Friday, 6 November 2015

Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions

In my last blog, Closing Rural Churches [1], I said that no strategy to reverse church decline would work unless it deals with the root cause of decline, the church’s failure to recruit sufficient people to counteract its losses. In this post I will put forward evidence that lack of conversions is the primary cause of church decline in the UK since the end of the 19th century.

I will investigate this hypothesis by looking at data for the Presbyterian Church of Wales, (aka the Calvinist Methodists), one of the few denominations to record conversions, the children of members who join, transfers within the church, leavers and deaths. This data set was reproduced by Currie et al for 1895-1968 [2].

First Church Decline Hypothesis [3]

Church Decline is Caused by Lack of Conversions

Stated more specifically, the fall in membership across most of the pre-1900 denominations is due to their inability to keep conversion at the level of the 19th century. The Presbyterian Church of Wales is typical of this decline, as shown in the membership figures for the whole church [4], figure 1.

Figure 1

The church started in the mid 1730s and had risen fast in the early part of the 19th century. That rapid rise continued until 1905, the end of the last national revival in Wales, and has declined since.

To show that lack of conversions is the primary cause of this decline, compare the different growth and loss rates for 1896-1900 with 1964-1968, figure 2. Growth comes from two sources: the children of church members becoming members themselves once they have reached adulthood, called biological growth; and conversions, the people who join from outside the church. The losses also have two sources: deaths of members; and reversion, the total of those who resign membership, those expelled, and the discrepancy in the transfers between different congregations of the denomination [5].

Figure 2

At the end of the 19th century the conversion rate of 1.20% was higher than the reversion rate of 1.12%. However by the 1960s the conversion rate has dropped to a mere 0.4%, with reversion at 1.74%. The dramatic drop in the number of conversions is a significant factor in the change from growth to decline of the church.

A second cause of decline is the drop in biological growth, the children of members. This drop is smaller than that of conversions, and is in line with the general decline of the national birth rate from 2.86% in the late 1800s to 1.61% in the 1960s. Remarkably the child retention rate has improved from 51% to 60%. Thus though the national drop in birth rate has contributed to church decline, the church’s ability to keep its own children is not a contributory factor.

The third cause of decline is the rising death rate. In the 1890s the death rate of the church, 0.83%, is less that the national death rate of 1.7%, suggesting the church at that time was significantly younger than the population. By the 1960s the church death rate has risen to 1.68% much higher than the national death 1.18%, indicating an older than average church. Thus aging is a factor in the church’s decline.

So why has the church aged? Some if it is obviously demographic, falling birth rate. However the church has aged more than society, and was significantly younger than society at the end of the 19th century. I suggest that this relative youthfulness was due to the higher conversion rate, as conversions generally occur when people are younger. By the same reasoning the lack of conversions in the twentieth century has caused the church to age faster than society.

Thus whether directly, or indirectly through aging, lack of conversion is the root cause of the Presbyterian Church’s decline.

Let me investigate some alternative explanations.

Was Child Retention a Cause of Church Decline?

As already stated, the church’s child retention rate in the 1960s was better than it had been at the end of the 19th century. Figure 3 shows that the child retention rate has generally improved slightly from 1895 to the late 1950s. Its fall in the early 1960s is neither large nor systematic.

Figure 3

Though it has been common to blame the church’s inability to keep their children as a cause of its decline, figure 3 clearly shows this is not the case. Of course the birth rate has fallen during this time, and that may have led churches to think that their older profile reflected their lack of attraction to the young. However, in common with the rest of society, they were not producing children in sufficient numbers to keep themselves young [6]. Child retention remained good and was not a cause of decline.

Were Emigration and War Causes of Church Decline?

The changes in the sources of growth and decline can be tracked from 1896 to 1968. Figure 4 shows falling biological growth together with the rising death rate of the church; the former due to falling national birth rates. The gap between these represents the aging profile of the church. Ignoring the temporary rise in deaths during the First World War, the aging process really starts in the 1920s. Some of this would be due to emigration between the wars as seen in the population figures for Wales. But as the narrowing of the gap with the biological growth continues, and then becomes negative as deaths exceed child retention, emigration cannot be the sole cause [7].

Figure 4

Likewise the effects of war are confined to 1914-1918 alone. The Second World War had little effect on the general trend of death rates, in fact they temporarily improved. Biological growth fell during this war, but only in line with the fall in birth rate 15 years previously. It rose again in the 1960s when the post war baby boomers became eligible for membership [7]. Thus neither war had any ongoing impact on the church’s decline.

