What Can I Do?
I have had considerable feedback from my two posts on the Growth, Decline and Extinction of UK Churches . Many people have been concerned by forecasts of extinction and have asked me what they can do to avoid this fate. Now, I am a church growth modeller, not a church growth consultant. However, I can use my church growth model to indicate how a church can move from decline to growth and avoid extinction. From that, I can give general advice on church growth. But I will throw in a few examples too.
My comments here will refer to the basic unit of church life, the congregation.
Limited Enthusiasm Model
The central hypothesis of the model is that churches grow through enthusiasts, a subset of church members who are involved in the conversion of people outside the church, called unbelievers in figure 2 . The remaining church members are called inactive believers. They may be very active in many aspects of church life but not in making converts. Figure 2 shows the flow of unbelievers through conversion to enthusiasts and then to inactive believers.
The consequence of this model is that churches grow in a similar way to the spread of an infectious disease. Most of the time, growth is slow, though sometimes it can be fast, as in the 1858-59 revivals. My advice will focus on the need to make enthusiasts. That is, to generate Christians whose faith is “contagious”. There are three parameters of note:
- The conversion potential – how well an enthusiast passes on the faith
- The fraction made enthusiast – how well the church turns new converts into enthusiasts.
- The duration enthusiastic – how long an enthusiast remains effective.
1. Generate Enthusiasts
Your church needs to make enthusiasts, not just converts. Yes, converts are essential for growth. However, if you can turn your new converts into Christians who also make converts, then the enthusiasm is passed on, and conversion is self-replicating (fraction made enthusiast in the model, figure 1). It is this contagious spread of the Christian faith that drives exponential church growth.
Figure 1 shows a second flow from unbelievers to inactive believers, missing out on the enthusiast stage. This process is one you want to avoid or at least delay. It is wonderful that you made a convert, but they are not spreading the faith . The Biblical call is to make disciples – people who will follow Jesus in every way – including spreading the word and seeking converts . Do you teach your church members their role in bringing people to Christ? Is this a church priority?
2. Keep Christians Contagious
The longer a Christian remains an enthusiast, the more likely they are to make converts (duration enthusiastic in the model, figure 1). Often new converts quickly become inactive in conversion. They become more involved in other church activities. They lose their non-Christian friends. Sometimes Christians lose enthusiasm for the faith and even the Lord Jesus himself.
What does your church do to keep your members effective in witnessing? Do you encourage them to keep non-Christian friends or make new ones? I am sure you love to have Christians serve in your church. But do they serve to the exclusion of making contacts with non-Christians? Are they just too busy on churchy things? Do you conduct activities that help your members have a close walk with the Lord and not let their hearts grow cold?
3. Believe the Right Things
How contagious are your enthusiasts? Infectiousness is the personal R number of a Christian (conversion potential in the model, figure 1 ). How can it be made higher? Motivation is key. How motivated are your church members to make new converts and new enthusiasts? Motivation comes out of theology – what you believe about God and salvation.
Ask yourselves, why do you want your church to grow? Why do you want to see people become Christians? Is it to save your church from extinction? Perhaps, it is to make the church feel better? Or is it to give your new converts a better lifestyle and a more satisfying life? I have heard all these in sermons in church! And none are wrong, as such. But on their own, they are not the motivation to make converts. Other organisations can do these things, they are not exclusive to a church.
Christianity is about eternal things – heaven and hell – salvation. The Christians most motivated in seeking converts see conversion as salvation from eternal misery and to a secure place in heaven through faith in Christ. It is not just the change of eternal destiny, but the personal knowledge of Jesus now that they will enjoy even more in the future eternal state. Such Christians are driven by compassion that has an eternal perspective. Of course, there is compassion for more immediate, temporal needs, such as the damage sin causes now. But the greatest evangelistic motivation comes when Christians are aware of people’s eternal destiny. How much does your church emphasise eternal things, judgement, the life of the world to come, and knowing Christ?
There is a potential danger for churches that implement evangelistic and church growth strategies. Commitment to the strategy may eclipse compassion for the lost. Church members can quickly feel that they are part of a “church agenda” rather than someone motivated by the eternal state of a lost human being. A recent article in Evangelicals Now explains how church members can become “exhausted by lofty strategic plans, vision statements and absurd numerical goals” . No! The motivation must be compassion for lost sinners. Believe the right things
4. Holy Spirit
We are building a church, not a political party or a club. What is the difference? Only the church involves the Holy Spirit! It is the Holy Spirit who builds the church, and he does it through making enthusiasts. The Spirit gives the power to witness (contained in conversion potential in the model, figure 1). But what does that mean? He gives the believer assurance of their own salvation and standing with God that gives them the confidence to share the message of Jesus. Enthusiasts have a Spirit-given boldness based on their own certainty of the central truths of Christianity, that the Christian life works, and that they know Christ whom they are commending to others . Does your church emphasise the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives? Does it encourage believers to seek a spirit-given assurance of salvation?
