Thursday, 24 December 2015

The “Twitter Mob” and Free Speech – A Systems Perspective

Some Thoughts on the Christmas Message of David Robertson, Free Church of Scotland 

Recently David Robertson, Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, delivered a Christmas message where he said society was becoming a monochrome culture where genuine diversity was being undermined by a “mob mentality which threatens anyone who dares to be against the ‘equality and diversity’ agenda” [1].  His address was treated to considerable negative comments, illustrating the very point he was trying to make [2]. One newspaper headline put it “Twitter mob puts free speech in peril” [3].

The point David Robertson was making is that it is now very hard for Christians to express their views in the public sphere as the climate has shifted to a liberal humanist position that denies core Christian beliefs, values and morality [4]. As the balance of beliefs has shifted those opposed to Christianity find it easier to express their views, often in quite hostile tones.

I think anyone who has observed the changes in political correctness over the years will have noticed this trend. What was unacceptable in the past is acceptable now and vice versa. Essentially there are two competing ideologies: the Christian one of the past, and the Humanist one now [4]. What David Robertson has described in his message is an example of a System Dynamics archetype called  “Success to the Successful” [5].

Consider two competing opinions 1 and 2. The number of people who hold opinion 1 will influence the amount of expression of opinion 1, top right in the “casual loop” diagram below. The more people, the more expression – the plus on the arrow means “change the same way”, i.e. “more” in this case. The more expression of opinion 1 the more the climate of society favours opinion 1. The better the climate for opinion 1 the more confidence people have in expressing the opinion. The greater the confidence the more opinions expressed. This is the reinforcing feedback loop R1 in the diagram.

On its own reinforcing feedback will give accelerating growth, limited only by the physical ability and need to express opinions. Without any competitors society favours opinion 1.

However if there is a competing opinion, number 2, then there is now a parallel structure, except that this one moves the climate away from 1, towards 2.  The more expression of opinion 2 the less the climate of society favours 1 – the minus on the arrow. If the climate now favours 1 less then there will be more confidence in expressing opinion 2 – the minus sign means the change is the opposite way to the cause. This gives a second reinforcing feedback loop R2.

Let’s say opinion 1 is Christian and opinion 2 is Humanist. While Christianity was strong in society loop R1 was dominant and loop R2 would make little effect, keeping humanism as a small non-influential minority. The essence of the success to the successful archetype is the one side excludes the other; there is no healthy coexistence, but competitive exclusion.

However two things have happened over the years. Firstly, as churches have got weaker and declined, the number of Christians, those holding opinion 1, top right hand corner of the above diagram, has declined, thus the link to expressions of opinion 1, the Christian opinions, has declined weakening R1.

Secondly those sympathetic to the humanist position have been able to have more influence on the ruling and media elites, who in turn have been able to take actions to favour the humanist opinion – thus strengthening R2. As R2 has come to dominate over R1, many more in power and in the media have jumped on the bandwagon making R2 stronger still.

Thus it looks like Christianity in its traditional and Bible believing forms is heading for exclusion by an intolerant humanism promoting an ideology of diversity, equality and tolerance! Irony intended. Success to the successful, and the winner is humanism!

A few things need to be remembered.

1. In many countries now, and in the past, Christianity has been excluded from the public stage. In fact that is where Christianity started and remained for 300 years. It survived, it grew, people were saved, God was glorified.
2. Most people are not ardent supporters of either Christianity or humanism and don’t express strong opinions. Thus they do not appear in the casual loop diagram above. Ideological battles are usually fought out by minorities. But over time people without strong views get attracted to one of the ideologies, usually to the nicer one. In the past Christianity won out over paganism because Christians treated people better. How we as Christians conduct ourselves in the current climate will be just as important as the things we say. Some of the current political correctness is really nasty and dictatorial, Christians must not respond in kind.

3. The call on the church is to make converts. If Christians put more effort into personal witness and seeking converts, and concern themselves less with changing the climate of society, then it will in time lead to an increase in the number of people following Christianity. 

This personal witness is a reinforcing loop, R3, increasing the most important variable – the number of Christian believers – those with opinion 1. See diagram below. Some of those converts will come from opinion 2 – the humanists, which will further weaken the hold of humanism on society R2.

4. We also need to remember that God is real, He created everything, controls everything and He is not in the business of losing! Christians take your confidence from Jesus, his power and his call, not from the climate of society.

OK this is highly simplified and you may be able to think of all sorts of things to add to the diagrams, but hopefully it gives an indication of how system dynamics and systems thinking can give insight into current issues that affect the church. Sorry it is a bit rushed - but Christmas beckons - Alleluia!


