In a recent post, Gillan Scott, deputy editor of the Archbishop Cranmer blog, suggested that the Church of England might be more interested in managing decline than engaging in mission [1]. He quotes Peter Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden:

“Unfortunately, there are bishops around the place who think: ‘Well actually, we’ve just got to cater for this ongoing decline in our Church.’ And I worry about that.”

Gillan goes on to illustrate the point with his own growing church, which has been unable to appoint a much-needed assistant because of the shortage of clergy elsewhere in the diocese. Put simply, the needs of the institution have priority over the needs of an individual congregation. The implication is that institutionalism is a barrier to church growth and is a contributor to church decline. Gillan states:

But often it would appear that those churches which are growing are doing so despite rather than because of the structures and hierarchy.

Institutionalism happens when the organisation has grown to the point that it must maintain its “structures and hierarchy”, and the role of its individual parts is to service that maintenance. It stifles local innovation and thus limits growth. If decline sets in, then the organisation cannot produce sufficient new growth to recover.

Organisational Lifecycle

Institutionalism is an example of a stage in a lifecycle that can affect any organisation, religious, political, corporate, or cultural; a church, a company, or even a nation. Adizes [2, p.103] spells out the corporate lifecycle, to summarise: Courtship, Infant, Adolescent, Prime, Aristocracy, Bureaucracy, and Death. It is at the aristocracy stage where institutionalism sets in through internal politics [2, p.106], despite or perhaps because of its success. Formality replaces informality; money is spent on control rather than sales and innovation, and the emphasis moves on to how things are done rather than why [2, p.64].

The organisational lifecycle has been applied to individual congregations [3]. McIntosh gives the stages as Emerging, Growing, Consolidating, Declining, and Dying [3]. By the declining stage, the purpose of the church has been forgotten because of the work needed to keep afloat what they have left. Applying this lifecycle to a denomination, like the Church of England, it can be seen that most in the UK are now institutions somewhere between the declining and dying stages.

A Model of Decline By Institutionalism

Because of the generic pattern of an organisational lifecycle, the situation is ideal for a system dynamics explanation. System dynamics is a modelling methodology that links behaviour to cause and effect. To keep things as simple as possible, just consider two variables: Church, the number of people in the denomination, and Institutionalism, the collection of variables that indicate the church’s emphasis on the wider corporate needs rather than the local work where growth takes place [4]. Institutionalism is an example of a soft variable, one that is hard to measure but whose meaning is generally understood [5].   Consider 3 hypotheses:

  1. The more people in church, the more are added to the church. This is feedback loop R1,  figure 1.
  2. The more people in church, the more leave, feedback loop B1, figure 1.
  3. The more people in church, the more it becomes institutionalised. Thus, fewer are added to the church, loop B2, figure 1.
Figure 1: Causal Loop Diagram of Church and Institutional Growth

The feedback loops are causally circular, with the effect of “feeding back” to change the original cause. R1 is a reinforcing loop, a virtuous cycle, giving exponential church growth. B2 is a balancing loop, limiting the growth of the church due to rising institutionalism. Lay people and clergy move from innovative agents of evangelism to people whose role is merely to “turn up, pay up and shut up”, servicing the institutional needs. B1 is also balancing, reducing the size of the church.

R1 can be thought of as a positive force, with B1 and B2 as negative forces opposing it. The future size of the church depends on which force “wins”.  

In order to examine the outcome of the hypotheses, a system dynamics model is required. This model will enable computer simulation to illustrate the model’s behaviour. Readers who prefer to avoid technical details can skip the next section!

System Dynamics Model

The model is given in figure 2. There is one stock for the church, where both R1 and B1 come from connections to its flows. Institutionalism is also a stock, the loop B2 being formed through the flows: growth of institutionalism and add to church.

Figure 2: System Dynamics Model of Church and Institutional Growth

 Three further hypotheses are needed. B3 is a resistive force that represents the difficulty of increasing institutionalism when it gets near the organisational capacity. R2 is a positive force coming from people within the church who want to increase denominational institutionalism, perhaps for their own self-preservation or power. B4 represents attempts to reduce institutionalism.

Model Results

Assume there are no attempts to reduce institutionalism. Instead, it is allowed to grow to capacity, a situation that perhaps represents many denominations.  A new denomination grows rapidly, through R1, for around 50-70 years figure 3, curve 1. Institutionalism also grows, although its growth is delayed compared with that of the church, figure 3, curve 2.