Was Church Decline Caused by a Higher Leaving Rate?

The conversion and reversion (leaving) rates are given in figure 5, with the very high conversion rates for the 1904-5 revival excluded [8]. Before the revival the evidence is that conversion was just higher than reversion, though during the revival the conversion rate became massively higher, over 6%. After the revival reversion rises temporarily, although nothing like the level of the revival’s conversion rate.

Figure 5

The cause of the temporary rise in reversion may have been due new converts disillusioned with a church largely unaffected by the outpouring of the Spirit. Rather than abandoning Christianity the leavers formed independent mission churches and became part of the emerging Pentecostal movement, an offspring of the revival [9].

The only other significant change in reversion rate is during and after the Second World War. The lack of people leaving during the war is counter-balanced by a larger number leaving in1947-8, possibly a delayed effect due to people returning from the war.

Generally reversion has remained steady around 1.5% and has not contributed to the increasing decline of the church. Rather, as figure 4 makes clear, decline has come from the falling conversion rate.

What if the 1890's Conversion Rate Had Been Maintained?

The membership figures for the Welsh Presbyterian church can be adjusted assuming the pre 1904-5 revival conversion rates had been maintained.  Comparing them with the actual membership figures shows that although the church would have still declined, it would have done so far more slowly, figure 6.

Figure 6

As such 58% of the church decline was due to the falling conversion rate, with most of the remainder due to the falling national birth rate and the aging of the church, the latter also partly due to lack of conversion. 

Thus I conclude that lack of conversion is the root cause of the Presbyterian Church’s decline.


It is clear from figure 6 that maintaining the conversion rate would not have been sufficient to prevent decline. This is because even at the end of the 19th century the conversion rate was only just higher than the reversion rate; so that the church required high biological growth to help it keep growing, figure 2. There is a suggestion here that the late 1800s conversion rate was already inadequate for a church seeking to grow as a proportion of society.

Thus the 20th century decline, due to lack of conversions, was continuing a trend that had started even before 1895. The next blog will attempt to link this lack of conversions to the lack of revival in the church.


Although the study was just for the Welsh Presbyterian Church, nevertheless there is no reason to believe it is any different to the Methodist, Congregational, Anglican and Baptist churches, or those in Scotland and England, all of whom declined throughout the twentieth century. 

I thus conclude that the primary cause of twentieth century church decline is the poor conversion rate.

Next blog: Church decline caused by lack of revival.

Notes and References 

[1] Closing Rural Churches: Is this the Way to Church Growth?

[2] 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.

The data table is available from British Religion in Numbers

[3] In a subsequent blog I will illustrate a second church growth hypothesis that church growth is caused by revival. I will show that it is the lack of revival that lies behind the lack of conversions of the twentieth century onwards.

[4] The figures used are full members plus adherents, called the whole church by Currie et al. The Presbyterian Church of Wales had two classes of members. All could participate in most aspects of church life, but only the full members could attend the experience meeting, the seiat, seen as a high privilege.

Membership and adherent figures are known from 1860 (Williams, J., 1985. Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics. UK: Government Statistical Service HMSO.) However he does not record conversions, deaths etc.

From 1970 onwards membership data is taken from various publications by Brierley,  see As he only records full members not adherents the whole church is estimated by linearly interpolating from the shrinking gap between full membership and the whole church from 1950-1968 onwards.

[5] Most transfers were due to geographical mobility. For most years more people transfer out, compared with those who transfer in, presumably because people fail to take up their membership in the new church.

Conversions are called Probationers from Without by Currie et al.

Biological growth comes from Currie’s Children of the Church.

[6] It is highly likely that child retention has fallen since the 1960s. One estimate puts Christian child retention at around 30%, in contrast to the much higher rate among Muslims. See Intergenerational Transmission of Islam in England and Wales: Evidence from the Citizenship Survey, by J. Scourfield, C. Taylor, G. Moore, and S. Gilliat-Ray, Sociology, 46(1): 91-108, 2012.

[7] The loss of young men in the First World War, and emigration of largely younger people in the 1920s and 1930s, are often blamed as the cause of church decline. As the above analysis shows these are temporary effects.  Each of these has could have three effects seen in: (a) falling church membership, (b) falling biological growth 15-20 years down the line, and (c) rising death rates well into the future.

