Big City, Small Town, or Rural?

Despite church decline, church planting continues at a fast pace. In the cities of the UK, the church landscape has a generous number of recently established, glossy, relatively wealthy, contemporary churches. It would appear something in church growth is working.

Reflecting on current trends in evangelicalism, in the light of a visit to Scotland by an American prosperity preacher, David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland suggested that modern-day church planting was motivated by a similar prosperity ethos [1]. That is, churches prefer to plant in the big cities, where there are plenty of people and influential networks, rather than in the smaller towns of the UK. He suggested the reasoning may be due to the “trickle-down” theory, that once churches are established in the big centres of London, Edinburgh, etc, then Christianity will eventually trickle down to the likes of Hull and Kilmarnock [1].  

It is true that new religions use big centres with their changing populations as their bases. Christianity started this way, and that is the current state of Islam in the UK. But Britain has a Christian history, and there are Christians (still) in most towns and villages. Church planting here is about re-evangelisation, not introducing a new faith. David Robertson compared the contemporary approach with that of the Independent Methodists, who planted their churches in small, rural and poor communities and did so quite effectively despite the seemingly limited prospects of such places [1].

So what is the best planting strategy, go to the big or go to the small? I will try to show a system dynamics view of church planting using some of the church growth models that I have developed [2]. Three models should be enough to capture the difference between the contemporary and historic approaches to planting.  

Supply & Demand Model

In this model, the church supplies its religion in a society where, at any time, there are some people who demand it. Supply is according to the size of the church, reinforcing loop R, figure 1. Demand is according to the size of the unbelieving society, balancing loop B1. Initially, demand exceeds supply. Thus, early growth is determined by how well the church supplies the needs of those seeking a church. However, at some point, demand will fall below supply as the pool of potential converts shrinks, thus slowing church growth. Church size reaches a limit when demand B1matches the leaving process B2 [3].

Figure 1: Supply and Demand Model of Church Growth [3]

Thus, to get a bigger church, a church plant needs to be in a bigger community, for example, a city. The bigger the city, the more the demand, the more converted. Thus, as long as the new church can compete favourably with the existing ones in the city, then it will have a big demand. The key is to do things better than the others, be it worship, discipleship, or Sunday Schools, so that it is attractive to the whole city, not just a local area. It may also be attractive to those in other churches as well, perhaps hastening the decline of the ineffective ones. 

This suggests that planting in the big cities is the best strategy for a new church if its growth is the only criterion [4]. But things are not as simple as that. There are other limits to congregational growth.

Bounded Resource Model

A church may face limits on its growth before the effects of demand are significant. Most churches cannot increase their supply in proportion to their size because conversion and recruitment involve generating resources, loop R, figure 2. As they grow, they become less effective at increasing these resources further, loop B3.  Such resources as Sunday Schools, teaching programmes, physical space, organisational complexity and friendship networks all become harder to increase the bigger they become [5].

Thus, the church’s growth is limited for internal reasons, leaving much of the external demand untapped. In figure 2, the potential demand is made infinite to drive home the point! Of course, such churches are big and lively and may not realise it is they, rather than the lack of potential converts, that have slowed their growth. Growth stops when the effect of recruitment, loop R, has been reduced by the organisational “lethargy” loop B3 to the point where it matches the leaving B1.

The church in the big city now has less of an advantage because the new church plant needs to be very well managed to ensure that potential demand is met. This favours the wealthy contemporary church, but it could also suggest that smaller cities and large towns would be just as suitable places to plant. The extra potential demand the large city offers cannot be realistically tapped.  

Limited Enthusiasm Model

The flaw in the above arguments is that they can apply to any organisation, not just a church. Surely, there needs to be something different about the way a church grows! David Robertson makes the point that the Independent Methodists came out of the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries [1]. They grew not because of the size of the demand(there was little), or the effectiveness of their church organisations (they were not professionals), but the efficacy of their individual Christians, who were so full of the revival life of Christ that they imparted it to others.

