Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Limits to Church Growth - Part 2

The Reproduction of Enthusiasts

In a previous post I investigated two barriers to church growth: Lack of supply of religion by the church; and lack of demand for religion in society [1]. For those barriers to be removed a church needs to take action to increase recruitment and not take demand by the population for granted. In particular, the church needs to create demand for religion, “to seek and save the lost”, to engage with the population and convince those who don’t want the religion to embrace it.

In this blog a model is presented where the church creates demand by contacting unbelievers and persuading some to accept Christ, and thus become Christians. This is the limited enthusiasm model, which has been published and tested with data a number of times [2]. Here, it is re-interpreted in terms of supply and demand.  However creating demand brings about another barrier to church growth, one connected with the behaviour of the Church members involved in demand creation, the enthusiasts of the church.

Limit 3: Lack of Enthusiasts

Enthusiasts are the name given to those in the church who actively engage in spreading the gospel, in particular in recruitment to the church. These enthusiasts are the ones “supplying religion” to society by “creating demand” through their persuasive actions within that society. As such, unlike the previous models [1], supply matches demand. However not all the church are such enthusiasts, thus supply is proportional to the number of enthusiasts, rather than the whole church.

The reason not all the church are enthusiasts is that few Christians remain enthusiasts throughout their lifetime. The most effective enthusiasts are new converts, as these have the most contacts amongst unbelievers. After a time they settle in to church life and exchange their old unconverted friends for new converted ones. As such many eventually cease to be enthusiasts. Even if they keep unconverted friends, those friends get used to the new religious ways of the convert, whose witness becomes less effective.

Added to that, some enthusiasts also lose enthusiasm for the faith; perhaps the novelty has worn off, or the new religion has not met their expectations. Yet again it means that enthusiasts do not remain so for ever.

The model is expressed in system dynamics form in figure 1 [3]. Feedback loop R represents the action of the enthusiasts supplying the church’s beliefs by creating demand in society. Loop B1 is the reaction of society, the extent to which society really demands religion. B2 represents the fraction of enthusiasts who become inactive over time. The model is similar to that of the spread of a disease with the enthusiasts the “infected” Christians.

Figure 1: Limited Enthusiasm Model
For supply and demand to match, assuming contacts between enthusiasts and society are uniformly mixed, then the enthusiasts become less effective as the number outside church falls, making potential converts harder to find.  Thus the loss of enthusiasts creates a barrier to growth as that loss eventually exceeds the ability of enthusiasts to reproduce themselves from the diminishing pool of unbelievers. The result is that not all outside church are converted, and church reaches a limit much less than the size of the population.

Let a church number 60 people initially, with 5 of them enthusiasts. Let the number outside church be 2000.  The results are in figure 2. The enthusiasts peak about time 20 (curve 3), after which church growth slows (curve 1). Church stops growing at 540, because it has run out of enthusiasts, with over 1,500 in society remaining unconverted, curve 2. The inability for enthusiasts to reproduce themselves is a barrier to church growth.

Figure 2: Church Growth Limited by Behaviour of Enthusiasts
The results in figure 2 illustrate the epidemic metaphor, and are a pattern seen in a range of social phenomena, such as the spread of protests, ideologies, rumours, languages or fashions [4]. If a contagion, physical or social, spreads evenly, i.e. without targeting the susceptibles, and with a fixed contagion strength, then growth will always be limited. The enthusiasts will end up at zero.

If people leave the church, and in the future become open to joining again, then it is possible for enthusiasts to remain non-zero, but the barrier to growth remains. The church still can’t reproduce enthusiasts fast enough.

Removing the Growth Barrier

To remove, or raise, the barrier to growth a number of options are open to the church:
  1. The enthusiasts could selectively target those who are outside the church, spending more time with them rather than with church members. Practically this may prove difficult as time does need to be spent on believers in a growing church for their nurture and retention. This gives enthusiasts limited time for participation in non-church groups. Also, actually making contact with those outside church can be a problem if there are groups of people hostile to religion, and whose lives never overlap with anything church related. Whatever the strategy, as church grows, the people remaining outside become increasingly harder to reach.
  2. The enthusiasts should also reproduce themselves from inactive church members, not just new converts. This can be done by training, raising expectations of church membership, and especially by renewal of Christians in the Holy Spirit. This approach raises the barrier, but there is still a limit to church growth, albeit higher [5].
  3. Enable Enthusiasts to remain enthusiastic for longer. There could be many strategies, but if the church could just appreciate and encourage enthusiasts, rather than putting them down then ….. Enough said!
  4. Widen the pool of susceptibles by extending the church’s influence into another area, perhaps a through a church plant. This strategy quickly generates more demand, a new epidemic, and keeps up the flow of new enthusiasts. This is a standard strategy for newer churches, those yet to be established and become widespread. Unfortunately the unconverted people in the original community remain unconverted. Not ideal as the church is meant to seek and save the lost, not just grow!
  5. The enthusiasts should seek to increase their effectiveness, so the “contagion” is no longer fixed but can become larger. This is not so much about training enthusiasts but increasing their spiritual life. More life gives more growth, and thus gives even more life. This is the stuff of revival, outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and will be examined in the next blog on limits to church growth.



[1] See Blog, Limits to Church Growth, part 1

[2] See Hayward (1999, 2000, 2002, 2010) at 

[3]  For the conventional epidemiological construction of the Limited Enthusiasm Model see the above papers and

[4]  See examples among the publications at

[5] This is explored in the Renewal Model http://www.churchmodel.org.uk/Renmodel.html

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