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.

2 comments:

  1. these "the end is nigh" articles about the church are something of a journalist tradition http://bit.ly/1ddUWBx

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  2. Thanks for the link to all the "end of the church articles". I get the impression they have written the story before they obtain the evidence - generally they are the same story spread over 40 years! The current one was only tenuously related to what George Carey actually said, and what he said made far more sense and was more helpful.

    Many UK and USA denominations are under the "extinction threshold" but the timescale for most is many generations, largely because some people return to church when they are older. These timescales are well beyond the ability of any model or statistics to predict, too much other stuff changes.

    Church growth and success is not news. Church decline and infighting is.

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