [3,4].

Before analysing figures for the Church of England, some comparisons would be useful. Church decline is remarkably slow compared with the decline in membership of other institutions. For example political parties fare very badly, with the conservative party falling from a high of 2.9 million in 1951, to 1 million in 1990 and to less than 150,000 in 2012 [5,6]. Similar dramatic falls are recorded for other political parties and the Trade Union movement. Church decline is part of a wider decline in commitment in Western society, and by no means the worst. So although the Church of England is right to be concerned about its decline, it has been considerably more successful in resisting that decline than non-religious institutions of a similar size.

Questions

This blog seeks to answer two questions: Will the Church of England continue to decline? If so will it become extinct or is there any sign of a recovery?

A straight statistical projection would indicate that the Church of England will eventually become extinct, although long after most of the other UK mainstream denominations (and well after the major political parties!) But statistical projections only examine data, they do not factor in any theory as to why a church grows or declines. Thus they may miss some underlying reason why the church may not go extinct.

Limited Enthusiasm Model

The approach I have taken is to construct a model based on the theory that church growth is driven by a sub-class of church members, called enthusiasts, who are instrumental in bringing about conversions into the church. The model is then compared with church data in order to estimate model parameters, and determine the likely future for the church, assuming the theory is correct [7]. Unbelievers are also split into those who are open to joining the church and those who are hardened to the church.

A key result of this “Limited Enthusiasm” Model is the existence of two thresholds, or tipping points, connected with extinction and revival-growth. These thresholds are compared with the reproduction potential, which measures the ability of enthusiasts to reproduce themselves [8]. If the reproduction potential is under the extinction threshold the church eventually declines to zero, if it is over the threshold the church survives. Likewise if the reproduction potential is over the revival-growth threshold, church growth is rapid, similar to that seen in religious revivals. Both thresholds depend on the birth, death and loss rates, and the revival-growth threshold also depends on the current fraction of open unbelievers in the population.

Although some of the model parameters are difficult to determine the placement of the reproduction potential compared with the thresholds is more robustly determined. Thus it is possible to be more confident of a church’s extinction or survival, even if there is more variation in the parameter and threshold values. Essentially the model is interpreting curvature in the data in terms of the behaviour of enthusiasts. Thus if the decline is slowing it may indicate enthusiasts are reproducing themselves enough for the church to survive.

Analysis of Church of England Attendance 1979-2005

Attendance is a much better indicator of participation than membership in the Church of England as the latter is based on electoral role, which has not always required participation as a reason for inclusion.  However it is only in recent history that attendance figures have been consistently obtained. The methodology for their collection must be consistent over time otherwise curvature in the data set will be wrongly interpreted.

My earlier publications in church growth were based on the English Church Attendance Surveys conducted by Christian Research, under the then leadership of Peter Brierley [9]. By the 1998 attendance survey the Church of England was under the extinction threshold, although not massively so [10]. By the 2005 survey its situation had improved, the church was just on the extinction threshold [11].  That is the Church of England was just avoiding future extinction. Unfortunately there have been no more attendance surveys since, so no further results can be obtained from this source.

Analysis of Church of England Attendance 2001-2011

Since 2001 the Church of England has been reporting its own attendance figures. Although these cannot be compared with the figures of Christian Research, they use different methodologies, the data can be used to assess the extinction/survival status since 2001. The most recent data is for 2011 [12]. Additional data sources, such as birth rates etc., are used to estimate a number of model parameters [13].

The data used is the combined all-age Sunday and weekday attendance [12, table 4]. Weekday attendance at churches has been growing, perhaps due to an aging population, and due to churches being more willing to diversify in their approach to reaching communities. It has now become sufficiently large that it cannot be ignored. The church quotes highest, average and lowest figures. The average has been used. Because the Limited Enthusiasm model is interpreting changes over time, it is not critical which of the three data sets are used, providing they have been consistently measured each year.

A best fit between model and data gives a value for the reproduction potential and the two thresholds. Many such “best fits” are obtained for a variety of other parameter values [14]. The majority of best fits, 66%, indicate that the church will avoid extinction, however there is no convincing sign that there is any underlying revival growth. The most likely scenario is that the Church of England will survive, but at a significantly reduced level.

It may be helpful to compare a typical pessimistic data fit, where the Church of England eventually becomes extinct, with an optimistic fit, where the church survives. Figure 1 compares two such fits with the data [15]. There is little to choose between them on the basis of the data from 2001 to 2011. However extrapolating from 2012 onwards the optimistic scenario shows increasing signs of a slow down in decline.  The predicted difference by 2020 is quite significant.

Figure 1: Best Fit to Church of England Attendance 2001-2011

On the basis of attendance figures alone it is not possible to distinguish between the pessimistic and optimistic fits. To draw a clearer conclusion additional information is required, such as the number of enthusiasts, which would be very difficult to measure. However evidence for the effect of enthusiasts, such as increasing use of the Alpha course, community engagement, prayer meetings, church planting etc. might be easier to obtain, and would help in given more confidence in one scenario over the other.

The two scenarios can be extrapolated further into the future, assuming enthusiasts remain at the same effectiveness.  The top graph of figure 2 gives church attendance. The pessimistic fit shows decline at the same rate to almost 2040, however the optimistic fit suggest the church starts growing again after 2035.  This is due to a recovery in enthusiasts, as seen in the bottom graph of figure 2.  In the optimistic scenario the enthusiasts start increasing again, nationally, after 2020. This is enough for the church to avoid extinction and dropping below an attendance of 800,000, but not enough for it to return to the 2001 figure.
Figure 2: Church of England Attendance & Enthusiasts Extrapolated to 2040

As optimistic scenarios were the more common of the data fits then there is some confidence that the Church of England may not be declining so much as to become extinct and will see a small recovery in the next 20 years.

