Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Census 2011 – Initial thoughts on Religious Adherence.

Today the figures for religious identity were released for the 2011 census in England and Wales. The headline figure is that the percentage of people identifying themselves as Christian has dropped from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011. As many are saying, the country is becoming less Christian. “Countries” to be precise, there are two!

Let us try and unravel this a bit. Firstly the drop in Christian identity hardly comes as a surprise. Church attendance has been dropping relentlessly since the Second World War. Despite the charismatic revival from 1960s onwards and the resulting growth in this form of Christianity in mainline church and some independent church streams, church attendance on mass continues to decline. Indeed most mainstream denominations are under the extinction threshold of the Limited Enthusiasm model, and with their age profile, the extinction of some is only a generation away.

Secondly, although the percentage drop looks large, the 2011 percentage is measured next to a larger population in 2011, than that in 2001. As a substantial amount of the increase in population is immigration, and mainly non-Christian, then the percentage drop is artificially large. The percentage should be about 64% compared to the 2001 figure. That is an example of how numbers can be used to make a story sound worse than it is. To spell it out there were 37,338,486 people in England and Wales who identified themselves as Christians on the 2001 census. In 2011 the figure was 33,243,175, a drop of 4,095,311.

Thirdly, compare these figures with a church attendance figure of about 3 million. In other words over 10 times as many people identify themselves as Christian compared with the number who turn up to services. Thus the bulk of the 33 million “Christians” have identified themselves as this for cultural and heritage reasons rather than a commitment to attend worship. When a religion declines this is what you expect to see. The living faith of one generation, where belief is central to the person’s way of life, becomes for many a less enthusiastic church attendance and involvement in the second generation. Faith is there but more intellectual rather than experiential. By the third generation many have stopped attending, except at festivals. They identify as Christians, but beliefs are in the background compared with the rest of life, just enough to tick a form. By the fourth generation most have even stopped identifying themselves with the religion. Thus the census is measuring a decline in the culture of Christianity. The extent of the decline of believing Christianity is the massive gap between attendance and cultural adherence. But that is also a great opportunity as unlike other religions Christianity still has a massive pool of people who identify with the religion and be called to faith and commitment. An opportunity to be seized.

Fourthly, the main reason for church and religious decline is the failure to pass the faith on the next generation. The decline then comes from aging. Had there have been no transmission of Christianity to the next generation then the decline in 10 years should have been around 6 million, the Christians who died during that period. That the drop is less than this number shows that some cultural transmission of Christianity is taking place.  Little of this transmission is conversion, as that would be reflected in church attendance. But at least some children of cultural Christians must still be identifying as Christian. Given the lack of practical engagement with the religion, and the secular nature of society in the UK, that is at least some crumb of comfort.

It is interesting that the figure for Christianity dominated the media today. Also of significance is the rise in those identifying themselves as Muslim from 1,546,626 in 2001 (England and Wales) to 2,706,066 in 2011. Last year a student of mine did a model of the growth of Islam in England and Wales and today’s figure was very much in line with the model’s prediction. However unlike the figure for Christians it is estimated that about half of these Muslims are active in their faith – practicing Muslims. (It was 10% for Christians!) Thus the number of practicing Muslims is much closer church attendance than the census figures suggest, about 50% of church attendance at present. Also unlike the Christian church, when the Limited Enthusiasm model is applied to Islam in England and Wales, the evidence is that it is well over the tipping point for revival in both the heritage Muslim community, as well as among the white community. So although by the next census there will still be far more “Christians” than “Muslims” on the census return, unless there is a dramatic change within the Christian church then the number of practicing Muslims will exceed church attendance, in England and Wales. I would like to think that would inspire more Christians to pray and work for outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps ask what we are doing wrong that another religion may be getting right.

Before the anti-Islam people pick up on these thoughts I must stress that the number of Muslims, will remain well short of the number with no religion and still be a small minority compared with the total population in England and Wales. Predictions of future Islamification in the UK lacks numerical credibility; Britain is heading to be a secular and non-religious nation, more out of apathy than conviction.  That the number of practicing Muslims will end up exceeding their counterpart in Christianity is less about the strength of Islam and far more about the weakness of the Christian churches, few of whom have sought the path to reverse that decline, despite over 50 years of evidence of a problem!

Finally I wonder if history will record that the day the headline was that “Britain was less Christian”, was the same day the UK government published its bill to re-define marriage and change 2000 years of Christian history? Coincidence, prophetic, planned? On the same day two pieces of evidence of the secularisation of the UK hit the news. The question is: are churches declining because society is becoming more secular, as some sociologists suggest, or is it becoming more secular because church is declining? Evidence of a feedback loop I think!

In amongst all the figures, models and social upheaval I hang on to the fact that this is God’s world and he is always in control! The near future may be hard for Christians, but it will be still be God's.


