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.


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:

[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,

British Social Attitudes, National Centre for Social Research

Daily Telegraph

British Religion in Numbers

Molly Ball, The Quiet Gay Rights Revolution in America’s Churches, The Atlantic, 14th August 2013.

The Reformation Project,

[13] E.g. Love is Changing History, AT&T,

[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.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Decline of the Church of England

The decline of the Church of England has been well publicised for many years. Because of the connections between church and state the future survival of the church is of interest to many agencies, both Christian and otherwise. Any new attendance figures are likely to make mainstream news, with discussion of the church’s future prospects.  In this blog I will apply one of my church growth models to the Church of England attendance figures and examine how serious that decline might be. First let me set the context.

The Christian Church in the UK has been steadily declining for over 50 years. With a total church membership reaching a peak of 10.3 million in 1930 a slow decline followed with a brief recovery through the 1950s. Since 1960 membership has fallen from 9.9 million in 1960 to 5.9 million in 2000 [1]. It was down further to 5.5 million in 2010 [2].  Not surprisingly the Church of England’s membership has fallen in a similar fashion, from 2.9 million in 1960 to 1.2 million in 2010 [3,4].

Before analysing figures for the Church of England, some comparisons would be useful. Church decline is remarkably slow compared with the decline in membership of other institutions. For example political parties fare very badly, with the conservative party falling from a high of 2.9 million in 1951, to 1 million in 1990 and to less than 150,000 in 2012 [5,6]. Similar dramatic falls are recorded for other political parties and the Trade Union movement. Church decline is part of a wider decline in commitment in Western society, and by no means the worst. So although the Church of England is right to be concerned about its decline, it has been considerably more successful in resisting that decline than non-religious institutions of a similar size.


This blog seeks to answer two questions: Will the Church of England continue to decline? If so will it become extinct or is there any sign of a recovery?

A straight statistical projection would indicate that the Church of England will eventually become extinct, although long after most of the other UK mainstream denominations (and well after the major political parties!) But statistical projections only examine data, they do not factor in any theory as to why a church grows or declines. Thus they may miss some underlying reason why the church may not go extinct.

Limited Enthusiasm Model

The approach I have taken is to construct a model based on the theory that church growth is driven by a sub-class of church members, called enthusiasts, who are instrumental in bringing about conversions into the church. The model is then compared with church data in order to estimate model parameters, and determine the likely future for the church, assuming the theory is correct [7]. Unbelievers are also split into those who are open to joining the church and those who are hardened to the church.

A key result of this “Limited Enthusiasm” Model is the existence of two thresholds, or tipping points, connected with extinction and revival-growth. These thresholds are compared with the reproduction potential, which measures the ability of enthusiasts to reproduce themselves [8]. If the reproduction potential is under the extinction threshold the church eventually declines to zero, if it is over the threshold the church survives. Likewise if the reproduction potential is over the revival-growth threshold, church growth is rapid, similar to that seen in religious revivals. Both thresholds depend on the birth, death and loss rates, and the revival-growth threshold also depends on the current fraction of open unbelievers in the population.

Although some of the model parameters are difficult to determine the placement of the reproduction potential compared with the thresholds is more robustly determined. Thus it is possible to be more confident of a church’s extinction or survival, even if there is more variation in the parameter and threshold values. Essentially the model is interpreting curvature in the data in terms of the behaviour of enthusiasts. Thus if the decline is slowing it may indicate enthusiasts are reproducing themselves enough for the church to survive.

Analysis of Church of England Attendance 1979-2005

Attendance is a much better indicator of participation than membership in the Church of England as the latter is based on electoral role, which has not always required participation as a reason for inclusion.  However it is only in recent history that attendance figures have been consistently obtained. The methodology for their collection must be consistent over time otherwise curvature in the data set will be wrongly interpreted.

My earlier publications in church growth were based on the English Church Attendance Surveys conducted by Christian Research, under the then leadership of Peter Brierley [9]. By the 1998 attendance survey the Church of England was under the extinction threshold, although not massively so [10]. By the 2005 survey its situation had improved, the church was just on the extinction threshold [11].  That is the Church of England was just avoiding future extinction. Unfortunately there have been no more attendance surveys since, so no further results can be obtained from this source.

Analysis of Church of England Attendance 2001-2011

Since 2001 the Church of England has been reporting its own attendance figures. Although these cannot be compared with the figures of Christian Research, they use different methodologies, the data can be used to assess the extinction/survival status since 2001. The most recent data is for 2011 [12]. Additional data sources, such as birth rates etc., are used to estimate a number of model parameters [13].