(a) Although there is an increasing slope of decline in church membership from 1920, (figure 1), about the right time for an emigration effect, the leaving rate tells a different story. At the end of the 19th century the leaving rate averaged 1.1%, 3432 people per year. This increased from 1901-1904 to 1.21%, 4004 people per year. However from 1908, post revival to the start of World War One this increased dramatically to 1.46% 4961 people per year. From 1920-1935 the leaving rate then dropped to 1.45%, 4392 people per year; the still high percentage being due to a smaller church, rather than an increase in the number leaving, which had in fact dropped. Thus it is very difficult to prove that emigration had a large direct effect on church decline. The increasing rate of decline had started prior to the revival and was increased by the effects of the revival, both pre-war effects..

(b) Loss of young people in the war and through emigration would hit the birth rate during those times. The lowest birth rate is that of 1933 at 1.44%, compared with an average pre First World War birth rate of 2.5%. However the 1950s birth rate only recovers to an average of 1.6%. Birth rates were falling naturally apart from emigration and war effects. The biological growth of the church does fall from around 1.3% pre World War 2 to just over 1% in the 1940s and 1950, figure 4. Some of this is the ongoing effects of aging due to prior emigration and world war 1, but some will be due to aging through lack of conversions. The biological growth rate recovers briefly in early 1960s, but then has fallen further by 1968, suggesting an ongoing aging of the church, not just one due to fixed events such as emigration and war. As the church was only keeping 50% of its young people it must have conversions in order to stop aging as well as stopping decline.

(c) The expected increase in death rate due to emigration and World War 1 losses would not be expected to be seen until the 1960s onwards. Much of this is later than the cut off period, 1968, in this data set.

[8] In the next blog, on the effect of revival on conversion and growth, these data points will then be included.

[9] For discussion of the disillusionment of revival converts see:
Jones, B.P. (1999).  How Lovely are Thy Dwellings, Wellspring Books. Describes the beginnings of mission halls and Pentecostal assemblies after the 1904-5 revival.
Livesay, J. (2000). When We Walk with the Lord, published by the author, New Zealand, ISBN 0-473-06831-1. Describes the beginnings of the Apostolic Church, the Pentecostal Church that started in Wales after the revival.
Evans, E. (1969). The Welsh Revival of 1904. Evangelical Press of Wales.

Roberts, D.W. (2013). The Welsh Revival of 1904. What happened Next: Lessons from History. Available from Smashwords.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Closing Rural Churches

Is This the Way to Church Growth?

Recently in an article for the Guardian newspaper Giles Fraser suggested the Church of England should do to its churches what Beeching did to the railways, close its underused rural parishes. He further proposed concentrating resources in churches in “minster” type churches for the purpose of re-evangelisation [1].

Rural churches he claimed needed to close as half of them had less then 20 in the congregation, a quarter under 10. The overstretched ministers released from these churches could be placed in the minster congregations of “a community of clergy –some pastors, some evangelists, some theologians”, the team to lead the re growth of the church, making congregations “worth travelling to”, to quote Fraser’s words.

My first reaction was to cringe that the answer to the church’s decline was seen to be yet more theologians and clergy, the two types of ministry not mentioned in the New Testament [2]! However these are serious proposals by Giles Fraser and deserve consideration.

The effectiveness of any strategy for re-growing the church depends on whether it can tackle the root cause of church decline, the church’s failure to recruit sufficient people to counteract its losses [3]. From my modelling I would express the hypothesis this way:

Church decline is caused by the inadequate production of enthusiasts, the spiritually “infectious” Christians who make new converts and thus generate more enthusiasts.

This process creates a reinforcing feedback loop and is the engine that drives revival growth, the growth that took the church to its peak at the beginning of the twentieth century [4,5,6]. This way Christianity grows in a similar pattern to a disease.

Figure 1: Generation of Enthusiasts - the Engine of Revival Church Growth

So to the two proposals, concentrating on issues of growth and decline, not the pastoral implications.