[1] Moderator's Festive Message,  David Robertson,  reproduced on the Free Church Web Site 23/12/15

[2] Christmas Cheer and Encouragement – News Report and Editorial in The Herald. The “Wee Flea” blog. 22/12/15

[3] The Scottish Daily Mail, 22/12/15,

[4] By “Christian” I mean the part of the Christian church that believes that beliefs, values and morality are revealed by God and are thus unchangeable. By Humanism I mean that these things are determined by people and can be changed from what they have been in the past. The contrast is whether the source of authority is God-centred or man centred. People do not fall neatly into the two fixed categories. Humanistic thinking pervades the Christian church and not just the “liberal” part. Politicians can defend Britain as a “Christian” country by claiming some of its values, even though they have on other occasions supported beliefs contrary to revealed Christian belief. See today’s Christmas message from the Prime Minister saying that we are a "Christian" country. But what he means by Christian may not mean what a Bible-believing Christian means.
Labels are not a good guide to belief.

[5] For summaries of archetypes in system dynamics see:
For more in depth analysis see:

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Church Decline Caused By Lack of Revival

In my last blog [1] I showed that the primary cause of decline for the Presbyterian Church of Wales (aka Calvinist Methodists) in the 20th century was due to a large drop in conversions into the church. Additionally there was also a much smaller drop in birth rate, though not in child retention.  From this result I further suggested that lack of conversion was (and still is) the primary cause of decline across most of the pre-20th century UK denominations [2].

The purpose of this follow up blog is to show that the high rate of conversions in the 19th century came from repeated bursts of revival, and that the drop in conversions came when these revivals ceased. The lack of revival is the underlying cause of church decline. Again I will use data from the Presbyterian Church of Wales as typical of denominational behaviour.

Firstly, a definition. A revival is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church, giving believers an awareness of God’s presence. The result is that they become more effective at witness, leading to more converts, many of whom also catch the revival fire [3].

Revival Enhances Church Growth

The rich data set for the Presbyterian Church, including the number of conversions, only starts in 1895 [4]. Unfortunately most of the revivals in Wales occurred before this date. However one revival, the famous 1904/5 one, occurs in this period, and the 1905 conversion rate can be compared with a more typical period, such as 1896-1900 when the church was still growing, figure 1.

Figure 1

During the revival the conversion rate jumps from 1.2% to 6%, that is a five-fold increase. Even though the reversion rate rises it is clear that revival had a massive effect on conversion. Note that there was also a modest increase in the number of members’ children joining the church, however the biggest effect of the revival is conversion from outside the church [3]. The work of the Holy Spirit in believers, brings conversion into the church, and thus church growth.

Even though revivals often come in short bursts the cumulative effects of repeated short burst would increase the average rate of conversion in those periods. There were at least 15 revivals in Wales between 1762 to 1862 [5], so it is possible the high rate of 1.2% in conversion by 1900 was a residue from those earlier revival periods. Without further revivals that conversion rate fell, figure 2, and had dropped to 0.46% by the 1960s [1]. Figure 2 shows the dramatic effect of the last Welsh Revival on conversion into the church. Similar increases were seen across the Welsh denominations.

Figure 2

Previously [1] I introduced the first church decline hypothesis: Church decline is due to lack of conversions. I now go further.

Second Church Decline Hypothesis

Church Decline is Caused by Lack of Revival

More specifically while revivals occurred the conversion rate was high and the church grew rapidly. When revivals ended the conversion rate fell and the church subsequently declined. This can be demonstrated using known and estimated data.

Known Data

In order to investigate the effect of the revivals on church growth up to 1862, the proportion of the church with respect to the Welsh population is analysed using known data [4,6]. If it assumed that the birth rate of the church is similar to society, and there are no documented reasons to believe otherwise, then any increase in the proportion of the church in society must mean there are conversions from outside the church. This will be true even if they have 100% child retention and no reversion [7]. Thus it will be possible to tell if revival correlates with conversion.

Figure 3 shows the proportional membership of the Welsh Presbyterians from 1860. It peaks in 1875 at 18.29% of Welsh society, after which the church is no longer keeping pace with the rapid population growth [8]. Population growth is smooth between 1850 to 1900, thus it cannot be the source of the change in proportion, which is sharp in the 1870s, figure 3, as reflected in the raw membership (figure 5 see later).  Thus the conversion rate appeared to fall significantly in the 1870s.

Figure 3

What are the alternatives? The sharp change could be due to a dramatic change in child retention. However it does not change much during 1895 – 1968 and then it is quite smooth [1]. So this is rejected

Likewise the change could be an increase in reversion. But with reversion at only just over 1% in 1896 there is not enough leverage for such a dramatic change. It would need a church where no-one was leaving 1800-1870, which is very unlikely.