Figure 3: Results of Church and Institutional Growth Model

 Around the 70-year mark, church growth slows and reaches a peak because the effects of institutionalism, B2, have slowed the growth, allowing additions to the church to just about balance the number leaving (which includes death), figure 4. After that point, the losses exceed the additions, and the church denomination continues to decline until it is eventually extinct, figure 3. In reality, the extinction is faster, a straight line rather than the slowing curve of figure 1, as ageing becomes a factor. This extinction has come about because institutionalism has been allowed to saturate at capacity, and no attempt has been made to reduce it.

Figure 4: Comparison of Additions to, and Losses from, Church

Note that extinction has resulted regardless of the size of the target population (unlimited in this model). Extinction in this model is due to a lack of supply, not a lack of demand.

As this model is for illustrative purposes only, the values of timescales and the church size should not be taken literally. They are merely relative. They may have different values depending on the denomination or their social setting. It is in the shape of the curves that the model illustrates reality [4].  

Combating Institutionalism

A policy is introduced whereby the church attempts to reduce institutionalism (B4) in proportion to the amount of net decline it experiences. That is, the policy is not enacted until the decline takes place. The policy allows an average of a 30-year delay to take full effect, a high number because it needs to affect most of the denomination, not just a few parts [6].  

One such result shows church decline slowing from about 110 years, but it is insufficient to bring about growth, figure 5, curve 1. The oscillation in institutionalism is due to the delay between policy implementation and effect. Once it is perceived to have some effect on reducing decline, the policy backs off before it has time to have full effect.

Figure 5: Attempt to Reduce Institutionalism in Proportion to Net Church Losses

 Of course, the effect of the policy on halting decline depends on its effectiveness in dealing with institutional resistance. Figure 6 shows the base case of no such policy, curve 1, compared with 3 policies of differing effectiveness, curves 2-4. It shows that it is possible for a declining church to get back to growth. However, the policy should continue to be applied with the same intensity and not applied less just because numbers recover a bit, as in these simulations. Complacency in results will breed oscillations, instability, and eventually decline, as many companies know to their cost.

Figure 6: Comparison of Attempts to Reduce Institutionalism (2-4), with No Attempt (1)

Denominational Decline

What does actual denominational decline look like? The Church of England does not have consistent membership figures over a long period of time, and it is only in the last few decades that attendance has been measured. However, the Methodist Church has good membership statistics over most of its lifetime [7]. The graph is shown in figure 7.

Figure 7: Membership of Methodist Church of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Some of the growth from 1760 to 1900 in figure 7 was population growth, but the bulk of it was due to conversion. The length of the growth phase indicates that the Methodist church successfully dealt with issues of institutionalism during its early stages, especially in the transition from the first generation of leaders. Note a split in the 1850s and the effect of revival in 1904-5, which, contrary to popular belief, had a considerable impact in England as well as Wales.

However, from 1900 onwards, the numbers plateaued and then fell from the Second World War onwards, with a blip in the 1950s, probably due to the Billy Graham crusades. Comparing figure 7 with figure 3 it is clear that if institutionalism is one of the causes of Methodist decline, then it has not been tackled, and extinction is not far away.

This is not just a Methodist issue. Statistics indicate that most pre-20th century denominations will be extinct by 2050, except the Church of England, whose decline is slower, and the Baptists, who are independently organised. By the middle of the century the Christian landscape will be dominated by what are now Pentecostal and independent churches, who may well have changed and have their own issues with institutionalism by then.

Such decline is not just a church phenomenon. By 2050, the inability of most Western societies to deal with their huge debts may have led to their downsizing (euphemism for becoming poorer!) And all nations will be hit by dwindling natural resources and climate change, with a likely decline in world population. The lack of a few Christian denominations may be the least of the problems faced by people in the middle of the century!  

Tackling Institutionalism and Recovering Growth

Can institutionalism in denominations be tackled and growth recovered? Given countries’ inability to deal with their debts, energy needs, and climate change – always too little too late – it does not bode well. Church is an even more sluggish institution!  

Gillan Scott suggests that the battle for the church’s very existence, its numerical survival, is more important than its current struggle on how it deals with LGBT issues [1]. As a “gay-affirming” ideology continues to spread in the West, the church has become dominated by debates on introducing same-sex marriage and falling into line with government policy rather than how it can avoid decline, extinction and see growth. Which issue is more important? Perhaps the two issues are connected.