The data used is the combined all-age Sunday and weekday attendance [12, table 4]. Weekday attendance at churches has been growing, perhaps due to an aging population, and due to churches being more willing to diversify in their approach to reaching communities. It has now become sufficiently large that it cannot be ignored. The church quotes highest, average and lowest figures. The average has been used. Because the Limited Enthusiasm model is interpreting changes over time, it is not critical which of the three data sets are used, providing they have been consistently measured each year.

A best fit between model and data gives a value for the reproduction potential and the two thresholds. Many such “best fits” are obtained for a variety of other parameter values [14]. The majority of best fits, 66%, indicate that the church will avoid extinction, however there is no convincing sign that there is any underlying revival growth. The most likely scenario is that the Church of England will survive, but at a significantly reduced level.

It may be helpful to compare a typical pessimistic data fit, where the Church of England eventually becomes extinct, with an optimistic fit, where the church survives. Figure 1 compares two such fits with the data [15]. There is little to choose between them on the basis of the data from 2001 to 2011. However extrapolating from 2012 onwards the optimistic scenario shows increasing signs of a slow down in decline.  The predicted difference by 2020 is quite significant.

Figure 1: Best Fit to Church of England Attendance 2001-2011

On the basis of attendance figures alone it is not possible to distinguish between the pessimistic and optimistic fits. To draw a clearer conclusion additional information is required, such as the number of enthusiasts, which would be very difficult to measure. However evidence for the effect of enthusiasts, such as increasing use of the Alpha course, community engagement, prayer meetings, church planting etc. might be easier to obtain, and would help in given more confidence in one scenario over the other.

The two scenarios can be extrapolated further into the future, assuming enthusiasts remain at the same effectiveness.  The top graph of figure 2 gives church attendance. The pessimistic fit shows decline at the same rate to almost 2040, however the optimistic fit suggest the church starts growing again after 2035.  This is due to a recovery in enthusiasts, as seen in the bottom graph of figure 2.  In the optimistic scenario the enthusiasts start increasing again, nationally, after 2020. This is enough for the church to avoid extinction and dropping below an attendance of 800,000, but not enough for it to return to the 2001 figure.
Figure 2: Church of England Attendance & Enthusiasts Extrapolated to 2040

As optimistic scenarios were the more common of the data fits then there is some confidence that the Church of England may not be declining so much as to become extinct and will see a small recovery in the next 20 years.


There are a number of conditions that must be applied to this result.

1. The church has an increasingly older age profile than society, thus the death rate of its attenders will increase over time. Thus recovery would take longer. The above scenarios in the previous graph are not predictions for actual numbers, but an indication that the Church of Engalnd is most likely above the extinction threshold.

2. The model aggregates together congregations that are dying through aging, perhaps the majority, with a smaller number of growing and healthy congregations where most of the enthusiasts are based. In that case the underlying growth in enthusiasts would be underestimated and the reproduction potential of the enthusiasts should be higher. Thus the church would be more likely to see a future recovery. Such a recovery would involve churches with enthusiasts re-starting congregations in redundant parishes so that new pools of unbelievers can be tapped.

3. The birth rate has been assumed to remain constant. It has increased recently in the UK, and this may make future growth in the church a little easier.

4. Migration has been assumed constant. Migration has had a large impact on Pentecostal and independent churches in London, but it is doubtful if it has had much impact on the Church of England nationally. Migration may fall in the future; there again it may increase.

Strategies to Improve Church of England’s Attendance

If the Limited Enthusiasm Model is correct then strategies that improve the number and the quality of enthusiasts are the key to church growth.  Such improvement can come through spiritual renewal, mission training, discipleship, community contacts and outpourings of the Holy Spirit. It is not a question of choosing one over the other but of using all. For many churches it can start with a change of awareness that the individual members of a congregation are as important to its growth as its leaders, and that each person needs to embrace that responsibility.

In addition the thresholds of extinction and revival growth can be lowered by improving retention of adults and children in the church. Widening the contact between a church and its community will further lower the revival-growth threshold, making rapid growth more likely. A combined policy of improving enthusiasts, stemming losses, and increasing community contacts can make the difference between extinction and revival [10].

Although the Church of England is declining, and will do so for some time, there is evidence that its ability to avoid extinction is improving. If it continues to apply policies to generate enthusiasts and retain people, and makes those policies more widespread, it is very possible that sustained decline can be turned into sustained growth. Although this research cannot be used to predict actual numbers I hope it will be used to give encouragement to the Church, that it can survive and turn decline back into growth.

John Hayward
Church Growth Modelling,

References and Notes

[1] Brierley P. Religious Trends 2000/2001, no.2. Table 2.12, page 2.12, Christian Research. There is no reliable measure of attendance for most Christian denominations spanning 1900-2000, thus membership is the best indicator of church growth and decline for this period.

