Dealing with Church Decline
Church growth is not just an academic study for me; it is personal. Not only am I fascinated by the growth and decline of churches; I am part of it. I belong to a church and engage in its mission, thus its success is something I am working towards, not just researching. My church happens to be part of the Church in Wales, a denomination that has been declining steadily for many years, a decline that statistically will eventually lead to its extinction. Such is the concern, the church leaders have commissioned an external review whose report was published last week (1). I downloaded the report and read it on my way to the International System Dynamics Conference in Switzerland, so system thinking was very much on my mind.
I think systems thinking must have been in the mind of the reviewers of the Church in Wales as they made sweeping recommendations that would reconfigure the way the church operates, particularly at the parish and congregational level. In order for the church’s decline to be halted and growth to come back, the reviewers state that there are two barriers to change that need addressing: structural and cultural. The structure of the church, they say, is more suited to that of a hundred years ago. Instead they see its future in the hands of teams overseeing much larger areas than a parish, with mainly lay and non-stipendiary leaders. This fits well with my models as it releases some of the more enthusiastic Christians into positions where they can generate more enthusiasts. The second area to change is the church’s culture so there is less dependence on, and deference to, the church hierarchy. This also has support from my models where individual Christians are the key players in spreading the faith. The more enthusiasts then the more church growth! The writers of the report need to be commended for their insight and bravery.
However there is more to be said. Before I do I would like to step back and ask, why is the church declining? If the attendance data for the Church in Wales is placed into the limited enthusiasm model then it is well under the threshold of extinction, a fate it shares with most of the non-conformists churches of Wales and England. What reasons for decline are put forward for by the experts?
According to classical secularisation theory this is only to be expected. Stated briefly, as society progresses through rationalism and enlightenment, religious institutions have less hold on society and thus religious belief declines, and along with it church attendance (2). Western Europe and the UK are seen as good examples of this theory where the churches have nowhere near the power they once had, and church attendance is so low it will not be long before there are less people in church than there are who practise Islam!
However this theory has problems. The USA, arguably the most advanced country of the world, has church attendance at very healthy levels and perhaps stronger than it as ever been. This has led to a number of modifications of the theory to explain this observation. Further, in the UK, the people who do not engage with church appear no more rational than those who belong. Superstition is rife, and wealth, entertainment, hedonism and ignorance appear better explanations for their refusal to be part of church rather then deeply thought out secular views.
As for a second theory, Dean Kelley, and those who belong to the new paradigm in the sociology of religion place the blame more on the church itself, than society (3). Lenient churches are weak and thus more likely to decline, and there are plenty of lenient churches in the UK! By contrast strict churches are strong and more likely to grow. There are many of these in the USA, and competition due to the lack of a state religion helps keep them strong (4-6). But the UK has a few, and yes they are growing. The Church in Wales does not fit well into this theory. Generally it has always been on the conservative side, although some of its leaders would prefer the word lenient I guess. But the conservatism is more of a traditional Anglicanism than the evangelical zeal that Kelley had in mind. One Church in Wales minister wryly described it as “any colour you like as long as it’s black!” Conservative and relatively strict, but dull and bland (sorry to anyone from the church reading this). There are plenty of examples of conservative churches that decline and act as counter examples to Kelley’s theory, and dullness is something they have in common!
The theory of Michael Watts described in “Why did the English Stop Going to Church?” is intriguing (7). He claimed it was because the church stopped preaching the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. He argued that the church has only been numerically strong in the late 18th and 19th century. However, during the 19th century, as liberalism crept into the churches through the seminaries and the education of the clergy, the doctrine of hell declined and along with it the cutting edge of the church.
I could bring some insights from population modelling to add to this. Even if the church had lost its cutting edge, as long as it kept its own children it would not decline and may even still grow if average family size remained high. There did not need to be any conversions for its numbers to remain stable and healthy. But after two world wars, rising wealth as a major distraction, and falling family sizes, it could not keep its children. The result has been major decline since the 1950s. The secularisation of the church was a bigger problem than the secularisation of society. The cause of the decline is two-fold: aging, through the church being unable to keep believers’ children in the faith; and the lack of conversions. But the lack of conversions may well precede aging by many generations.
My church growth models push this theory further and claim decline results from the failure to produce enthusiasts, those who are key to the conversion to, and renewal of, the church (8). If what both Kelley and Watts say are true then the churches in the UK have been weak and have failed to produce enough enthusiasts since the latter part of the 19th century but it has taken a few generations of the cultural decline of the church to become noticed in attendance figures. The life had long gone, but it took a while for participation to reflect this. The church in the UK, and especially Wales, only became the size it did through a succession of revivals from 1735 to 1904, and there had been a gap of over 40 years before the 1904 revival. The church, including the Church in Wales, is declining because it has not been producing enough enthusiasts for well over a hundred years.
So does the report address this issue? I wish it had mentioned a third barrier to change: the psychological one – fear! Ministers and lay leaders are often afraid of losing control, afraid of being seen as less important. People jockey for positions in church and make policies to protect themselves, rather than release others in ministry, this works against the production of enthusiasts as these type of Christians are feared the most!
I wish the report had not insisted that all the ministry trainingcomes through one seminary. This creates a uniform pool, and continues the “one colour” policy of the church. By contrast the Church of England has more diversity of churchmanship through its variety of seminaries. Diversity creates healthy competition which encourages enthusiasm, and a cross fertilisation of ideas. Although the Church of England is declining, it is just above the extinction threshold, a position that has been slowly but steadily improving since the 1980s. The Welsh Anglicans could learn a lot from the English ones.
But the biggest issue the report fails to address is the Holy Spirit. It is the axiomatic belief of the Church Growth Modelling project that churches grow through outpourings of the Holy Spirit, commonly called revivals. Any understanding, or any solution, that ignores this fact has missed the point. Life brings growth. The report started well, quoting 1 John 1, “our theme is the Word which gives life”. But nowhere does it say how that life is to come. Removing the structural and cultural barriers are great, but we need to remove the spiritual barrier that stops us being the completely sold out disciples of Christ we are called to be. The barrier that prevents us seeking His fullness, seeking His presence, seeking the baptism with the Spirit, seeking revival. The barrier that stops us being the enthusiasts Jesus wants us to be.
(1) The Church in Wales Review
(2) Brown C. (2009), The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000, Taylor & Francis.
(3) Kelley D. (1986), Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Mercer University Press.
(4) Stark R. (1999), Secularization, RIP. Sociology of Religion, 60(3), 249-273.
(5) Stark R. and Iannaccone L.R. (1994), A Supply Side Reinterpretation of the “Secularisation” of Europe. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 (3), 230-252.
(6) Warner R.S. (1993), Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States, American Journal of Sociology 98 (5), 1044-93.
(7) Watts M. (1995), Why did the English Stop Going to Church? A paper presented at the “Friends of the Dr Williams Library”, and published by the library.
(8) Hayward J. (2005), A General Model of Church Growth and Decline, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 29(3), 177-207.