Sunday, 16 August 2009

Mathematics and History

July is the conference season for mathematicians. I have done many in my career but a history conference is a first!. Spent two days at the International Medieval Congress (IMC) in Leeds. Now what has this to do with church growth? Well medieval history is dominated by religion, in particular the Christian church. A group of us interested in using physics to understand the spread of religion and ideas decided to hold our meeting within the 1500 strong IMC in order to interact with historians.

My thinking is that if my models and theories of church growth have any credibility there should be some evidence to support them in history, not just the revivals of the modern period. What I have learnt has fascinated me. There was not just the growth of the state religion but of sects such as the Waldensians, heresies like the Cathars and even the growth of the monastic movement. There is much to learn here before the models can be applied to history, but I am hopeful.

I also learnt that historians and medievalists are really nice people with a very generous spirit towards others in their field, and those like me outside. This is still an area where an enthusiastic and well-read lay person can make a serious contribution. My own subjects of maths and physics are now just too technical. You need a PhD before you can even dip a toe in the water!

My other thoughts took me back to a famous science fiction series by Isaac Asimov called Foundation. Here the hero was a mathematician who could apply his theories to history - he called it psycho-history. He was so successful he could predict the future of the galactic empire for 1000 years and deduce what could be done to help it through its collapse. Inevitably he became a man in much demand - by all sides!

Of course current mathematical models are far from being able to understand human behaviour this well. People do not behave like atoms in a gas - each person is an individual known by God - which makes the maths torturous - and also comes as a relief as well! All the same a convincing theory of mass human behaviour is a dream of many modellers. However I will be glad just to have a better understanding of church growth that could be used to help build the kingdom and bring glory to God.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Challenge to Change

A week ago a colleague of mine organised a study day at our university on the state of the churches in Wales and what can be done. Wales has seen a steady decline in church attendance from half the population at the time of the 1904 revival down to - well estimates vary from 5-10% depending on how you count attendance at church, weekly, monthly etc. I was asked to give one of my maths church growth talks.

This is the first time I have ever tried presenting my work to a non-academic audience. They were mainly church leaders, people engaged in mission etc. I stripped at out the maths and system dynamics and just left a few causal loops in, to describe the basics of the dynamics of conversion and how it gets increasingly hard to spread belief as the poll of unbelievers shrinks.

My main aim was to get over the idea that church growth is driven by enthusiasts, who reproduce themselves, and thus sustain the enthusiasm and growth of the church. Following Acts chapter 2 the principle is that life brings growth. So concentrate on building the church life and God gives the growth. OK there is a lot of maths behind the principle, and a number of nuances, but in essence seeking the life of God is what churches should prioritise .

It was a good meeting, many interesting questions and discussions. And the other presentations were good and thought provoking. The final round table discussion was perhaps less encouraging. Generally the whole focus of the discussion was on "what can we do?". That is fine, God does require us to do things, we are not passive in the building of his kingdom. But there was no discussion of "what can God do?" The spiritual side was lacking. We could have been trying to expand the tennis club!

I did say I had a concern that if church primarily grows through revivals, as Edwin Orr and Martyn Lloyd-Jones have claimed, and if revival comes about through a hunger and thirst for God, then, I said, I was seeing little of that hunger for more of God in churches these days. Plenty of enthusiasm for church, for growth, for mission, for community involvement, sometimes even for revival. But where is the enthusiasm for the Lord Jesus Christ himself?

My hope, and prayer, with all the work I do is that people will seek to be enthusiasts, to receive of the Spirit, because they have a thirst for more of Jesus Christ in all his glory. The conversions, the church growth, the community involvement, and the revival we need, will follow as our love for Jesus explodes. If the research I do helps points people in the direction of seeking to be an enthusiast for Jesus, then I feel it will be of some value.

More on what it means to be an enthusiast in another post!

And well done to all the people who came to the meeting and made it such a success (despite the provisos above) I pray the Lord blesses their ministries. And a special well done to Paul - the organiser of the study day.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Fresh Expressions - First Thoughts

Church Growth is not all about maths for me. Yes it is my primary research project in university and it takes me to academic conferences. And it is a joy to use my trade of maths to bring some understanding to the way churches grow and decline. But church growth is practical: how can we see the world won for Jesus Christ? So I get involved with the churches too, my own and the wider church.