The policy to introduce same-sex marriage in the church could be construed as a force for institutionalism, as it assists the desire of a denomination to remain relevant to society. I do not know about the Church of England, but in the Church in Wales, the policy is being driven by the denominational leadership and those it employs [8]. The ones with the most to lose if the denomination becomes irrelevant and the least to lose if the revised marriage policy is introduced. Introducing same-sex marriage seems a classic case of a policy designed to service the needs of an institution rather than help the individual and congregational agents of growth.  As such, if introduced, it will be a force to maintain the institutionalism that is resisting the church’s attempt to avoid extinction, part of feedback loop R2, figure 2 [9].

What could be a way forward for denominations with institutionalism issues?

If we accept that most historic denominations are heading for extinction in their current form [10], then, rather than make minor changes to that form, perhaps it is better to discontinue the form altogether. That is, policies are needed to deregulate how congregations operate. Let a denomination divide up into smaller groupings with different beliefs of liberal and conservative persuasions. Allow congregations to join the group they identify with best or go independent.

Allow congregations to pay for their own ministers and not have to send money into a central pot. Let them keep all their income so that if successful, they can invest in their work or that of their chosen associates. Let congregations choose ministers from outside denominational ranks and adapt their operational management and clergy structures. What is left of central denominations can provide support services, pensions, advice etc, on a consultancy basis.  

Such deregulated denominations would allow spiritual renewal to flourish with less hindrance, with healthy competition driving up standards. Enthusiasts would be generated, and conversions would follow. This, I think, would give the best chance for avoiding extinction and encourage church growth. It would probably look a bit like the early church.

References & Notes 

 [1] Scott G. (2015). Church of England Mistakes Mission for the Management of Decline. Archbishop Cranmer Blog, 23/04/15. The blog is no longer available.  

The blog refers to: Davies M. (2015). Church growth: Bishop Broadbent rounds on the critics of Reform and Renewal. Church Times, 21/4/15.  

[2] Adizes, I. (1992). Corporate Lifecycles: How and why corporations grow and die and what to do about it. NYIF.  

[3] See:

  • Arn, W. (1985). Five Stages in the Life-Cycle of Churches, Pasadena, CA: American Church Growth.
  • Davies, G. Understanding Parish Growth Stages, Diocese of Sydney.
  • McIntosh G.L. (2009). Taking Your Church To The Next Level, Baker Books.
  • Saarinen, M.F. (2001). The Life Cycle of a Congregation, MD:Alban Institute.  

[4] This is an example of a metaphorical model, one whose purpose is to provide transferable insight rather than exactly replicate a specific situation. See Morecroft J. (2007). Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics. Wiley. P.414.  

[5] Hayward J., Jeffs R.A., Howells L. & Evans K.S. (2014). Model Building with Soft Variables: A Case Study on Riots. (2014). 32nd International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Delft, Netherlands, July 2014.  

[6] For an example of a delay between introducing a policy and its effect, consider charismatic renewal. It started in the early 1960s, but it was not until the 1990s that the cultural change it introduced became widespread in the church. The Alpha Course, the movement’s most influential tool, came about in the 1990s. Most of the church has still not embraced the cultural and spiritual change and probably never will.  

[7] Data for 1767-1970 is taken from:

Currie R. Gilbert A.D. & Horsley L. (1977). Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700, table A3.

Before the formation of the Methodist Church of GB and NI the different church streams have been added together.   Data for 1980-1990  is taken from

Brierley P. (1999). Religious Trends 2000/2001 No.2,  table 9.10.2 Christian Research.  

Data for 2000, 2010, and estimates of 2015, 2020 are taken from Brierley P. (2014). UK Church Statistics 2015-2020, Brierley Consultancy.  

[8] The current consultation on same-sex marriages in the Church in Wales comes from its governing body and Bench of Bishops. There has been no movement of lay people or clergy calling for change, no protests at the current status quo, no congregational petitions to the leadership, and no emergence of prayer groups praying for a change in the definition of marriage. The call for change is top-down, not bottom-up, suggesting it is driven by institutional needs, not congregational or individual.   

[9] It could be argued that introducing same-sex marriage in the church would attract more people because of the increased number of marriages and the church’s increased relevance to society. These hypotheses are not in the model. They could be added by allowing the church to draw from a limited pool of people rather than the unlimited pool in figure 2. The pool could then be divided into people who would favour the policy, the ambivalent, and those opposed. In addition, the effect of the policy on church leaving rates would need to be added. Model calibration would be difficult. My conversations with researchers in the USA denominations that have introduced same-sex blessings and marriages show that the effect on people leaving is larger than that of people joining and that neither were major factors in the denominations’ decision to implement the policies.  

[10] It is denominationalism that is heading for extinction in the UK, not Christianity. Also, not all congregations that are currently part of historic denominations will disappear.. Some will survive and grow.


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