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

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Communicating The Gospel

Effective communication of the gospel is essential if those who do not believe in Jesus are to come to faith. How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? Rom 10:14. However if the message is unintelligible then they may not have heard enough clear information to believe. Clarity is vital. We can all think of poor methods of gospel presentations that do not connect with people or culture. But something happened this summer to make me think again.

Coming to the end of a long visit to the USA, my wife and I had a spare day in Boston while waiting for a flight home. It was a hot day, and after spending our time looking around the harbour area, we ended up back in town, eating ice cream on seats outside a well-known pharmacy, as it was in the shade.

Just next to us were some street preachers, letting rip with a message of hellfire and repentance. In the space of five minutes I heard words like atonement, justification, substitution, all backed with quotes from the King James Version of the Bible, with many thees and thous. They even mentioned George Whitefield and his visits to Boston in the 1700s! In addition there were a number of placards, such as “Christ died for our sins.”

I could not fault their doctrine, and Whitefield is a hero of mine, but I wondered whether any of the people walking past understood what was preached. It was hard enough for a believer to follow, let alone non-believers, who I suspect were the majority around that day. How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard clearly? (I added the clearly!)

Not surprisingly most people ignored them, and only the occasional person stopped and was brave enough to receive a tract.  No-one actually stood and listened to the preacher. But then I spotted something a bit out of the ordinary. Behind one of the placard holders was a lady with her own, much smaller placard, which said, “Smile if you worship Satan.”

What was so interesting, and a bit amusing, was that this lady was getting far more attention than either the preacher or the placard holders. Every now and then someone would give her a big smile and she would smile back and wave enthusiastically, ignored by the street preaching party. She was clearly benefiting from her location behind the street preachers and the contrast it gave. It did make me smile.

Smile agh! She caught me smiling. “Do you?” she mouthed at me, assuming I was a worshipper of Satan. “No!” I mouthed back, shaking my head furiously. Well that was it; I had to speak with her. I told her: “I can’t agree with your message, but 10 out of 10 for communication.” She was having far better results than the street preachers.

It turns out she was not a follower of Satan, but just someone who disagreed with the way the street preachers were proclaiming the gospel. “I have read about Jesus in the Bible” she said “and he did not do it this way”. I sort of agreed, and said he told stories, parables, but assured her Jesus was definitively worth reading about!

Afterwards, though, this got me thinking about which of the two, street preachers or “Satan” lady, were the best communicators. Yes Jesus did tell parables, but he didn’t tell them for the purposes of effective communication, but so that those listening would not understand, and thus confirm their hardness of heart! Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Mt 13:12. He quotes this as a fulfilment of Isaiah 6: Hearing you will hear and shall not understand… For the hearts of this people have grown dull.

Jesus knew that the problem with lack of faith was not lack of understanding, but hardness of heart. It was not that they did not know enough to believe, but that they did not want to believe. Indeed the only people who were meant to understand the parables were his disciples, and they were too slow-witted to understand him. We all know that feeling!

The New Testament church did not appear to use parables, however even they were not understood.  Paul was called a babbler in Athens (Acts 17), probably doing something very similar to the Boston street preachers. When he finally got an audience all went well until he mentioned the resurrection. Now they understood – so they walked off! The issue was not understanding, but hardness of heart.

Indeed effective communication of the gospel can be a dangerous business.  Early church leader, Stephen, had no trouble getting his audience to understand him, but they killed him for it. The issue was not understanding, but hardness of heart (Acts 6-7).

Perhaps the people walking past the street preachers that day did so because they already knew enough that they had decided to reject the gospel. It would have not made any difference how the street preachers presented it; the people would have ignored them. Hardness of heart, not understanding is the issue.

So what is the purpose of such street preaching if people walk by, or walk off as soon as they understand you, or kill you because they don’t like it? How can anyone believe through preaching?

I remember a story the late preacher, John Wimber, told. When he was not a Christian he used to see a man walking with a placard. One side said, “I’m a fool for Christ”; the other said, “whose fool are you?”  Wimber thought how stupid the man was. But after his conversion he could remember the incident well, and “Fool for Christ” became Wimber’s personal motto [1]. Though it appeared the man in the billboard had communicated nothing sensible to Wimber, it had played its part in his conversion. The issue was hardness of heart, not understanding. But something sunk in that God used later.

Long before I was a Christian I used to listen to music on Radio Luxemburg, mid 60s to early 70s. Sometimes it would fade out, and briefly in would fade Trans World Radio, a Christian station [2]. It really annoyed me, and if Luxemburg did not come back fast I would switch elsewhere. I never listened to more than a minute of something I had rejected as unintelligible rubbish. I eventually stopped listening to Luxemburg, and the Trans World Radio interruptions. Eight years later, when I got converted through other means, I could remember the radio evangelist’s name, Dick Saunders, hymns, main points and appeal! The issue was hardness of heart, not understanding. But something sunk in that God used later.

Boston seen from Cambridge MA.

So I wonder if street preaching may be more effective than we realise, and even though ignored and rejected at the time, God uses it to soften and open the hearts of those who will not embrace him. Whether it is street drama or heavy-duty hellfire with King James English – God uses it. Jesus had little fruit to show at the end of his ministry; most had walked away, his teaching rejected, and his parables not understood. But he had sowed the seeds that led to people’s future conversion.

So maybe the Boston street preachers, ignored by the people of Boston that day, are far more effective than the “Satan” lady, and more effective than their many critics would say. Sowing seeds ready for when hard hearts are softened.

Having said that, the next time I hear an atheist speaking, or a secular politician spouting forth with a godless message, I think I will stand near holding a sign that says: “Smile if you love Jesus!”


[1] John Wimber led the Vineyard Church in its early years and had a huge influence in charismatic renewal and evangelical Christianity. He told his conversion story in: The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, John Wimber and Kevin Springer, 1990, page 118, Hodder & Stoughton.

[2] Trans World Radio,