So I have ended up on a Fresh Expressions course with 4 others from my church. Fresh Expressions, also called Mission Shaped ministry, is an Anglican/ Methodist initiative to explore "new" ways of doing church in a postmodern climate. A denominational version of Emerging Church, of which I knew very little until recently.

We have only had two sessions so far and I must say my first thoughts are mixed. A lot of it makes sense. Mainstream church is way out of touch with society. You don't need any of my mathematical models to realise the likelihood of it influencing people, let alone seeing a conversion, is very low. But would a fresh expression church fare any better? So far we have just not heard enough to answer that question.

What we have had is a lot of justification, theological and sociological, for a church that can engage with postmodernism. Now I read a lot of academic sociology for my research, and it is loaded with buzz words whose definitions can be quite complex. But I am finding that Fresh Expressions, like the Emerging Church, is full of jargon much of which is difficult to be clear about. E.g. missional, incarnational, organic, intentional. Base Ecclesial community!

Hopefully we will make progress over the next few meetings and get some concrete examples of what is going on. Maybe I can even get a model going to explain some of the dynamics of this movement, if that is what it is. In the mean time I feel somewhat relieved that going back to the Bible I see that Jesus did keep things remarkably simple without ever losing spiritual depth!

Saturday, 9 May 2009

What is Church Growth?

To kick off the blog of church growth modelling it makes sense to try to understand what “church growth” actually is. The church growth modelling project has run since 1995, but to understand the modelling we need to understand what is being modelled.

To give the context, “church” means the Christian church. This is not because I am not interested in other religions, but the motive behind the growth of the Christian church is specific to Christian beliefs. As a result all Christian churches have similar organisational structures and mechanisms that influence that growth.

Firstly, at its simplest, church growth means the numerical growth of the church, the increase in the numbers of people who are part of that church. This could be the whole of the church in the world, in a particular country, or even down to a city. It could also refer to specific denominations, or even a congregation.

In some circles it is deemed a bit inappropriate to talk of numbers, as God is interested in quality, holiness and obedience, rather than just how many may turn up to church. However the great commission demands that the church makes disciples, and if it is to carry out that duty, then it should get bigger! If it stays small we owe it to God and his commission to find out why, as there may be faults in our practices.

Indeed no church wants to stay small. In order to carry out that commission and to bring glory to God it is natural for a church to expect to grow. Denominations have returned statistics of membership since the 19th century. Accounts of church life in earlier times often make references to how many people attended a service, especially when revival was taking place. A quick glance at the revival accounts of Jonathan Edwards, or the journals of John Wesley or George Whitfield, give ample evidence of this. So church growth means growth in numbers.

Secondly, “church growth” took on a more specific meaning in the late 1950’s with the work of Donald McGavran. McGavran had been a missionary in India and had developed theories as to why some churches grew and some didn’t. His central theory led to the concept of people groups as an aid to growth due to a shared language and culture. On his return to the USA he founded the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, California, where he and others have honed these isea into a set of principles. This has come to be known as the Church Growth Movement, taught in seminaries, embodied in methodologies and championed by various churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback in the USA..

This version of church growth is heavily criticised by some Christian groups (do an internet search in church growth movement). I would rather leave my thoughts on that to another post. However I guess the main reason people criticise the church growth movement is that they think it is “all about numbers”. That leads to a third way of looking at church growth which is its spiritual growth. It is not enough for a church to get bigger. Its members need to grow in Christ and holiness. The great commission is not just to make converts but disciples.

My work in the church growth modelling project has to date concentrated on numerical growth. This is not because I think spiritual growth is unimportant but it is much harder to quantify, thus harder to model and understand how it impacts numerical growth except in very general terms. However we are moving in that direction. I will explain more about this, and the nature of modelling, in another post.

My modelling work is also much bigger than the Church Growth Movement, however I respect their work as I value their insights and always try and relate them to those that come out of the modelling. Indeed there are other valuable insights, from sociologists of religion, other forms of social diffusion such as the spread of languages and ideas, and the whole field of epidemiology. On this project we try to use every intelligent analysis to bear light on church growth.

However my favourite area is always that of revival, outpourings of the Holy Spirit. That is when we can see most clearly God at work, in ways that often defy understanding yet are wonderfully exciting. This is the essence of church growth: God increasing his church in numbers and quality through the work of his Spirit so his name is glorified.

John