1. Closing Rural Churches

a.     Closing rural churches might cut parts of the country off from Christian witness altogether. This reduces the potential pool of converts and would slow church growth, perhaps put the church further under the extinction threshold [4]. It would have to be demonstrated that these rural churches have virtually no conversion/witness and thus nothing was being lost by their closure.

b.     Although 50% of rural churches are under 20 that does not mean they are small. This number could be a significant fraction of their community, more so than many inner city churches. Small communities have small churches, and small communities are not going away. They need Jesus and closing a church denies them access to salvation, as well as further reducing denominational recruitment.
c.     It is not just the size of the church that is important but its spiritual life. A church of 20 people on fire for God will be more likely to see growth and conversion than a large church full of ineffective and spiritually dead people. It is LIFE that matters. A small number of enthusiasts can lead to large future growth of the church [4]. It was Dr DM Lloyd-Jones who said that putting six graveyards together does not bring the dead to life, just gives a bigger graveyard [7]! Merging and combining small churches does not in and of itself bring spiritual life. Neither do communities of clergy.
d.     If the issue is the resourcing of a professional minister then do without one. Train the people in the church to act as its elders and teachers. Perhaps the Church of England needs to return to a Biblical every member ministry pattern for rural churches. Learn from the Brethren!
e.     If the issue is the maintenance of the building then manage without the building. But the building is not the church, and closing the building does not mean closing the church. Buildings that outlive their usefulness need to be let go so people are not burdened with their maintenance. This could mean mothballing them for a future that may need them again. It would not be the first period in history that church buildings went into serious disrepair, only the be renewed generations later. If sold for redevelopment that strategy would be lost.
f.      It is unclear that selling ancient buildings for demolition and development would ever be allowed to happen. The delays involved would mean the resources would not be available for years, perhaps too late. It is unclear that people would even want to develop in such spots. There are many redundant and under used parish buildings in cities. The buildings are less ancient; their sale would be easier and probably fetch a better price.
g.     If the purpose of closing rural churches is to generate capital, then it is unclear that having more money would improve mission. More paid clergy in towns and cities may well stifle work to empower all Christians [2]. Ironically declining churches can be wealthier than growing ones as they contain both older and more committed people [8]. Shortage of money is not the issue. The issue with church decline is primarily spiritual, not financial. This kind does not come out by money but by prayer and fasting, Mark 9:29!
h.     I can understand how a large church at a distance from rural areas can be used to replant Christianity in areas with no church. But at some point someone needs to travel to the rural area and the same issue of small numbers using a large amount of resource will resurface, with the added burden of having a fresh start. Better not to lose them in the first place.

Thus the proposal to close many rural churches has issues. However if the strategy were one of keeping spiritually lively fellowships of believers in rural areas, but freeing them from reliance on paid clergy and the need to maintain a building, which could be closed if unfit for use, then the idea may have merit [9]. It would then be worth trying as in the next 10 years many of these churches will close naturally, so the risk factor in closing them early is not that high.

2.  Concentration of Resources in “Minster” Churches

a.     Care would be needed to ensure that the buildings in which the “resource concentrated” church meets are big enough.  Whereas a church building that is too big may be a waste of resource, a building that is full each Sunday seriously hinders growth by lack of capacity. This is why churches in the past always built buildings with far more capacity than needed at the time.
b.     Positively, the concentration of enthusiasts, and of believers, in one place is a driver of church growth [5]. Figure 2 shows the engine of growth, loop R, enhanced with other processes. Firstly the renewal loop, R1. The more enthusiasts the more engagement with non-enthusiastic members renewing them to infectiousness, whether they had it before or not. Also the spiritual life loops.  The more enthusiasts interact, pray, worship, do Bible training, the more effective they become. They now have a spiritual disease that is more infectious, leading to more effective renewal, R2, and more effective conversion, R3. It can be shown that a critical mass of enthusiasts and church size can trigger this enhanced revival process [5].

Figure 2: Church growth, R enhanced by renewal, R1, and increasing spiritual life, R2, R3.

c.     Churches with concentrated resources are also called Flagship Churches, ones that reproduce themselves in other churches [10]; and Infectious Centres of Spiritual Health [11], places where Christians are set on fire again for God. These are not “minster” churches as such as the concentration is of every member ministries, not paid clergy. They can be seen in many denominations and not surprisingly are in areas of large population. Although they can have a big influence in their own city, e.g. Holy Trinity Brompton in London, it is not clear they have been able to help rural areas. In principle it could work, but some research would be needed.

Giles Fraser’s proposal to concentrate resources is a good idea, has been effective in the past, and is still effective in the growth of churches in London and many of the newer charismatic congregations.

But it comes with a proviso. It is not just about creating churches that are worth coming to, though that definitely helps. It is about creating people that are worth living like. Ones whose lives are worth copying. People who have a passion for God, in the person of Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit. People who are willing to take sacrifices to ensure the lost are saved, out of sheer compassion for eternal souls. People who live in the light of eternity, not the need of the moment. People who are determined not to follow the self-centred and hedonistic spirit of this and any other age, but see a world transformed where people can live as God intended them to live.