[2] Brierley P.  UK Church Statistics 2005-2015, table 1.1.1 page 1.1, Brierely Consultancy.

[3] Brierley P. Religious Trends 2000/2001, no.2. Table 8.2.1, page 8.2, Christian Research.

[4] Brierley P.  UK Church Statistics 2005-2015, table 2.1.2 page 2.1, Brierely Consultancy.

[5] McGuinness F.  Membership of UK Political Parties, Research Briefing, Standard Notes SN/SG/5125, House of Commons, London, UK, 2012.

[6] New Statesman, July 30, 2012, How Tory Membership has Collapsed under Cameron,

[7] The Limited Enthusiasm Model is explained on the Church Growth Modelling website at:
and in the publications and conferences on

[8] In epidemiology the reproduction potential is called R0, the basic reproductive ratio, or basic reproduction number.
The limited enthusiasm principle is similar to the spread of a disease. In this case the disease is religion, as measured by church membership or attendance.

[9] Brierley P. (2006) Pulling Out of the Nosedive - What the 2005 English Church Census Reveals, Christian Research.
Brierley P. (2000), The Tide is Running Out - What the English Church Census Reveals, Christian Research.
Brierley P. (1991), Christian England - What the English Church Census Reveals, Christian Research.

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

[11] As I reported in "Challenge to Change: exploring strategies for an effective Church in a post-Christian landscape", June 2009.

[12] Statistics for Mission 2011. Church of England website
or at
follow link: Provisional Attendance and Affiliation 2011
released 7/5/13. [last accessed 2/10/13]

[13] A number of parameters in the model needed to be estimated from sources other than the attendance data. Birth and death rates are taken from recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Migration is added to the birth rate. Average figures are taken. 

The reversion rate is estimated at 5% per year, typical of figures that were obtained by data fits to a variety of churches [10]. It should be noted that small variations in this figure have little effect on the likelihood of extinction or survival.

Retention of children born to church members is taken as 30%. This figure is based on religious transmission rates for Christianity given as a comparison with Islam in “Intergenerational Transmission of Islam in England and Wales: Evidence from the Citizenship Survey”, Scourfield J., Taylor C., Moore G., and  Gilliat-Ray S., Sociology, 46(1): 91-108.   For a summary see:

The average time taken for a leaver to be open to returning to church again was taken as 20 years. This figure is based on a past survey where only 20% of those who leave church return and that after an average of 10 years. [9, The Tide is Running Out, p.84]

[14] Estimates of initial numbers for 2001 need some care. Although the total population and the numbers of believers are known (ONS and [12] respectively), it is not possible to even guess the fraction of the church who are enthusiasts, or the fraction of unbelievers who are hardened. Instead many simulations are run with a variety of values and best fits obtained for each. The number in the hardened group is assumed not to change dramatically during the period.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Update on the Welsh Outpouring 2013

It is now  5 months since the phenomenon that has become known as the Welsh Outpouring started in Victory Church Cwmbran, Wales. Although I, and others, have referred to this as the “Cwmbran Outpouring”, Welsh Outpouring is a better description as this has always been about what God intends to do in Wales, not just in Cwmbran. The weekend  6-7th Sept was very much a watershed as the church hosted the Wales for Christ conference in the St David’s theatre Cardiff.

Wales for Christ

What was remarkable about this conference is that the same power and presence of God experienced in the warehouse in Cwmbran was present in the St David’s theatre Cardiff. There were different speakers, different worship bands, and very different surroundings, but it made no difference, God blessed exactly the same. Even though there were breaks between sessions, we just came back in to the same presence each time. On top of that the meeting did much to motivate and inspire people to do what is needed: take Wales for Christ, to spread the gospel and see conversions in our land. It may have been a conference but it was like back-to-back outpouring meetings!

It would be unfair of me to give a review of the talks as I may misrepresent the speakers. Hopefully the church will make the talks available online for people to hear for themselves. There are however two things I want to pick up that connect with my church growth work.

Firstly, Andrew Parsons, a pastor at Victory church, expressed the longing to see “more going to heaven than going to hell”. I certainly can’t fault the sentiment, but it got me thinking – has this happened in the past? Of course we can’t measure how many people are going to heaven, and until recently it has been hard to measure how many attend church, but we can measure how many belong to a church.

Let’s go back to the 1904-5 revival in Wales. In 1903 the combined membership of all protestant denominations in Wales comprised some 47.4% of the Welsh adult population [1]. After the revival in 1905 the membership stood at 53.4%. In the two years of the revival the increases in membership of the churches were 5.4% and 11.5% respectively. Compared with typical increases of around 1% per year before that it is clear the 1904-5 revival had a remarkable effect on church membership. If we were cheeky and said that all church members were on the way to heaven and the rest were not, then the Andrew Parson’s comment was actually achieved by the 1904-5 revival! But I admit that is a bit cheeky; there are a whole host of reasons why that identification cannot be made. But it sets the context for a longing for more to be saved than not saved.