2001 Census


2011 Census



Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Women Bishops and Church Growth


Today was the day the Church of England narrowly turned down a proposal that would allow women to become bishops. Clearly this made headline news in the UK, especially as it had been widely anticipated that it would be passed. One may wonder what having women bishops has to do with church growth and why I, as a mathematical modeller, should deem it worthy of comment. I think the reason I feel the need to say something is precisely because it does not have much to do with church growth! If the church were to face the serious issues that would help its survival, future growth and ability to carry out its mandate to evangelise the world, deciding on women bishops would not be on the priority list.

Perhaps what intrigues me is the underlying reason as to why this bill for women bishops is being opposed, and I think the same reason why people now want to bring it in. It is that reason which has everything to do with church growth, or the lack of it. And I don’t mean all the arguments from the Bible and tradition for and against, or the need to be modern and relevant. Strip all that to one side and what is happening is that a centuries old tradition that has forced everyone to accept women cannot have the leadership position of a bishop is being replaced by a rule which now would eventually force everyone to accept that they can. That is, one type of uniformity is being replaced by another. Uniformity, or the lack of diversity in church life, is to me the underlying issue to the debate on women bishops and the issue that affects church growth.

There is a marked contrast between the USA and Europe when it comes to church growth. In the USA the churches are generally strong and many are still growing. In Europe churches are declining fast and have been since the Second World War.  The reason put forward by many sociologists of religion is that Christianity is established and regulated in Europe, whereas in the US there is no established church and a “free market” in religion operates. As such the US has a much greater degree of competition as reflected in the highly diverse nature of churches. Church leaders can be innovative without any over-arching body to insist on single uniformity.

This is where my modelling comes in. It is that freedom to compete and innovate that allows enthusiasts to flourish and generate more enthusiasts. Enthusiasts are the drivers of church growth. Uniformity, and the regulation that comes with it, stifles enthusiasm, restricts enthusiasts, and ultimately quenches growth, the work of the Holy Spirit, and revival. In the debate on women bishops it is that desire for uniformity that bothers me, rather than the issue itself. Allow both to coexist side-by-side, and if necessary compete. This will make for stronger churches.

Of course some diversity does exist in the UK as there are many denominations. People are free to start churches, and the rise of many new and independent denominations such as New Frontiers and Vineyard, continues. These will no doubt be the main denominations of the future when many of the older ones have run their course. (Ironically neither of these have women leaders! Although they do allow married couples to lead together.) There is certainly some innovation in the Church of England, it was an Anglican congregation that brought about the Alpha Course, the one initiative that has probably had more impact than any other in last 20 years (or more!). And there are many other examples.

But the majority of the C of E remains untouched, as do many older denominations, because there is not the expectation among the people or ministers that diversity and competition are healthy and to be encouraged. Somehow the spirit of 1662 lives on in the UK. That was the year of the act of uniformity which brought to an end a generation or more of experiment and innovation in church life and worship. It was also know as the great ejection when many ministers were forced to leave the church as episcopacy and the prayer book became compulsory. The effect on the church’s mission was disastrous and it did not start to recover until the Methodist revivals 70 years later. 

I can’t imagine constructing a model of the effect of introducing women bishops on the growth of the church. But I am working on models of the effects of uniformity and the stifling of enthusiasts. Hopefully I will be able to bring some insights into the positive effects of allowing diversity, de-regulation and competition on the growth of the church and making it better able to take the world for Christ.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Dealing with Church Decline


Church growth is not just an academic study for me; it is personal. Not only am I fascinated by the growth and decline of churches; I am part of it. I belong to a church and engage in its mission, thus its success is something I am working towards, not just researching. My church happens to be part of the Church in Wales, a denomination that has been declining steadily for many years, a decline that statistically will eventually lead to its extinction. Such is the concern, the church leaders have commissioned an external review whose report was published last week (1). I downloaded the report and read it on my way to the International System Dynamics Conference in Switzerland, so system thinking was very much on my mind.

I think systems thinking must have been in the mind of the reviewers of the Church in Wales as they made sweeping recommendations that would reconfigure the way the church operates, particularly at the parish and congregational level. In order for the church’s decline to be halted and growth to come back, the reviewers state that there are two barriers to change that need addressing: structural and cultural. The structure of the church, they say, is more suited to that of a hundred years ago. Instead they see its future in the hands of teams overseeing much larger areas than a parish, with mainly lay and non-stipendiary leaders. This fits well with my models as it releases some of the more enthusiastic Christians into positions where they can generate more enthusiasts. The second area to change is the church’s culture so there is less dependence on, and deference to, the church hierarchy. This also has support from my models where individual Christians are the key players in spreading the faith. The more enthusiasts then the more church growth! The writers of the report need to be commended for their insight and bravery.

However there is more to be said. Before I do I would like to step back and ask, why is the church declining? If the attendance data for the Church in Wales is placed into the limited enthusiasm model then it is well under the threshold of extinction, a fate it shares with most of the non-conformists churches of Wales and England.  What reasons for decline are put forward for by the experts?

According to classical secularisation theory this is only to be expected. Stated briefly, as society progresses through rationalism and enlightenment, religious institutions have less hold on society and thus religious belief declines, and along with it church attendance (2). Western Europe and the UK are seen as good examples of this theory where the churches have nowhere near the power they once had, and church attendance is so low it will not be long before there are less people in church than there are who practise Islam!