Thus it is concluded the main change in the proportion of church members in society was a drop in conversion rate after the main period of revivals. It was not that conversion stopped; there had to be some to make up for 50% child retention and a 1% reversion rate [7]. But from the mid 1870s conversion must have fallen to a figure around 1.2% from one that had been higher, presumably due to the previous revivals. 

Estimated Early Data

Although there is no data for the Welsh Presbyterian Church in the public domain prior to the 1860s, its rise from the 1735 can be estimated by assuming it starts from zero, and broadly follows the pattern of the related English Wesleyan movement [9]. Such an estimate is given in figure 4, with known revivals in Wales superimposed on the graph [5,10].

Figure 4

Revivals have been categorised as national, covering most of Wales, regional, about the size of a county, and local, confined to a village, town or a few churches. The national revivals are subdivided further into intense, where the revival spread through Wales very fast, lasting only a short period of time, and extended, where the spread across Wales took longer, perhaps due to communication speed in a rural environment. The date for the extended revival thus marks the start of the work, which may have lasted a number of years. The two intense revivals are the most famous, 1859/60 and 1904/5, as the large number of converts across all denominations, 110,000 and 100,000 respectively, came in a very short space of time, and were thus better recorded [10,11]. These divisions could be contested but there are only proposed to give a flavour of the frequency and size of the revivals in Wales [5,10].

Figure 4 clearly shows that the proportional growth of the church correlates with the repeated outbreaks of revival, with the largest growth in the decade after the 1859/60 revival. Proportional growth means significant conversion growth. By contrast proportional decline correlates with the lack of revivals. The turning point occurs from 1870s onwards. The only major revival left is the 1904/5 one, but of all the revivals, this has the least effect on the church and was followed by decline – very much a revival out of its time [12]. Whatever went wrong in church, it occurred decades before the last revival, around the 1870s.

Compare the same revivals with actual membership figures. The 1904/5 revival marks then end of growth for the church, the end of the age of universal revivals in Wales, ones that lead to national church growth. Again this graph makes clear that after the rapid growth following the 1859/60 revival then growth slowed to a halt. There were now less revivals. The church was now failing to keep up with the rapidly growing population [8]. Growth picked up from 1890 but peaked in the last revival. Again growth only occurred as long as there were revivals.

Figure 5

Compare Conversion Rates

Although the early figures for the Presbyterian Church are estimated it is possible to construct a conversion rate for the period. The estimated figures indicate that the acceleration in growth starts around 1800, figure 5. In reality it could have occurred later, or earlier, than this. What is known is that from 1767 to 1869 there was an average growth rate of 3.65%. If it were lower in some periods it must have been higher in others.

Now assume a conservative estimates of deaths: 1% per year – similar to 1890s and much lower than the national average due to the church having a young age profile; assume a leaving rate of 1.2% per year – similar to 1890s; assume a biological growth rate of 1.7% to 2.1% depending whether 50% to 60% of members’ children are retained, similar or better than 1890s.

Making these assumptions the average conversion rate from 1767 to 1869 would have been 3.75% to 4.15%. This is much higher than the 1890s figure of 1.26%, implying that the conversion rate had waned once the effects of the last 19th century revival were no longer felt.

Note also the 3.75% to 4.15% conversion rate is an average figure. They will have been periods where this figure will have been lower and of course some higher – perhaps as high as the 6% of the 1904/5 revival.  However in that revival the high conversion rate was temporary. From 1760s to 1870s the high conversion rate was ongoing. There is no doubt that internal migration and church planting would have helped keep the rate high. But such an increase of the presence of the church in new communities is one of the by-products of revival, so this feature is expected. Without conversions new churches cannot be planted!


Thus I conclude that revival was the primary cause of the high conversion rate, which in turn was the cause of church growth.

Conversely the lack of revivals after 1859-60 was the cause of the decline in conversion rate and ultimately the decline of the church. Again there is no difficulty in extending this conclusion across the other denominations. Thus it is clear the lack of revival is the primary cause of church decline, as without revival the church cannot convert enough people to grow.

This now begs the question as to why revivals have ended, or whether there were any other explanations for the decline, which might also explain the ending of revivals? I will leave a discussion of these for another blog.

Notes & References

[1] Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions

[2] By pre-20th century denominations I mean: Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational across England, Wales and Scotland. Decline is also true for Baptists but not to the same degree or pattern. Brethren and Salvation Army do not follow the standard decline pattern. Pentecostalism, which is largely growing, did not start until the 20th century. The post-1960 churches are a mixture of growth and decline.

[3] Revival is initially a work in believers, giving them an intense experience of the presence of God, a baptism of the Holy Spirit as at Pentecost. The result of the revival is that revived Christians are more effective at witnessing Christ to people, thus more people in the church catch the fire, and more people from outside the church are converted. Although passing on the fire to unbelievers and believers can explain much of the progress of a revival, which is why it has similar dynamics to the spread of the disease, there is nevertheless some mystery as well. Some people get an awareness of God just from being close to the locality of a revival, without having any contact with anyone. Some are filled with the Spirit or converted spontaneously. Some catch the fire through hearing of the revival by second-hand means such as media reports.