Conditions


There are a number of conditions that must be applied to this result.

1. The church has an increasingly older age profile than society, thus the death rate of its attenders will increase over time. Thus recovery would take longer. The above scenarios in the previous graph are not predictions for actual numbers, but an indication that the Church of Engalnd is most likely above the extinction threshold.

2. The model aggregates together congregations that are dying through aging, perhaps the majority, with a smaller number of growing and healthy congregations where most of the enthusiasts are based. In that case the underlying growth in enthusiasts would be underestimated and the reproduction potential of the enthusiasts should be higher. Thus the church would be more likely to see a future recovery. Such a recovery would involve churches with enthusiasts re-starting congregations in redundant parishes so that new pools of unbelievers can be tapped.

3. The birth rate has been assumed to remain constant. It has increased recently in the UK, and this may make future growth in the church a little easier.

4. Migration has been assumed constant. Migration has had a large impact on Pentecostal and independent churches in London, but it is doubtful if it has had much impact on the Church of England nationally. Migration may fall in the future; there again it may increase.

Strategies to Improve Church of England’s Attendance

If the Limited Enthusiasm Model is correct then strategies that improve the number and the quality of enthusiasts are the key to church growth.  Such improvement can come through spiritual renewal, mission training, discipleship, community contacts and outpourings of the Holy Spirit. It is not a question of choosing one over the other but of using all. For many churches it can start with a change of awareness that the individual members of a congregation are as important to its growth as its leaders, and that each person needs to embrace that responsibility.

In addition the thresholds of extinction and revival growth can be lowered by improving retention of adults and children in the church. Widening the contact between a church and its community will further lower the revival-growth threshold, making rapid growth more likely. A combined policy of improving enthusiasts, stemming losses, and increasing community contacts can make the difference between extinction and revival [10].

Although the Church of England is declining, and will do so for some time, there is evidence that its ability to avoid extinction is improving. If it continues to apply policies to generate enthusiasts and retain people, and makes those policies more widespread, it is very possible that sustained decline can be turned into sustained growth. Although this research cannot be used to predict actual numbers I hope it will be used to give encouragement to the Church, that it can survive and turn decline back into growth.

John Hayward
Church Growth Modelling, churchmodel.org.uk

References and Notes


[1] Brierley P. Religious Trends 2000/2001, no.2. Table 2.12, page 2.12, Christian Research. There is no reliable measure of attendance for most Christian denominations spanning 1900-2000, thus membership is the best indicator of church growth and decline for this period.

[2] Brierley P.  UK Church Statistics 2005-2015, table 1.1.1 page 1.1, Brierely Consultancy.

[3] Brierley P. Religious Trends 2000/2001, no.2. Table 8.2.1, page 8.2, Christian Research.

[4] Brierley P.  UK Church Statistics 2005-2015, table 2.1.2 page 2.1, Brierely Consultancy.

[5] McGuinness F.  Membership of UK Political Parties, Research Briefing, Standard Notes SN/SG/5125, House of Commons, London, UK, 2012.

[6] New Statesman, July 30, 2012, How Tory Membership has Collapsed under Cameron,

[7] The Limited Enthusiasm Model is explained on the Church Growth Modelling website at:
and in the publications and conferences on

[8] In epidemiology the reproduction potential is called R0, the basic reproductive ratio, or basic reproduction number.
The limited enthusiasm principle is similar to the spread of a disease. In this case the disease is religion, as measured by church membership or attendance.

[9] Brierley P. (2006) Pulling Out of the Nosedive - What the 2005 English Church Census Reveals, Christian Research.
Brierley P. (2000), The Tide is Running Out - What the English Church Census Reveals, Christian Research.
Brierley P. (1991), Christian England - What the English Church Census Reveals, Christian Research.

[10] Hayward J. (2005) A General Model of Church Growth and Decline, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 29(3), pp.177-207.

[11] As I reported in "Challenge to Change: exploring strategies for an effective Church in a post-Christian landscape", June 2009.

[12] Statistics for Mission 2011. Church of England website
or at
follow link: Provisional Attendance and Affiliation 2011
released 7/5/13. [last accessed 2/10/13]

[13] A number of parameters in the model needed to be estimated from sources other than the attendance data. Birth and death rates are taken from recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Migration is added to the birth rate. Average figures are taken. 

The reversion rate is estimated at 5% per year, typical of figures that were obtained by data fits to a variety of churches [10]. It should be noted that small variations in this figure have little effect on the likelihood of extinction or survival.

Retention of children born to church members is taken as 30%. This figure is based on religious transmission rates for Christianity given as a comparison with Islam in “Intergenerational Transmission of Islam in England and Wales: Evidence from the Citizenship Survey”, Scourfield J., Taylor C., Moore G., and  Gilliat-Ray S., Sociology, 46(1): 91-108.   For a summary see:

The average time taken for a leaver to be open to returning to church again was taken as 20 years. This figure is based on a past survey where only 20% of those who leave church return and that after an average of 10 years. [9, The Tide is Running Out, p.84]

[14] Estimates of initial numbers for 2001 need some care. Although the total population and the numbers of believers are known (ONS and [12] respectively), it is not possible to even guess the fraction of the church who are enthusiasts, or the fraction of unbelievers who are hardened. Instead many simulations are run with a variety of values and best fits obtained for each. The number in the hardened group is assumed not to change dramatically during the period.