However this theory has problems. The USA, arguably the most advanced country of the world, has church attendance at very healthy levels and perhaps stronger than it as ever been. This has led to a number of modifications of the theory to explain this observation. Further, in the UK, the people who do not engage with church appear no more rational than those who belong. Superstition is rife, and wealth, entertainment, hedonism and ignorance appear better explanations for their refusal to be part of church rather then deeply thought out secular views.

As for a second theory, Dean Kelley, and those who belong to the new paradigm in the sociology of religion place the blame more on the church itself, than society (3).  Lenient churches are weak and thus more likely to decline, and there are plenty of lenient churches in the UK! By contrast strict churches are strong and more likely to grow. There are many of these in the USA, and competition due to the lack of a state religion helps keep them strong (4-6). But the UK has a few, and yes they are growing.  The Church in Wales does not fit well into this theory. Generally it has always been on the conservative side, although some of its leaders would prefer the word lenient I guess. But the conservatism is more of a traditional Anglicanism than the evangelical zeal that Kelley had in mind. One Church in Wales minister wryly described it as “any colour you like as long as it’s black!” Conservative and relatively strict, but dull and bland (sorry to anyone from the church reading this). There are plenty of examples of conservative churches that decline and act as counter examples to Kelley’s theory, and dullness is something they have in common!

The theory of Michael Watts described in “Why did the English Stop Going to Church?” is intriguing (7). He claimed it was because the church stopped preaching the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. He argued that the church has only been numerically strong in the late 18th and 19th century. However, during the 19th century, as liberalism crept into the churches through the seminaries and the education of the clergy, the doctrine of hell declined and along with it the cutting edge of the church.

I could bring some insights from population modelling to add to this. Even if the church had lost its cutting edge, as long as it kept its own children it would not decline and may even still grow if average family size remained high. There did not need to be any conversions for its numbers to remain stable and healthy. But after two world wars, rising wealth as a major distraction, and falling family sizes, it could not keep its children. The result has been major decline since the 1950s. The secularisation of the church was a bigger problem than the secularisation of society. The cause of the decline is two-fold: aging, through the church being unable to keep believers’ children in the faith; and the lack of conversions. But the lack of conversions may well precede aging by many generations.

My church growth models push this theory further and claim decline results from the failure to produce enthusiasts, those who are key to the conversion to, and renewal of, the church (8). If what both Kelley and Watts say are true then the churches in the UK have been weak and have failed to produce enough enthusiasts since the latter part of the 19th century but it has taken a few generations of the cultural decline of the church to become noticed in attendance figures. The life had long gone, but it took a while for participation to reflect this. The church in the UK, and especially Wales, only became the size it did through a succession of revivals from 1735 to 1904, and there had been a gap of over 40 years before the 1904 revival. The church, including the Church in Wales, is declining because it has not been producing enough enthusiasts for well over a hundred years.

So does the report address this issue? I wish it had mentioned a third barrier to change: the psychological one – fear! Ministers and lay leaders are often afraid of losing control, afraid of being seen as less important. People jockey for positions in church and make policies to protect themselves, rather than release others in ministry, this works against the production of enthusiasts as these type of Christians are feared the most!

I wish the report had not insisted that all the ministry training comes through one seminary. This creates a uniform pool, and continues the “one colour” policy of the church. By contrast the Church of England has more diversity of churchmanship through its variety of seminaries. Diversity creates healthy competition which encourages enthusiasm, and a cross fertilisation of ideas. Although the Church of England is declining, it is just above the extinction threshold, a position that has been slowly but steadily improving since the 1980s. The Welsh Anglicans could learn a lot from the English ones.

But the biggest issue the report fails to address is the Holy Spirit. It is the axiomatic belief of the Church Growth Modelling project that churches grow through outpourings of the Holy Spirit, commonly called revivals. Any understanding, or any solution, that ignores this fact has missed the point. Life brings growth. The report started well, quoting 1 John 1, “our theme is the Word which gives life”. But nowhere does it say how that life is to come. Removing the structural and cultural barriers are great, but we need to remove the spiritual barrier that stops us being the completely sold out disciples of Christ we are called to be. The barrier that prevents us seeking His fullness, seeking His presence, seeking the baptism with the Spirit, seeking revival. The barrier that stops us being the enthusiasts Jesus wants us to be.


(1) The Church in Wales Review

(2) Brown C. (2009), The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000, Taylor & Francis.

(3) Kelley D. (1986), Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Mercer University Press.

(4) Stark R. (1999), Secularization, RIP. Sociology of Religion, 60(3), 249-273.

(5) Stark R. and Iannaccone L.R. (1994), A Supply Side Reinterpretation of the "Secularisation'' of Europe. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 (3), 230-252.

(6) Warner R.S. (1993), Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States, American Journal of Sociology 98 (5), 1044-93.

(7) Watts M. (1995), Why did the English Stop Going to Church? A paper presented at the "Friends of the Dr Williams Library", and published by the library.

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