What should be remembered is that a church membership of 53.4% of the adult population was the largest ever achieved in Wales since records have been kept from the early 1800s. The 1700s would have been much lower still. Indeed the current participation rates of less than 10% in church are more typical history than a 50% membership/commitment. England did not get anywhere near that figure! To expect more in church than not in church is very unrealistic, unless like the 1905 figure for Wales, it had been preceded by outpourings of the Spirit and much hard work by the Christians in the church. The 1904-5 revival was the pinnacle of what God had started in 1735, and a church of enthusiasts worked with God’s Spirit to achieve it. Given that we are now going though an outpouring, and the Wales for Christ weekend showed how committed many people are to spreading the gospel, I would say the Andrew Parson’s longing for more going to heaven than hell is an achievable aim, despite the current desperate attendance figures of the church. God is moving again, he did it before, so he can do it again! It may just take a bit of time.

Secondly, one of the afternoon speakers, evangelist Mark Greenwood, was talking about the unusual and enthusiastic forms of witness among Christians, the ones who are “bonkers” for Christ. He longed that people would be bonkers for Him again and take “risks” with their witness. He then said about such people, somewhat ironically, “2 years of discipleship class will squeeze that out of them!” I.e. their enthusiasm would have been diminished through the institution of church!  I have fitted my church growth models to a wide variety of denominations in the UK, USA and some other countries and 2 years is about the typical length of the enthusiastic period that comes out of nearly all of them [2]. So it may have been an offhand comment by Mark Greenwood, but I have plenty of data to back it up.

The reasons for enthusiasm only lasting 2 years after conversion may be much wider then the stifling influence of an institution. Often it is that people get more involved in church and lose their unconverted friends, or that those friends have got used to the way the new convert behaves. They are no longer new. But one of the effects of an outpouring is to renew existing believers, even old-timers. So it may be after the last five months many Christians are about to go “bonkers” for Christ!

The Future of the Welsh Outpouring

 In the last week Victory church have announced that they are reducing the number of outpouring meetings from five a week to two. Clearly the people involved are tired, the commitment by the church has been immense and I am very thankful for all their hard work. Some people, particularly the outpouring’s detractors, may see this as a fad that has passed, but far from it. The purpose of an outpouring is to move people out into the communities, spread the gospel and make converts and disciples. The outpouring does not end because time is released to pursue the mission; it just enters a different phase. The same happened in 1904-5 revival, the special meetings passed in 1905, but new churches with an emphasis on the work of the Spirit were started and established over the following 20 years or more, the work of the Spirit did not stop, but spread, in that case all over the world.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the church did not stay in Jerusalem, the place where the blessing was first received, they moved out into Samaria, Judea and the ends of the Earth, even if God had to give them a bit of a shove with persecution. They could not continue going to the temple and meeting in rooms each day, however powerful the blessings. Remarkably God did more wonders through them among the population than he did in their gatherings – the meat is on the street, as the late John Wimber was fond of saying. Even more remarkably there were public outpourings of the Spirit on people, as shown in Samaria, Caesarea, and Ephesus. The outpouring moves to a different phase, no longer tied by location and worship meetings, but in the market place, just about anywhere.

A similar pattern of outpouring and expansion can be seen in the 1700s in Wales. Early on the Spirit was poured out in Llangeitho, through the conversion and ministry of Daniel Rowland. A similar move took place at Trevecca with Howell Harris. But the work did not stop at those centres. Slowly various groups of Methodists were established in different parts of Wales. The centre of the outpouring remained at Llangeitho, sometimes people would visit for a couple of weeks at a time, but at the same time new fellowships were being planted across Wales. The result was rapid church growth up to the mightiest revival of all in 1859. The sequence: outpouring, plant, build up, was repeated for over 100 years. Certain periods, where the work of the Spirit was so intense, have become known as the “revivals”, but the outpouring rarely stopped in that period [3].

The vision put out by Wales for Christ at the conference is for such a church planting initiative. This was of course planned before the outpouring started, but the outpouring has now given more momentum to the plans. Indeed what outpourings do is create hunger and expectation in visitors from other parts of the country, so that when the church plant takes place there are local enthusiasts, touched by the King in the outpouring, ready to be part of the church plant. In addition the new plant widens the pool of unbelievers the church can reach, the susceptibles in epidemiological terms. This can put the church back over the tipping point for revival growth. Outpourings generate the needed enthusiasts; church plants tip the church into revival growth. This is how the 18th and 19th century Welsh Methodists took Wales for Christ, it is how the New Frontiers and Vineyard denominations have been growing in the last 20 years, and this is the direction of Victory church now. Thus scaling down the outpouring meetings makes perfect sense. Incidentally church planting is not a strategy Victory church are expecting to do alone, and they hoped that other churches in Wales would do the same [4].