Growth by infectious faith is captured in the Limited Enthusiasm Model [6]. Here, only a subset of the church, the enthusiasts, make converts, loop R figure 3, but some of those converts become enthusiasts thus the lively Christians reproduce themselves in others. Although enthusiasts do not stay effective forever, loop B2, they do so long enough for the revival contagion to keep being passed on, effectively creating demand, loop B1, rather than waiting for it.

Figure 3: Limited Enthusiasm Model of Church Growth [6]

This mechanism matches the experience of the church in the New Testament. They did not seek demand for salvation through Christ or organise a great church to attract people. They went into places and created demand through the Holy Spirit in individual believers. The faith spread like a disease, adding to their number. They spent the rest of the time trying to put any sort of organisation on the ensuing mess. Hence the need for the New Testament letters!

Such a church in revival is, therefore, more effective where people have the most meaningful contacts. The place you stop to talk to those you meet, rather than pass a thousand in the street. The place where you see the same people over and over again,  building a relationship. Not the place where you may not see the same person again, hoping to attract a stranger. Essentially, the village is a better place than the city. The small town is better than the big one.  

Go through the history of revivals and see how many flourished in the small places rather than the big ones. The Welsh revival centres were Llangeitho, Loughor and New Quay, not Cardiff and Swansea.

Evangelism is primarily personal, not organisational. It seeks to persuade people, not attract them. Thus, the best place for a new church plant is the small community, not the large. Of course, it requires long-term commitment, and it does require the reviving work of the Holy Spirit. But there will be no recovery of the church in the UK without revival because church decline is caused by the lack of revival, as I have tried to show many times [7]. The rural communities clearly show this need for revival. Sadly, the big churches of the larger cities, thriving on good organisation and large populations, mask this lack of the Spirit and, as David Robertson put it, act as a cover for decline [1].

Rural Areas

I often travel through the rural parts of Wales and Scotland and see so many areas with no church at all, just closed or converted buildings. In those where a church remains, it is usually an established one – part of a denomination now facing division through the spread of the new ideology that promotes sexual diversity [8]. As a result, many more will close or become unacceptable to a Christian seeking a church with Biblical standards.  There is a desperate need for rural church planting, that is, for revived Christians to move to these places.

Ah says someone – “I will plant the church when the revival comes”. No! The revival will come when you go and plant! Paul the apostle did not wait for the Spirit to come before he went somewhere new. He went, and as he preached, the Spirit fell. It is a time to go, not a time to wait. The church has been waiting very effectively for far too long.

References and Notes

[1] Creflo Dollar, The Independent Methodists, the Gospel of Power, Health and Wealth, and Revival of the Church in Britain Today. The Wee Flea, David Robertson, 8/5/2016.

[2] A description of the church growth models can be found at Church Growth Models.   Some have been published in academic journals and conferences.

[3] The Supply and Demand model of church growth is described in the blog: Limits to Church Growth Part 1.  

Further details of the model construction and results are at: Supply and Demand and results.

[4] It could be argued that the growth of the planted church should not be the only criterion. The needs of the lost, who are in small places as well as large, is crucial. Also, the effect of competition on the existing churches needs to be considered. I am deliberately staying clear of discussing the moral case of planting a new church to compete with existing ones!

[5] Blog: Church Growth Limited by Inadequate Resource Production.   Further details of the model construction and results are on the website: Bounded Resource Model and Results.    

[6] The Limited Enthusiasm model of church growth is described in the blog: Limits to Church Growth Part 2.    

Further details of the model construction are on the website: Short-term revivalLong-term change with demographics:  



A good introduction for the non-specialist is Tipping the Church into Growth.    

[7] See the blogs Church Decline Caused by Lack of ConversionChurch Decline Caused by Lack of RevivalWhy Revivals Stopped in the UK   See also the 1999 and 2005 papers in [6].    

[8] I talked about the New Ideology in the blog Rewriting History

I will describe a model of how it is replacing Christianity in the West in a forthcoming blog.


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