It is not about church, but about people.

It is not about saving an institution, but saving souls.

Notes and References 

[1] We must do to our churches what Beeching did to the railways. Giles Fraser, The Guardian, 15/10/15.

[2]  I am OK with pastors and evangelists, but what happened to apostles, prophets and teachers; overseas and deacons?

As all organisations grow there is a tendency to oligarchy and the development of a separate leadership class from the led.
(See Michels R. (1961) [1911]. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, NY, The Free Press).

Professional clergy is how this oligarchy is manifested in the church, and most other religions, often called a priest, but not always. The name is irrelevant, the concept is that a subset of people become essential to the functioning of the organisation, and the organisation has made supporting them its priority. This oligarchy is part of the institutionalism that hinders the growth of the church and has assisted its decline. See the blog Institutionalism and Church decline

Christian leaders are essential, and they can be more effective when paid full-time. But their role was never to replace the people of the church and become the sole ministers, a separate priestly class, rather it was to encourage all the church to pursue ministry, especially witness and evangelism.  When times are lean, paid leaders are a luxury the church cannot afford and the church needs to learn to manage without them, as it does in many parts of the world where, ironically, the church grows.

[3] In a subsequent blog I will demonstrate the hypothesis that churches decline now compared with the past because of their failure to recruit.

[4] See
Hayward J. (2002). A Dynamical Model of Church Growth and its Application to Contemporary Revivals. Review of Religious Research, 43(3),218-241.

Hayward J. (2000). Growth and Decline of Religious and Sub-cultural Groups. 18th International System Dynamics Society, Bergen, Norway.
Hayward J.  (1999). Mathematical Modeling of Church Growth, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 23(4), 255-292, 1999.

[5] See:
Hayward J. (2010). Church Growth via Enthusiasts and Renewal. 28th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Seoul, South Korea.

[6] In a subsequent blog I will give examples to show that the church growth of the past primarily came through revival.

[7] Lloyd-Jones D.M. (1986). Revival. Marshall Pickering.

[8] Davies G.. Understanding Parish Growth Stages, Diocese of Sydney.

[9] It may be argued that most small rural churches do not have a lively spiritual fellowship at their core, but just people turning up on Sunday, out of routine, demanding the services of a minister, and with no interest of putting anything spiritual into the church themselves. But it is this information that would needed to be known before any attempt at closing a churches would need to be made. Size alone does not determine viability.

[10] Flagship Churches are described in:

[11]  See for example St Mungo’s Church Balerno

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Communicating The Gospel

Effective communication of the gospel is essential if those who do not believe in Jesus are to come to faith. How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? Rom 10:14. However if the message is unintelligible then they may not have heard enough clear information to believe. Clarity is vital. We can all think of poor methods of gospel presentations that do not connect with people or culture. But something happened this summer to make me think again.

Coming to the end of a long visit to the USA, my wife and I had a spare day in Boston while waiting for a flight home. It was a hot day, and after spending our time looking around the harbour area, we ended up back in town, eating ice cream on seats outside a well-known pharmacy, as it was in the shade.

Just next to us were some street preachers, letting rip with a message of hellfire and repentance. In the space of five minutes I heard words like atonement, justification, substitution, all backed with quotes from the King James Version of the Bible, with many thees and thous. They even mentioned George Whitefield and his visits to Boston in the 1700s! In addition there were a number of placards, such as “Christ died for our sins.”

I could not fault their doctrine, and Whitefield is a hero of mine, but I wondered whether any of the people walking past understood what was preached. It was hard enough for a believer to follow, let alone non-believers, who I suspect were the majority around that day. How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard clearly? (I added the clearly!)

Not surprisingly most people ignored them, and only the occasional person stopped and was brave enough to receive a tract.  No-one actually stood and listened to the preacher. But then I spotted something a bit out of the ordinary. Behind one of the placard holders was a lady with her own, much smaller placard, which said, “Smile if you worship Satan.”

What was so interesting, and a bit amusing, was that this lady was getting far more attention than either the preacher or the placard holders. Every now and then someone would give her a big smile and she would smile back and wave enthusiastically, ignored by the street preaching party. She was clearly benefiting from her location behind the street preachers and the contrast it gave. It did make me smile.