Characteristics of the Welsh Outpouring

Certain characteristics of the outpouring have struck me as being typical of revival:

1. Experiencing the outpouring is like being saved again. I know you can only become a Christian once, but when the Spirit moves even the most mature in Christ realise their sins and find refuge at the cross again. This for me has been a feature of every meeting I have been to at Cwmbran.  I have heard people say they have felt they have been born again “again”. There are similar experiences in the Bible [5] and in past revivals [6].

2. The emphasis on the blood of the Lamb. It was the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said one of the signs of an authentic revival is that there is a renewed emphasis on the blood of Christ [7]. That is, there is a return to the cross as the only means of salvation through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. It is fair to say this is probably one of the most unpopular doctrines in the Christian church generally and Christians of all churchmanships either dismiss it or revise it. But when the Spirit moves, back it comes. This has been the experience at Cwmbran, as shown by the types of songs and hymns that have been sung, and the constant cross-centred sermons.

3. The after effects of the meetings. I have referred to this in previous blogs [8], Jesus being even closer in the days and weeks following a meeting. This is the difference between a human-led meeting, which can excite for a moment, and a Spirit-led one, which makes permanent changes. Examples of this can be found in many of the revivals of the past [9].

4. The number converted. For this we can only go on the number of reported first time commitments, which was 1157 after outpouring meeting 157 [10]. There have been more since. This may seem small compared with the 100,000 converts in the 15 months of the 1904-5 revival, but the current “Welsh” outpouring is one church; there were hundreds of churches involved in 1904-5. So over 1000 first time commitments is remarkable, even if all were not actually converted.

Final Thoughts

It should be noted that this outpouring is home grown, that is, it is Welsh! One of the great joys of this outpouring is that it started in Wales, it was not something brought in from outside! Before you think this is a strange outburst of national pride, let me explain why this is important to me. Back in 2002 an Anglican clergyman gave a prophecy to my own church at one of our renewal days about the situation in Wales. He said, “the problem in Welsh churches is that people are always waiting for someone, like a big name preacher, to come to Wales to bring a blessing, to light the fire. You hear it in the prayers for revival. But I say don’t wait for others, light your own fires.” We took that to heart as a church and got down to the work of renewal.

The Welsh Outpouring is an example of “lighting your own fires”, but on a much larger scale. God works through us to revive his church, we do not need to wait for a celebrity preacher to come. Indeed the most powerful meetings in the Welsh Outpouring have been the ones led by the local pastors and worship groups, not the visiting preachers.

Perhaps the fact that Welsh Christians “lit their own fires” will help us regain our confidence that God will work powerfully in this land, and banish the low esteem in Welsh churches [11].  I am deeply grateful for all commitment the people at Victory church have shown in this outpouring; those who have been “lighting the fires”. Outpourings are of God, but our response is hard work.  I have learnt more about the work of God in revival in the last five months than in the last thirty years of Christian experience, and more than I could ever learn in a lifetime of reading books on revival! I am very much looking forward to seeing how this move of God develops.

References and Notes

[1] See Explanatory Notes on "Mathematical Modeling of Church Growth”.
Church membership and Anglican electoral role were not open to children so they have been excluded from the figures. The Roman Catholic Church was relatively small at the time, and as my data source did not have accurate figures for them they are also excluded.

[2] The enthusiastic period in the 1904-5 revival was much shorter, a matter of weeks. This is because the actions of the enthusiasts that drove the growth, such as invites to the revival meetings, was very different to the normal measured pattern of witness in the family and work place. The revival was about “come to tonight’s meeting”. Most people who could be invited would have been invited within a couple of weeks of the first experience.

[3] J.C. Ryle, (1978) [1885],  Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, Banner of Truth. E. Evans (1985), Daniel Rowland and The Great Evangelical Awakening In Wales, Banner of Truth.

[4] Victory Church has announced another church plant. They have six churches so far. Someone from another Welsh church of a different denomination told me they had a new plant in Wales coming soon, with another in the planning stage.

[5] Psalm 51 is a classic account, and the life of the apostle Peter shows similar post conversion experiences of conversion.

[6] David Matthews (2002) [1951], I Saw the Welsh Revival, Ambassador Publications, chapter 9. His personal experience of what the revival felt like for him is essential reading for all Christians seeking a move of God. This will let you know what to expect!

[7] D.M. Lloyd-Jones (1986), Revival, Kingsway, pp.47-49.

[8] When the Presence of God Persists.