  • Lloyd-Jones D.M. (1986). Revival, Marshall Pickering.
  • Edwards B.H. (1990). Revival, Evangelical Press.
  • Edwards J.  (1984). On Revival, The Banner of Truth Trust.

[4]  Currie, R., Gilbert, A. D., & Horsley, L. S. (1977). Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700. Oxford University Press, USA.

[5] Jones D.G. (2001). Favoured with Frequent Revivals: Revivals in Wales 1762-1862, The Heath Christian Trust.

[6] Williams J. (1985), Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics, Government Statistical Service HMSO.

[7] If the church’s child retention were similar to the known period then it would be 50-60%. Additionally reversion would be around 1%. See previous blog [1]. Thus in a church growing proportionally there will be some conversions making up for these losses.

[8] The population of Wales is given in figure 6 using census data and other historical sources*. The early figures are less reliable than the later ones. The rapid rise in population occurs along with the industrial revolution and ceases after World War 1 with emigration. The reasons for the rapid 19th century rise are complex and will be touched on in a subsequent blog.

Figure 6
* Sources

[9] The Presbyterian Church of Wales were Calvinist Methodists and were a parallel movement in Wales, and initially in Welsh, to the English Methodists, who were largely Wesleyan in belief and organisation. Both were initially movements within the established Church of England and were not recognised as churches until the first generation had passed, 1790s-early1800s. Thus their spread can be expected to be similar.

I compared the figures of the Welsh and Wesleyan Methodists where they were both known and noted that their proportions of society were diverging. I extrapolated that divergence back to the 1700s using known data for the Wesleyan Methodists, so that the Welsh Methodists were zero in 1735, the year the movement started.

  • Evans, E. (1969). The Welsh Revival of 1904. Evangelical Press of Wales.
  • Davies, E. (2004). The Beddgelert Revival, Bryntirion Press.

Comparing with Jones [5] the number and duration of revivals are not easy to determine as the work spreads from region to region. The indicated date for many of the revivals is the year they start according to [5,10], and they may extend for a number of years.

[11] Evans, E. (1979). Revival Comes to Wales, Evangelical Press of Wales.

[12] I would suggest the 1904/5 revival was not primarily about Wales but the world. Many missionary movements and revivals trace their origins to this Welsh Revival (see Gibbard). Pentecostalism both in the UK and the USA is directly linked to the revival (See Pike, Livesay, Synan, Bartleman), and is the fastest growing revival movement in history. The 1904/5 Welsh Revival was God’s way of bringing revival to the world!
  • Gibbard, N. (2004). On the Wings of A Dove: The International Effects of the 1904-05 Revival, Evangelical Press.
  • Pike, D. (2015). Azusa Street and the Welsh Revival,
  • Livesay, J. (2000). When We Walk with the Lord, published by the author, New Zealand, ISBN 0-473-06831-1.
  • Synan, V. (1997). The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition, pp. 86-88, Eerdmans.
  • Bartleman, F. (1980), [1925]. Azusa Street, ch 2, Logos International.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions

In my last blog, Closing Rural Churches [1], I said that no strategy to reverse church decline would work unless it deals with the root cause of decline, the church’s failure to recruit sufficient people to counteract its losses. In this post I will put forward evidence that lack of conversions is the primary cause of church decline in the UK since the end of the 19th century.

I will investigate this hypothesis by looking at data for the Presbyterian Church of Wales, (aka the Calvinist Methodists), one of the few denominations to record conversions, the children of members who join, transfers within the church, leavers and deaths. This data set was reproduced by Currie et al for 1895-1968 [2].

First Church Decline Hypothesis [3]

Church Decline is Caused by Lack of Conversions

Stated more specifically, the fall in membership across most of the pre-1900 denominations is due to their inability to keep conversion at the level of the 19th century. The Presbyterian Church of Wales is typical of this decline, as shown in the membership figures for the whole church [4], figure 1.

Figure 1

The church started in the mid 1730s and had risen fast in the early part of the 19th century. That rapid rise continued until 1905, the end of the last national revival in Wales, and has declined since.

To show that lack of conversions is the primary cause of this decline, compare the different growth and loss rates for 1896-1900 with 1964-1968, figure 2. Growth comes from two sources: the children of church members becoming members themselves once they have reached adulthood, called biological growth; and conversions, the people who join from outside the church. The losses also have two sources: deaths of members; and reversion, the total of those who resign membership, those expelled, and the discrepancy in the transfers between different congregations of the denomination [5].