Smile agh! She caught me smiling. “Do you?” she mouthed at me, assuming I was a worshipper of Satan. “No!” I mouthed back, shaking my head furiously. Well that was it; I had to speak with her. I told her: “I can’t agree with your message, but 10 out of 10 for communication.” She was having far better results than the street preachers.

It turns out she was not a follower of Satan, but just someone who disagreed with the way the street preachers were proclaiming the gospel. “I have read about Jesus in the Bible” she said “and he did not do it this way”. I sort of agreed, and said he told stories, parables, but assured her Jesus was definitively worth reading about!

Afterwards, though, this got me thinking about which of the two, street preachers or “Satan” lady, were the best communicators. Yes Jesus did tell parables, but he didn’t tell them for the purposes of effective communication, but so that those listening would not understand, and thus confirm their hardness of heart! Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Mt 13:12. He quotes this as a fulfilment of Isaiah 6: Hearing you will hear and shall not understand… For the hearts of this people have grown dull.

Jesus knew that the problem with lack of faith was not lack of understanding, but hardness of heart. It was not that they did not know enough to believe, but that they did not want to believe. Indeed the only people who were meant to understand the parables were his disciples, and they were too slow-witted to understand him. We all know that feeling!

The New Testament church did not appear to use parables, however even they were not understood.  Paul was called a babbler in Athens (Acts 17), probably doing something very similar to the Boston street preachers. When he finally got an audience all went well until he mentioned the resurrection. Now they understood – so they walked off! The issue was not understanding, but hardness of heart.

Indeed effective communication of the gospel can be a dangerous business.  Early church leader, Stephen, had no trouble getting his audience to understand him, but they killed him for it. The issue was not understanding, but hardness of heart (Acts 6-7).

Perhaps the people walking past the street preachers that day did so because they already knew enough that they had decided to reject the gospel. It would have not made any difference how the street preachers presented it; the people would have ignored them. Hardness of heart, not understanding is the issue.

So what is the purpose of such street preaching if people walk by, or walk off as soon as they understand you, or kill you because they don’t like it? How can anyone believe through preaching?

I remember a story the late preacher, John Wimber, told. When he was not a Christian he used to see a man walking with a placard. One side said, “I’m a fool for Christ”; the other said, “whose fool are you?”  Wimber thought how stupid the man was. But after his conversion he could remember the incident well, and “Fool for Christ” became Wimber’s personal motto [1]. Though it appeared the man in the billboard had communicated nothing sensible to Wimber, it had played its part in his conversion. The issue was hardness of heart, not understanding. But something sunk in that God used later.

Long before I was a Christian I used to listen to music on Radio Luxemburg, mid 60s to early 70s. Sometimes it would fade out, and briefly in would fade Trans World Radio, a Christian station [2]. It really annoyed me, and if Luxemburg did not come back fast I would switch elsewhere. I never listened to more than a minute of something I had rejected as unintelligible rubbish. I eventually stopped listening to Luxemburg, and the Trans World Radio interruptions. Eight years later, when I got converted through other means, I could remember the radio evangelist’s name, Dick Saunders, hymns, main points and appeal! The issue was hardness of heart, not understanding. But something sunk in that God used later.

Boston seen from Cambridge MA.

So I wonder if street preaching may be more effective than we realise, and even though ignored and rejected at the time, God uses it to soften and open the hearts of those who will not embrace him. Whether it is street drama or heavy-duty hellfire with King James English – God uses it. Jesus had little fruit to show at the end of his ministry; most had walked away, his teaching rejected, and his parables not understood. But he had sowed the seeds that led to people’s future conversion.

So maybe the Boston street preachers, ignored by the people of Boston that day, are far more effective than the “Satan” lady, and more effective than their many critics would say. Sowing seeds ready for when hard hearts are softened.

Having said that, the next time I hear an atheist speaking, or a secular politician spouting forth with a godless message, I think I will stand near holding a sign that says: “Smile if you love Jesus!”


[1] John Wimber led the Vineyard Church in its early years and had a huge influence in charismatic renewal and evangelical Christianity. He told his conversion story in: The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, John Wimber and Kevin Springer, 1990, page 118, Hodder & Stoughton.

[2] Trans World Radio,

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Cowboys for Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Place of the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus Church

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

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

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

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

Pastors, Vern Thomson and Joe Stephenson [6]

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

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

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

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

Have you made the right choice?

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

References and Notes 

[1] The website of the Colorado Cowboys for Jesus describes their history and ministry.

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

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

[4] Anglican Decline in the West:

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

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

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

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