[9] David Matthews (2002) [1951], I Saw the Welsh Revival, Ambassador Publications, chapter 6, pp.46-47. David Matthews was very fond of “quality” church music and viewed Sankey hymns with disdain. But the revival changed that and he found himself leaving the “heavenly atmosphere” of a meeting at five in the morning, whistling the hymn, “Throw Out the Lifeline”. Remarkably he heard someone else that night whistling it with him. It was a policeman, also indelibly changed by the revival. The policeman asked him, “Have you caught the revival fever too?” Indeed Matthews had caught it, and the effects of the revival persisted with him for the coming months and indeed the rest of his life, as his book illustrates.

[10] Given out at the Wales for Christ weekend 6-7th September 2013.

[11] I often preach on revival in churches and I get the same message back wherever I go, “the last revival immunised Wales against revival, it won’t happen again”. There is a great need for people to move from reading stories of what God did in past revivals to believing what he can do now. Hopefully the outpouring will do this.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Liberal and Conservative Churches Part 1

Recently I came across two comments about liberalism within the Christian church that struck me:

Liberal theology cannot sustain a local congregation. It kills churches. In fact, it only survives due to tenured academics. Rick Warren [1]

Congregationally speaking, Protestant liberalism is deader than Henry VIII. While survey after survey shows a secularizing American population, this hasn't helped the growth of liberal Protestant churches. Where are the Unitarian mega-churches, the Episcopalian church-planting movements? Russell D. Moore [2]

As both comments have implications for church growth I thought I would explore them with the help of some system dynamics.


Note that the Rick Warren comment refers to liberal theology, but the Russell Moore comment refers to liberal churches. The two concepts are related but not identical. For now though I will define a liberal church as one with a liberal theology, realising that this is not the whole story.

A liberal theology refers to a method of arriving at truth which uses scripture as a general, and non-exclusive, guide rather than as a set of propositions that must be believed. Thus rather than scripture indicating a fixed canon of belief for all time, its truths may be modified according to the age. Unlike orthodoxy the bias of the human authors of scripture can be questioned, and even the text itself. Material from outside the Bible, such as history and tradition, may have equal value in determining truth, all weighed by human reason. Thus in a liberal church there is never a fixed set of beliefs. Such a church will be lenient over what it considers the faith, and would expect diversity within its midst.

Now I suspect that this definition does not do justice to the use of the word “liberal” by many people, including Christians who call themselves liberal. There are degrees of liberalism, and some may emphasise liberalism in behaviour more than that of doctrine, and vice versa. But hopefully this is sufficient to examine the church growth implications of the Warren and Moore quotes, and expand them a bit.

By contrast a conservative church holds to a conservative theology which is fixed by scripture alone for all time. Thus a conservative church will (or should) be strict over what it considers the faith.

Where Do Liberal Churches Come From?

Both Warren and Moore indicate that liberal churches are inherently weak; they hasten church decline (Warren), and they are unable to start new churches (Moore). The fact remains that although the denominations that are dominated by liberal beliefs are declining the fastest, and have been since Dean Kelley’s [3] study from the 1970s, they do not decline that fast. So why are there still liberal churches? Why do they survive, and in some cases thrive?

I will put forward three reasons:

1. Church Leaders Liberalise, but  Members Remain Conservative

One reason church leaders liberalise is that the seminary system encourages liberal beliefs in church leaders. I think that is what Rick Warren was getting at when he said, “it only survives due to tenured academics”. A similar point was made by sociologist Rodney Stark, who in a book review, suggested European churches suffered from “institutionalised clerical atheism” [4], i.e. the institution of the church encourages doubt in its ministers.  My suggestion is that this is aided in part by the seminary/ theological college system of training, the institution that affects the belief system of those it trains.

Thus in this scenario those who are called into full time ministry are sent away to a college, where they learn theology at the hands of academics with liberal beliefs. They are then sent to conservative congregations and spend their ministry trying to change their people’s views with the “latest scholarship” they picked up at seminary.

(i) First result of liberal leadership
One potential result of the liberal ministry is that those who are conservative in the congregation leave and go elsewhere. The church in which I was initially raised is an example of this. In common with many Welsh Presbyterian churches it was rooted in the conservative evangelical theology of the 18th century revivals. When the 1960s started a liberal minister came, who taught people to doubt the orthodoxy they had received. In ten years the church emptied from a few hundred to only a handful of members, as people left and found other conservative churches. After another decade the church was closed. This was repeated across the UK, so for a while the number of liberal churches grew, but not all their people were liberal. As such the number of members in liberal churches declined, firstly through transfer then through death, lack of young people and inadequate conversion.