Figure 2

At the end of the 19th century the conversion rate of 1.20% was higher than the reversion rate of 1.12%. However by the 1960s the conversion rate has dropped to a mere 0.4%, with reversion at 1.74%. The dramatic drop in the number of conversions is a significant factor in the change from growth to decline of the church.

A second cause of decline is the drop in biological growth, the children of members. This drop is smaller than that of conversions, and is in line with the general decline of the national birth rate from 2.86% in the late 1800s to 1.61% in the 1960s. Remarkably the child retention rate has improved from 51% to 60%. Thus though the national drop in birth rate has contributed to church decline, the church’s ability to keep its own children is not a contributory factor.

The third cause of decline is the rising death rate. In the 1890s the death rate of the church, 0.83%, is less that the national death rate of 1.7%, suggesting the church at that time was significantly younger than the population. By the 1960s the church death rate has risen to 1.68% much higher than the national death 1.18%, indicating an older than average church. Thus aging is a factor in the church’s decline.

So why has the church aged? Some if it is obviously demographic, falling birth rate. However the church has aged more than society, and was significantly younger than society at the end of the 19th century. I suggest that this relative youthfulness was due to the higher conversion rate, as conversions generally occur when people are younger. By the same reasoning the lack of conversions in the twentieth century has caused the church to age faster than society.

Thus whether directly, or indirectly through aging, lack of conversion is the root cause of the Presbyterian Church’s decline.

Let me investigate some alternative explanations.

Was Child Retention a Cause of Church Decline?

As already stated, the church’s child retention rate in the 1960s was better than it had been at the end of the 19th century. Figure 3 shows that the child retention rate has generally improved slightly from 1895 to the late 1950s. Its fall in the early 1960s is neither large nor systematic.

Figure 3

Though it has been common to blame the church’s inability to keep their children as a cause of its decline, figure 3 clearly shows this is not the case. Of course the birth rate has fallen during this time, and that may have led churches to think that their older profile reflected their lack of attraction to the young. However, in common with the rest of society, they were not producing children in sufficient numbers to keep themselves young [6]. Child retention remained good and was not a cause of decline.

Were Emigration and War Causes of Church Decline?

The changes in the sources of growth and decline can be tracked from 1896 to 1968. Figure 4 shows falling biological growth together with the rising death rate of the church; the former due to falling national birth rates. The gap between these represents the aging profile of the church. Ignoring the temporary rise in deaths during the First World War, the aging process really starts in the 1920s. Some of this would be due to emigration between the wars as seen in the population figures for Wales. But as the narrowing of the gap with the biological growth continues, and then becomes negative as deaths exceed child retention, emigration cannot be the sole cause [7].

Figure 4

Likewise the effects of war are confined to 1914-1918 alone. The Second World War had little effect on the general trend of death rates, in fact they temporarily improved. Biological growth fell during this war, but only in line with the fall in birth rate 15 years previously. It rose again in the 1960s when the post war baby boomers became eligible for membership [7]. Thus neither war had any ongoing impact on the church’s decline.

Was Church Decline Caused by a Higher Leaving Rate?

The conversion and reversion (leaving) rates are given in figure 5, with the very high conversion rates for the 1904-5 revival excluded [8]. Before the revival the evidence is that conversion was just higher than reversion, though during the revival the conversion rate became massively higher, over 6%. After the revival reversion rises temporarily, although nothing like the level of the revival’s conversion rate.

Figure 5

The cause of the temporary rise in reversion may have been due new converts disillusioned with a church largely unaffected by the outpouring of the Spirit. Rather than abandoning Christianity the leavers formed independent mission churches and became part of the emerging Pentecostal movement, an offspring of the revival [9].

The only other significant change in reversion rate is during and after the Second World War. The lack of people leaving during the war is counter-balanced by a larger number leaving in1947-8, possibly a delayed effect due to people returning from the war.

Generally reversion has remained steady around 1.5% and has not contributed to the increasing decline of the church. Rather, as figure 4 makes clear, decline has come from the falling conversion rate.

What if the 1890's Conversion Rate Had Been Maintained?

The membership figures for the Welsh Presbyterian church can be adjusted assuming the pre 1904-5 revival conversion rates had been maintained.  Comparing them with the actual membership figures shows that although the church would have still declined, it would have done so far more slowly, figure 6.

Figure 6

As such 58% of the church decline was due to the falling conversion rate, with most of the remainder due to the falling national birth rate and the aging of the church, the latter also partly due to lack of conversion. 

Thus I conclude that lack of conversion is the root cause of the Presbyterian Church’s decline.


It is clear from figure 6 that maintaining the conversion rate would not have been sufficient to prevent decline. This is because even at the end of the 19th century the conversion rate was only just higher than the reversion rate; so that the church required high biological growth to help it keep growing, figure 2. There is a suggestion here that the late 1800s conversion rate was already inadequate for a church seeking to grow as a proportion of society.

