Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Decline of the Church of England – Update 2001-2012

A year ago I applied the Limited Enthusiasm Model church growth to the decline of the Church of England, based on its published attendance figures 2001-2011 [1]. Since then Statistics for Mission 2012 has been published by the C of E with various updates to figures [2]. This blog aims to analyse the revised C of E data, using the Limited Enthusiasm Model, and see how the predictions have changed.

Recap on Results

In the 2001-2011 analysis I presented two scenarios: an optimistic one, which suggests the C of E starts growing again in the future, about 2030; and a pessimistic one, where the C of E declines slowly to extinction. Attendance data alone is not sufficient to distinguish between the two scenarios; however the underlying cause of the change is the production of enthusiasts, those responsible for conversion and recruitment. If enthusiasts are slowly growing then the optimistic scenarios is more likely, if the are declining then extinction is the more probable result.

Of course it is very hard to count enthusiasts, but it may be possible to measure their other by-products, such as an increase in spiritual activities, community engagement and the like. There are examples of such things in the church, though it is not clear if there are enough.

However the latest findings from the C of E, and some further investigations of the model, suggest caution in thinking there are optimistic scenarios. So what has changed?

1. Attendance 2012

Firstly there is now an extra data point for 2012. This time the Church has decided to revise its way of calculating the “All-Age Weekly Attendance”. This has lead to a downward revision of the numbers since 2008. For data fitting to work the measure of attendance used has to be consistent throughout the whole of 2001-2012. However this is easily corrected and the result is no change at all. Both optimistic and pessimistic scenarios survive

2. Different Measures of Attendance & Membership

The second potentially confounding factor is that the Church computes different measures of “size”. For example there are membership figures, which are the electoral role, not updated every year.  Membership tends to lag attendance in declining churches [3], so not an ideal measure.

There is also adult attendance, Sunday attendance, Easter attendance, highest weekly attendance, usual Sunday attendance and, new in the 2012 report, worshipping community! Confusing? Well there is no simple answer to the question “how many people attend church”. There are regulars and occasionals, but even regulars go on holiday, so on an average count would not give a full a 100% return. Occasional could be anything from once a month to once a year! So multiple measures are needed.

To a modeller it pays to look at all measures, they are measures of slightly different communities. But the Limited Enthusiasm Model can be applied to any type of community, as long as the data is consistently measured over time. The data-fitting is looking for curvature  over time. The right sort of slowing down curvature could indicate growing enthusiasts and a bounce back. So the measure of attendance issue does not change the results.

3. Leaving Rates

This time Statistics for Mission has estimated the number leaving the church, and the number joining. The latter will include those born into the church, and new converts. The reported numbers are not fully consistent as even with death rates they suggest the church is growing, which it is not. But it is likely a number of the “joiners” did so only occasionally, so may not get measured in the All-Age Weekly Attendance figure I am using. All the same extra data is always welcome!

The really interesting result is that the report suggests the leaving rate for the C of E is about 1.25%, significantly lower than I had been using, which was 5%. This sounds like good news, but for my scenarios it is bad news.

It is bad because it means to get an annual 1% annual decline rate there must be less conversions than I had estimated, thus less enthusiasts generated, which pushes the church further below the extinction threshold than I had previously thought. In short there are few optimistic scenarios where the C of E survives. Extinction due to lack of conversions is its likely fate.

A low leaving rate is also bad news as there is less leverage to bring about an improvement. There is less scope to improve retention.

Maybe their figures are wrong. I need to see the same estimates for a few more years to be convinced.

4. Birth and Death Rates

The report also estimates the number of deaths in the church, significantly higher than the national figure, a reflection of the older age profile of the church. By the same token the birth rate in the church will be lower than the national average. In some parishes the birth rate is zero; the biological clock has ticked too far!

The published version of the Limited Enthusiasm Model was not designed to handle this situation – my interest at that time was modelling revival not decline! So I am busy revising the model. But it does mean the C of E is even further below the extinction threshold as it needs to produce even more conversions to make up for its higher death rate and lower biological transmission.

5. Contact with Outside Community

Sadly the most optimistic scenarios in my models, the ones where declining churches turn around, usually come about because the community the church has contact with is growing. Unfortunately this is almost certainly the reverse of the current situation. I suspect the growth is in the communities with no church contact.

It is certainly true that there is growth in the non-Christian community. More people in the 2011 census declared themselves non-Christian compared with 2001. But that should not be assumed to mean they are out of contact with the church, or less likely to be converted and join the church. If the church contacts them at least they will know they are not a Christian rather than just assuming it for cultural reasons as in the past! They may be more likely to convert.

More telling is that the C of E is now too small to contact all the UK population. There are communities, especially rural ones, with no parish churches at all. Additionally there is some evidence that the majority of parishes do not engage in any widespread form of evangelism or witness. What takes place only touches a small part of the wider community [4].

Again I need to revise my models to include the growth of secular, hostile and disconnected communities. But, however it is modelled, it will put the C of E even further below the extinction threshold.

Conclusion

It is difficult to give a positive or optimistic view of the future of the Church of England on the basis of the published data and my models.  Although extinction is a few generations away that is little comfort for a church called to take the gospel to the ends of the Earth and make disciples of all nations. The Kingdom is meant to grow!

But as I said, my models were born in the need to understand revival. Ultimately there is no hope of sustained growth for any church unless it has a God given revival, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  The challenge I leave to any reading this blog is not what you will do to tackle church decline, but will you take revival seriously? Will you prayer for revival? Will you convince other Christians of the need for revival? Will you go on praying for the Holy Spirit to come until you are an enthusiast, the type of revived Christian who will sacrifice all to proclaim the gospel, and make converts and disciples for Jesus? Our optimism is in the promises, purpose and power of Jesus Christ!


References

[1] The Decline of the Church of England, Church Growth Modelling Blog, October 2013

[2] Statistics for Mission 2012, (2014), Archbishops' Council, Research and Statistics, Central Secretariat. https://www.churchofengland.org/media/1868964/ministry%20statistics%20final.pdf

[3] Results of the Membership Model. http://www.churchmodel.org.uk/memberresult.html

[4] Take a random sample of parishes and it is likely you will find an absence of any sort of evangelism course such as Alpha, Christianity Explored, Start and the like. Likewise community engagement projects are either small scale or absent.  

As well as the lack of contact between church and community, I fear the church is not as bold as it was compared with say the late 1980s. Back then we had Marches for Jesus through the streets of Britain. I think most Christians, even Evangelicals, would be too embarrassed to do this now. Hopefully I am wrong.