Figure 1 expresses these ideas. The more people in church the more become leaders, the more liberalise and the more liberal teaching injected back into church. This teaching reduces conversion, reduces the number of children of church members who progress to membership, and increases, after some delay, the number who leave the churches so affected. All the loops are balancing loops sending the church numbers to zero.

Figure 1: Liberal ministry causing church decline

(ii)  Second result of liberal leadership
A second result of a liberal ministry is that the most academic of the liberal ministers have such a difficult time in churches that they find a better role for themselves back in the academic environment. Thus they return to seminary as educators and the cycle of the seminary liberalising the next generation of ministers is complete. This is captured in the reinforcing loop of figure 2. The reinforcing nature of the loop suggests that the process of liberalising accelerates, and combined with figure 1 church decline accelerates.
Figure 2: Liberal ministry reinforcing the liberalising of seminaries

The conservative churches that survive are strong and have a healthy membership. They send the larger numbers to seminary, but some of these trainee ministers become liberal and start the decline process again in the next batch of conservative churches to take on liberal ministers. Thus although a given liberal congregation may die in a couple of generations, liberalism, and liberal churches last much longer, fed by the seminary system that changes the beliefs of its conservative intake.

I think this has been the canonical evangelical view of the effects of liberalism on the church, and within which the Warren and Moore quotes are set.  However I think there are more dynamics taking place than the above scenario suggests.

2. Church Members Liberalise, but Leaders Remain Conservative

In this scenario the minister is conservative but the congregation is in varying degrees of belief from conservative to liberal. These are not two distinct groups but a spectrum of people from one extreme to the other. Three results spring out.

(i) First result of conservative leadership
The liberal members leave and join liberal churches. Now at this point I am indebted to a medievalist blogger, Magistra, et Mater [5], who has used my models to examine the interaction between liberal and conservative churches [6]. Starting with my concept of enthusiasts as the church members who are chiefly responsible for conversion, Magistra suggests that some of them cease to be enthusiasts because they lose enthusiasm for the conservative faith in which they were converted. Thus not only do they become inactive in evangelistic work, they become more liberal as well. There comes a point where such liberal people cannot fit into the church of their conversion, thus they leave and join a liberal church [7]. They are now a specific source of recruitment to the liberal church.

These ideas are captured in figure 3, where the conservative church is in red and the liberal one in blue.  The enthusiasts recruit from the unbelievers. After a time they cease recruiting and become inactive believers, initially conservative but later becoming liberal. They are still in the conservative church. Eventually the liberal members of the conservative church leave and join a liberal church, figure 3, part A [8].

Figure 3: Sources of recruitment to liberal churches due to conservative churches

(ii) Second result of conservative leadership
I will go further and suggest that there are a number of enthusiasts who get emotionally hurt by their church and also leave. I have noticed a tendency for such hurt people to reject the beliefs of those who hurt them, thus zealous conservative evangelicals abandon that version of the faith, because that was the belief system of the people they fell out with. After some time such hurt people also find a home in a more liberal church. Where beliefs are less strong, there is more tolerance and people are less likely to get hurt, figure 3, part B.

(iii) Third result of conservative leadership
Magistra describes another effect of the recruitment activities of an enthusiastic conservative church, that of negative evangelism. In this case the enthusiasts of the conservative church have a negative impact on unbelievers, turning them from the gospel message. She extends my model to include hardened unbelievers, who are no longer open to the message of the conservative church, figure 3 part C. However if they come across a liberal church, perhaps through the community work of that church, they might find less negative connotations, less demands made, less questions asked, and this is a happier home for their religious quest [6].

Thus I have suggested three sources of recruitment to the liberal church. The result is that rather than dying out, liberal churches can last many generations, albeit at the expense of conservative churches.  I am not sure if this is a standard narrative as liberal churches see it. Perhaps someone could comment on this.

One side effect of this transfer of liberal people from conservative churches, is that it keeps conservative churches conservative. Strictness in maintaining doctrinal and behavioural standards leads to a strong church, according to Dean Kelley’s definition, which can attract and retain others [3]. Thus the losses of the liberal people from the conservative church may be offset by conversion, and retention of those with conservative views, and net growth of the church could result.

3. Church Leaders and Members Liberalise Together

Here the issue is not just the interaction between liberal and conservative churches, but the interaction of church with an outside world not part of any church. For a church to grow it needs effective contact with that world. No church can afford to be so irrelevant it cannot get its message across. But the beliefs and practices of the world keep changing, thus there is pressure on the church to keep changing to keep itself relevant. Thus the church over time may change its beliefs in stages, to keep in step with culture, usually 10 to 15 years behind as change comes slowly in the church. Thus there is a slow evolution of practices and beliefs of minister and members alike.