Thus the 20th century decline, due to lack of conversions, was continuing a trend that had started even before 1895. The next blog will attempt to link this lack of conversions to the lack of revival in the church.


Although the study was just for the Welsh Presbyterian Church, nevertheless there is no reason to believe it is any different to the Methodist, Congregational, Anglican and Baptist churches, or those in Scotland and England, all of whom declined throughout the twentieth century. 

I thus conclude that the primary cause of twentieth century church decline is the poor conversion rate.

Next blog: Church decline caused by lack of revival.

Notes and References 

[1] Closing Rural Churches: Is this the Way to Church Growth?

[2] Currie, R., Gilbert, A. D., & Horsley, L. S. (1977). Churches and churchgoers: patterns of church growth in the British Isles since 1700. Oxford University Press, USA.

The data table is available from British Religion in Numbers

[3] In a subsequent blog I will illustrate a second church growth hypothesis that church growth is caused by revival. I will show that it is the lack of revival that lies behind the lack of conversions of the twentieth century onwards.

[4] The figures used are full members plus adherents, called the whole church by Currie et al. The Presbyterian Church of Wales had two classes of members. All could participate in most aspects of church life, but only the full members could attend the experience meeting, the seiat, seen as a high privilege.

Membership and adherent figures are known from 1860 (Williams, J., 1985. Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics. UK: Government Statistical Service HMSO.) However he does not record conversions, deaths etc.

From 1970 onwards membership data is taken from various publications by Brierley,  see As he only records full members not adherents the whole church is estimated by linearly interpolating from the shrinking gap between full membership and the whole church from 1950-1968 onwards.

[5] Most transfers were due to geographical mobility. For most years more people transfer out, compared with those who transfer in, presumably because people fail to take up their membership in the new church.

Conversions are called Probationers from Without by Currie et al.

Biological growth comes from Currie’s Children of the Church.

[6] It is highly likely that child retention has fallen since the 1960s. One estimate puts Christian child retention at around 30%, in contrast to the much higher rate among Muslims. See Intergenerational Transmission of Islam in England and Wales: Evidence from the Citizenship Survey, by J. Scourfield, C. Taylor, G. Moore, and S. Gilliat-Ray, Sociology, 46(1): 91-108, 2012.

[7] The loss of young men in the First World War, and emigration of largely younger people in the 1920s and 1930s, are often blamed as the cause of church decline. As the above analysis shows these are temporary effects.  Each of these has could have three effects seen in: (a) falling church membership, (b) falling biological growth 15-20 years down the line, and (c) rising death rates well into the future.

(a) Although there is an increasing slope of decline in church membership from 1920, (figure 1), about the right time for an emigration effect, the leaving rate tells a different story. At the end of the 19th century the leaving rate averaged 1.1%, 3432 people per year. This increased from 1901-1904 to 1.21%, 4004 people per year. However from 1908, post revival to the start of World War One this increased dramatically to 1.46% 4961 people per year. From 1920-1935 the leaving rate then dropped to 1.45%, 4392 people per year; the still high percentage being due to a smaller church, rather than an increase in the number leaving, which had in fact dropped. Thus it is very difficult to prove that emigration had a large direct effect on church decline. The increasing rate of decline had started prior to the revival and was increased by the effects of the revival, both pre-war effects..

(b) Loss of young people in the war and through emigration would hit the birth rate during those times. The lowest birth rate is that of 1933 at 1.44%, compared with an average pre First World War birth rate of 2.5%. However the 1950s birth rate only recovers to an average of 1.6%. Birth rates were falling naturally apart from emigration and war effects. The biological growth of the church does fall from around 1.3% pre World War 2 to just over 1% in the 1940s and 1950, figure 4. Some of this is the ongoing effects of aging due to prior emigration and world war 1, but some will be due to aging through lack of conversions. The biological growth rate recovers briefly in early 1960s, but then has fallen further by 1968, suggesting an ongoing aging of the church, not just one due to fixed events such as emigration and war. As the church was only keeping 50% of its young people it must have conversions in order to stop aging as well as stopping decline.

(c) The expected increase in death rate due to emigration and World War 1 losses would not be expected to be seen until the 1960s onwards. Much of this is later than the cut off period, 1968, in this data set.

[8] In the next blog, on the effect of revival on conversion and growth, these data points will then be included.

[9] For discussion of the disillusionment of revival converts see:
Jones, B.P. (1999).  How Lovely are Thy Dwellings, Wellspring Books. Describes the beginnings of mission halls and Pentecostal assemblies after the 1904-5 revival.
Livesay, J. (2000). When We Walk with the Lord, published by the author, New Zealand, ISBN 0-473-06831-1. Describes the beginnings of the Apostolic Church, the Pentecostal Church that started in Wales after the revival.
Evans, E. (1969). The Welsh Revival of 1904. Evangelical Press of Wales.

