I have just finished reading a book called Church Growth in Britain, which may seem a strange title given the church in the UK has been in persistent decline since the 1950s, both in membership and attendance. The trouble with the national church figures is they aggregate a wide variety of churches with different growth and decline profiles. Yes the majority are in decline and this dominates the figures, but it also hides the fact that there are a sizable number of congregations and church movements that are seeing continued growth. That is the purpose of the book to highlight the numerous examples of growth and try to explain why they are happening. As such a very encouraging book telling a story that needs to be told.
The thesis of the book is summed up on p253 “the notion that all British churches are in inexorable decline is a myth”. There is also a running sub-thesis that the secularisation hypothesis has serious flaws with regard to British churches. The secularisation hypothesis states that as societies become more advanced they become less religious both in participation by people, and in the connection between religious and non-religious institutions. Many American sociologists have rejected the hypothesis for the USA but claim it is still relevant in Europe because the latter has national established churches and thus weaker competition between churches. The book defends its two theses through a series of articles from a variety of authors covering Black Majority churches, New churches, cathedrals and regional variations. There is ample evidence that there are many growing churches in the UK, and that the country is becoming more like the USA’s market economy in religion, than Europe’s secularisation through the dominance of established churches. I.e. church participation is a form of religious consumption rather than the older form of religious obligation.
Social or Spiritual?
The book starts good, but quickly falls into sociological perspectives on church growth. I wondered if this was to encourage its audience or to satisfy an academic referee in sociology? At times I wondered if anyone would admit that they believed in what churches do let alone believe in God. It came across as too secular in its viewpoint, rather ironic considering its disapproval of the secularisation hypothesis! I understand the need for academic peer review, but it is still possible to let people know you look to the God of the Bible. In my first paper on mathematical modelling of church growth in amongst all the maths and sociology references I gave two references to sermons by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and thus referred to revival and the work of the Spirit as part of the evidence in model construction. It is possible to have academic and spiritual integrity simultaneously!
The book is rescued from a secular perspective by George Lings who, in plain English, rather than academic jargon, ignored the currently politically correct sociological theories of religion and identifies two key hindrances to mission, p167, that the church:
- assumes all people (in the UK) are Christians and thus doubts such people need rescuing, saving and changing by Christ;
- finds enthusiasm and evangelism disagreeable preferring a “back to church” approach as a sufficient strategy.
To me these are also causes of church decline, because they lead to insufficient growth to counter normal losses. These are the ones built in to the limited enthusiasm model, my main model of church growth. More spiritual insights like these, rather than the sociological ones would have improved the book’s case enormously. This to me was the most informative and positive statement in the book and the various examples of growth given elsewhere in the book illustrate it well.
Migration and Mobility
Another positive statement of the book is that church growth is higher where migration and mobility are higher. The church growth models predict this, though it must be said these are the same results that say that epidemics are larger when populations move around more. This is not an original result of mine, but it does hold true for churches as well. For churches to grow they need volatile networks among people. Many churches decline simply because they do not have enough contact with the community, the networks remain static. Widen the susceptible pool and decline can be turned into revival growth. Migration does this a treat, but in its absence church people need to internally “migrate” within their own communities, changing their friendship networks. The resulting growth would be similar to that of churches in city centres and among immigrant communities
I guess the main conclusion of the book is that the many growing congregations give hope for the future. I am afraid I have to be more hesitant here as this does not necessarily follow. Although stories of growing congregations are encouraging, they have always been there in each decade of the last century (and this), but they have never led to the re-growth of the church nationally. Aggregation is brutal. Although there are growing congregations, they are considerably outweighed by the much larger number of declining ones. The growing ones do not grow indefinitely. Either they plateau, remaining large and lively but no longer contributing to national church growth, or they join the ranks of declining ones. In subsequent decades it is then other congregations that become growing ones, but again not enough of them. Thus although it looks very encouraging to see many growing congregations, unless sustained, and replicated in other congregations, it will not on its own lead to national church growth.
One feature of the book did however really frustrate me; I had to wait to p137 before I saw the first mention of revival! Even then it was with reference to Nigeria. It was here that gave the only reference to baptism with the Spirit. It left me wondering does anyone believe in revival anymore? Does anyone believe that church growth comes through frequent outpourings of the Holy Spirit on the church? That has to be left to another blog!