Nobody becomes a Christian without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. You might think this would discourage people from being enthusiasts as we cannot “convert” anybody! But I think knowing that conversion is a sovereign work of God encourages us to witness and seek converts. Knowing it is all in God’s hands means we have nothing to lose by telling people the good news. Do your church members understand the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion?
It stands to reason that, for enthusiasts to produce converts, they need to have contacts with non-Christians (contained in conversion potential in the model, figure 1). Infected people who only meet with infected people will infect no one, however contagious they are! It is the same with Christians. Where do you mix with people who are not Christians? What are you committed to for the long term where you can make meaningful friendships with non-Christians? Work is a great place to do this for many people. But to affect your church’s growth, these relationships are needed in the catchment area of your church, which may not be the workplace. It is not a question of abandoning church life to make non-Christian friends. It is not one or the other but both.
But won’t most non-Christian friends never show interest in Christ? Maybe, but the purpose of making friends is also to make friends! Friends are a good thing, even if they show no interest in Christ. But Jesus talks about seeking out the person of peace when he instructed the seventy two to travel out on mission (Luke 10:1-12). This is the person who flags interest in the things of God through their hospitality towards you. The same principle can apply to that one person who treats you with respect because they know you are a Christian. These are the ones in whom you invest your time. God does the rest. Are you seeking persons of peace?
The original church growth model, figure 2, assumed that the primary source of enthusiasts comes from new converts. This makes sense as new converts often have more non-Christian contacts than those in church. But enthusiasts can be made from existing Christians, a process I like to call renewal. Figure 3 shows renewal as a flow from inactive believers to enthusiasts. This addition to the model can kick-start growth in an otherwise declining church.
In times of revival, the first people moved by the Spirit are often existing believers. They are renewed in their love for Christ, assurance of their own salvation, and desire to see converts. Further, a church can intentionally choose to renew its members through teaching, training and directing them to Christ. Are you seeking renewal in your church ? Are you encouraging Christians to become enthusiasts?
The above ideas and policies, call them what you will, could all help generate more enthusiasts or make existing ones more effective. No single one is the panacea for reversing church decline. There is no such thing. Hopefully, they will make you think and help you breed ideas of your own.
I have two other areas I need to explore with respect to saving a church:
- How does group solidary affect the reproduction of enthusiasts?
- How can a denomination empower the local congregation to generate enthusiasts?
I will look at these in subsequent posts.
References and Notes
 The limited enthusiasm model is explained in more detail on the web page Limited Enthusiasm Conversion model. For a long read, see my first published paper Mathematical Modeling of Church Growth, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 23(4), 255-292, 1999. The updated version is the best to read. Then you can skip the maths!
 This is not strictly true. It was not you who made the convert. You made the contact and talked about Jesus with them, but it was God who made them Christians. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow 1 Cor 3:6.
 Matthew 28:19-20. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
 The R number, or the reproduction potential to give it its proper name in this model, is the conversion potential multiplied by the fraction made enthusiast. It measures how effective a Christian is in making enthusiasts, not just believers.
 Matt Paterson. There’s an unchecked disease in our churches: ‘visionary dreaming’. Evangelicals Now, September 2022.
 I would see this supernatural assurance as the primary benefit of what the Bible calls Baptism with the Holy Spirit. In this view, I follow Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. See his book Joy Unspeakable and listen to his many sermons on this subject and revival, MLJ Recordings Trust. I originally constructed the limited enthusiasm model to describe church growth during revival and saw enthusiasts as the revived or Spirit-baptised Christians. I say that assurance is the primary benefit of “the baptism”. There are other effects, including the felt presence of God and gifts of the Spirit, but it is the assurance of salvation that motivates the believer to make converts.
 The name “renewal” is often associated with charismatic renewal. I saw this movement flourish in the 1980s and 90s. Although the emphasis was on spiritual gifts, healing and being released in worship, I noticed that many such renewed Christians became very effective at spreading the Gospel. For that reason, I borrowed the name renewal to describe the process of making enthusiasts out of Christians.