Roberts, D.W. (2013). The Welsh Revival of 1904. What happened Next: Lessons from History. Available from Smashwords.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Closing Rural Churches

Is This the Way to Church Growth?

Recently in an article for the Guardian newspaper Giles Fraser suggested the Church of England should do to its churches what Beeching did to the railways, close its underused rural parishes. He further proposed concentrating resources in churches in “minster” type churches for the purpose of re-evangelisation [1].

Rural churches he claimed needed to close as half of them had less then 20 in the congregation, a quarter under 10. The overstretched ministers released from these churches could be placed in the minster congregations of “a community of clergy –some pastors, some evangelists, some theologians”, the team to lead the re growth of the church, making congregations “worth travelling to”, to quote Fraser’s words.

My first reaction was to cringe that the answer to the church’s decline was seen to be yet more theologians and clergy, the two types of ministry not mentioned in the New Testament [2]! However these are serious proposals by Giles Fraser and deserve consideration.

The effectiveness of any strategy for re-growing the church depends on whether it can tackle the root cause of church decline, the church’s failure to recruit sufficient people to counteract its losses [3]. From my modelling I would express the hypothesis this way:

Church decline is caused by the inadequate production of enthusiasts, the spiritually “infectious” Christians who make new converts and thus generate more enthusiasts.

This process creates a reinforcing feedback loop and is the engine that drives revival growth, the growth that took the church to its peak at the beginning of the twentieth century [4,5,6]. This way Christianity grows in a similar pattern to a disease.

Figure 1: Generation of Enthusiasts - the Engine of Revival Church Growth

So to the two proposals, concentrating on issues of growth and decline, not the pastoral implications.

1. Closing Rural Churches

a.     Closing rural churches might cut parts of the country off from Christian witness altogether. This reduces the potential pool of converts and would slow church growth, perhaps put the church further under the extinction threshold [4]. It would have to be demonstrated that these rural churches have virtually no conversion/witness and thus nothing was being lost by their closure.

b.     Although 50% of rural churches are under 20 that does not mean they are small. This number could be a significant fraction of their community, more so than many inner city churches. Small communities have small churches, and small communities are not going away. They need Jesus and closing a church denies them access to salvation, as well as further reducing denominational recruitment.
c.     It is not just the size of the church that is important but its spiritual life. A church of 20 people on fire for God will be more likely to see growth and conversion than a large church full of ineffective and spiritually dead people. It is LIFE that matters. A small number of enthusiasts can lead to large future growth of the church [4]. It was Dr DM Lloyd-Jones who said that putting six graveyards together does not bring the dead to life, just gives a bigger graveyard [7]! Merging and combining small churches does not in and of itself bring spiritual life. Neither do communities of clergy.
d.     If the issue is the resourcing of a professional minister then do without one. Train the people in the church to act as its elders and teachers. Perhaps the Church of England needs to return to a Biblical every member ministry pattern for rural churches. Learn from the Brethren!
e.     If the issue is the maintenance of the building then manage without the building. But the building is not the church, and closing the building does not mean closing the church. Buildings that outlive their usefulness need to be let go so people are not burdened with their maintenance. This could mean mothballing them for a future that may need them again. It would not be the first period in history that church buildings went into serious disrepair, only the be renewed generations later. If sold for redevelopment that strategy would be lost.
f.      It is unclear that selling ancient buildings for demolition and development would ever be allowed to happen. The delays involved would mean the resources would not be available for years, perhaps too late. It is unclear that people would even want to develop in such spots. There are many redundant and under used parish buildings in cities. The buildings are less ancient; their sale would be easier and probably fetch a better price.
g.     If the purpose of closing rural churches is to generate capital, then it is unclear that having more money would improve mission. More paid clergy in towns and cities may well stifle work to empower all Christians [2]. Ironically declining churches can be wealthier than growing ones as they contain both older and more committed people [8]. Shortage of money is not the issue. The issue with church decline is primarily spiritual, not financial. This kind does not come out by money but by prayer and fasting, Mark 9:29!
h.     I can understand how a large church at a distance from rural areas can be used to replant Christianity in areas with no church. But at some point someone needs to travel to the rural area and the same issue of small numbers using a large amount of resource will resurface, with the added burden of having a fresh start. Better not to lose them in the first place.

Thus the proposal to close many rural churches has issues. However if the strategy were one of keeping spiritually lively fellowships of believers in rural areas, but freeing them from reliance on paid clergy and the need to maintain a building, which could be closed if unfit for use, then the idea may have merit [9]. It would then be worth trying as in the next 10 years many of these churches will close naturally, so the risk factor in closing them early is not that high.