For example, evangelical Christians are thought of as the more conservative end of Christianity, there is (in theory) a fixed creed and fixed set of behaviour patterns. However some evangelicals prefer to say they are “conservative evangelical” as they recognise that not all evangelicals are as true to that system of belief as they are. However there are also: "open evangelicals", “progressive evangelicals”, “small ‘e’ evangelicals”, “accepting evangelicals”, to name but a few! Each extra word flags that some aspect of belief, behaviour or attitude has, or could be modified. These are clear signs of a movement that is diversifying, which is another way of saying becoming more liberal.

Research Questions

I have proposed three reasons why liberal churches survive, maybe grow, or at least do not decline as fast as one might think: Seminaries generate liberal ministers; liberal people are generated by the actions of conservative churches; and conservative churches themselves liberalise to stay relevant.  My research questions are:

1) What are the relative effects of the three scenarios? That is, which of the three has the strongest effect on the survival of liberal churches and which has the least, at any given time?

2) Are there other scenarios I have missed?

3) Do the two types of churches actually need each other to survive, as suggested by Magistra [7]? In other words is there a symbiosis between them that keeps the conservative true, and provides the liberals with new recruits?

A Spanner in the Works

This blog was originally meant to be a single article, but as ever the material and ideas keep expanding so it is now part one of two blogs, part two to follow. I will finish it by throwing a spanner in the works – I will query the definitions of conservative and liberal!

In the 1970s a former Methodist minister turned researcher, the aforementioned Dean Kelley, published a book entitled “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” [3]. Looking at membership data of a range of denominations in the USA he demonstrated that whereas most of the conservative denominations were growing, the liberal ones were in varying stages of decline. As I write this blog it is still generally the case, although some conservative churches, such as the Southern Baptists, are now slowly declining [9]. Again it is against this viewpoint that the comments by Warren and Moore were made.

However Kelley was the first to admit the title of his book was confusing [3, p.xvii]. His thesis was not about conservative churches, or growth; it was about strict churches being strong.  Strong churches may grow, but there again they may not, depending on the context.

Thus a conservative church could be lenient (the opposite of Kelley’s strong) because it does not insist that all its members follow its beliefs or behaviour code, or because it does not direct much effort or zeal into evangelism. Discipline and missionary zeal are two of Kelley’s indicators of strictness. Such a church would be weak, which according to Kelley would include tolerating individualism, a reserve in sharing the faith, and a general lukewarmness for spiritual things. Such a church may be in decline despite its conservative beliefs.

By contrast a liberal church may be strict. Yes it tolerates a wide range of beliefs, but it does not tolerate those whose beliefs exclude others. A standard liberal creed is “we are tolerant of everything, except intolerance” [10].  As such there are people who would not fit in such a liberal church, and would have to go elsewhere. All tolerance has bounds! Such a liberal church may be very vocal in proclaiming its stance, not in evangelism, but in campaigning and lobbying non-Christian groups in society. As such there would be considerable zeal for producing opinion change, which could easily result in recruitment. Such a church would be stronger than the conservative one mentioned above, and might well grow more.

The issues connected with growth are not just theological as the words “conservative” and “liberal” would imply, but organisational. How strictly does the church keep to its beliefs, ethos, and behavioural norms, whatever they are?  The subject will be returned to in a later blog.

John Hayward
Church Growth Modelling,

Notes and References

[1] The comment first appeared on Facebook and Twitter February 2013
It has been reproduced on many other websites, and only came to my attention recently. Rick Warren is founder and leader of Saddleback Church in California. 

[2] Quoted by: Jonathan Merritt, The Rise of the Christian Left in America, The Atlantic, July 25th 2013.
Russell D. Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

[3] Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Mercer University Press, revised 1986, originally 1972.

[4] Rodney Stark, Review of Pentecostalism: The World their Parish.   Review of Religious Research, 44(2), P.203, 2002. In the last paragraph he suggests that institutionalised clerical atheism is a barrier to church growth in Europe, and thus a subject worthy of investigation.

[5] Magistra et Mater: Where history, religion and motherhood meet and have a long intellectual conversation,

[6] Magistra prefers to use the labels hard and soft church, rather than conservative and liberal. Hard church, soft church, no church. 24/7/08.

[7] Magistra et Mater:  Church growth, negative evangelism and beta churches. 22/4/13.

[8] Compare with the model in Magistra et Mater, Hard church, soft church and mission, 26/7/08.

 [9] John S. Dickerson, The Decline of Evangelical America, The New York Times Sunday Review, 15/12/12.

 [10] I was once part of a church growth research group that visited a liberal church working in an inner city area. They were the only church in the area. When one of the group asked the minister if any evangelical church had ever tried working in the area, he replied “No, and if they did he would run them out because they would upset the prostitutes and the gays!” The degree of strictness, dare I say intolerance, shocked even the more conservative members of our research group.