2.  Concentration of Resources in “Minster” Churches

a.     Care would be needed to ensure that the buildings in which the “resource concentrated” church meets are big enough.  Whereas a church building that is too big may be a waste of resource, a building that is full each Sunday seriously hinders growth by lack of capacity. This is why churches in the past always built buildings with far more capacity than needed at the time.
b.     Positively, the concentration of enthusiasts, and of believers, in one place is a driver of church growth [5]. Figure 2 shows the engine of growth, loop R, enhanced with other processes. Firstly the renewal loop, R1. The more enthusiasts the more engagement with non-enthusiastic members renewing them to infectiousness, whether they had it before or not. Also the spiritual life loops.  The more enthusiasts interact, pray, worship, do Bible training, the more effective they become. They now have a spiritual disease that is more infectious, leading to more effective renewal, R2, and more effective conversion, R3. It can be shown that a critical mass of enthusiasts and church size can trigger this enhanced revival process [5].

Figure 2: Church growth, R enhanced by renewal, R1, and increasing spiritual life, R2, R3.

c.     Churches with concentrated resources are also called Flagship Churches, ones that reproduce themselves in other churches [10]; and Infectious Centres of Spiritual Health [11], places where Christians are set on fire again for God. These are not “minster” churches as such as the concentration is of every member ministries, not paid clergy. They can be seen in many denominations and not surprisingly are in areas of large population. Although they can have a big influence in their own city, e.g. Holy Trinity Brompton in London, it is not clear they have been able to help rural areas. In principle it could work, but some research would be needed.

Giles Fraser’s proposal to concentrate resources is a good idea, has been effective in the past, and is still effective in the growth of churches in London and many of the newer charismatic congregations.

But it comes with a proviso. It is not just about creating churches that are worth coming to, though that definitely helps. It is about creating people that are worth living like. Ones whose lives are worth copying. People who have a passion for God, in the person of Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit. People who are willing to take sacrifices to ensure the lost are saved, out of sheer compassion for eternal souls. People who live in the light of eternity, not the need of the moment. People who are determined not to follow the self-centred and hedonistic spirit of this and any other age, but see a world transformed where people can live as God intended them to live.

It is not about church, but about people.

It is not about saving an institution, but saving souls.

Notes and References 

[1] We must do to our churches what Beeching did to the railways. Giles Fraser, The Guardian, 15/10/15.

[2]  I am OK with pastors and evangelists, but what happened to apostles, prophets and teachers; overseas and deacons?

As all organisations grow there is a tendency to oligarchy and the development of a separate leadership class from the led.
(See Michels R. (1961) [1911]. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, NY, The Free Press).

Professional clergy is how this oligarchy is manifested in the church, and most other religions, often called a priest, but not always. The name is irrelevant, the concept is that a subset of people become essential to the functioning of the organisation, and the organisation has made supporting them its priority. This oligarchy is part of the institutionalism that hinders the growth of the church and has assisted its decline. See the blog Institutionalism and Church decline

Christian leaders are essential, and they can be more effective when paid full-time. But their role was never to replace the people of the church and become the sole ministers, a separate priestly class, rather it was to encourage all the church to pursue ministry, especially witness and evangelism.  When times are lean, paid leaders are a luxury the church cannot afford and the church needs to learn to manage without them, as it does in many parts of the world where, ironically, the church grows.

[3] In a subsequent blog I will demonstrate the hypothesis that churches decline now compared with the past because of their failure to recruit.

[4] See
Hayward J. (2002). A Dynamical Model of Church Growth and its Application to Contemporary Revivals. Review of Religious Research, 43(3),218-241.

Hayward J. (2000). Growth and Decline of Religious and Sub-cultural Groups. 18th International System Dynamics Society, Bergen, Norway.
Hayward J.  (1999). Mathematical Modeling of Church Growth, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 23(4), 255-292, 1999.

[5] See:
Hayward J. (2010). Church Growth via Enthusiasts and Renewal. 28th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Seoul, South Korea.

[6] In a subsequent blog I will give examples to show that the church growth of the past primarily came through revival.

[7] Lloyd-Jones D.M. (1986). Revival. Marshall Pickering.

[8] Davies G.. Understanding Parish Growth Stages, Diocese of Sydney.

[9] It may be argued that most small rural churches do not have a lively spiritual fellowship at their core, but just people turning up on Sunday, out of routine, demanding the services of a minister, and with no interest of putting anything spiritual into the church themselves. But it is this information that would needed to be known before any attempt at closing a churches would need to be made. Size alone does not determine viability.

[10] Flagship Churches are described in:

[11]  See for example St Mungo’s Church Balerno