Application of the Limited Enthusiasm Model with Demographics, Written in 2013.

Attendance data for the Church of England from 2001 to 2011 was fitted to the Limited Enthusiasm Model of Church Growth. It was found that although the church is slowly declining, the most likely scenario is that it will avoid extinction and start growing again around 2035. The enthusiasts in the church, those responsible for the growth should start increasing around 2020. Although church attendance will stabilise, it will be well below current levels. The church has some work to do in conversion and retention if it is to see the revival-type growth needed to regain its impact on society

Attendance 2001-2011

In May 2013 the Church of England published its attendance figures from 2001 up to 2011, Statistics for Mission 2011. The figures showed a steady decline but without the decline accelerating. In some years the decline has got smaller. There are figures for Sunday attendance only and for Sunday and weekday attendance combined. The latter is used in the data fitting below as weekday meetings have become better attended with the spread of Sunday trading and the church’s age profile.

The church quotes highest, average and lowest figures. The average has been used. Because the Limited Enthusiasm model is interpreting changes over time, it is not critical which of the three data sets are used, providing they have been consistently measured each year.


Methodology

The data was compared with the Limited Enthusiasm with Demographics model, which assumes growth is driven by a subclass of church members called enthusiasts who eventually lose their potential to reproduce themselves through the conversion of unbelievers.

A best-fit between model and data gave a value for the reproduction potential and the two thresholds of extinction and revival growth. Many such “best-fits” were obtained for a variety of initial values of enthusiasts and hardened unbelievers, as these cannot be measured. From that range of “best-fits”, the number with extinction was compared with the number indicating survival.

Other parameters are determined as follows:

  • Birth and death rates were taken from figures published by the Office for National Statistics. Migration was added to the birth rate. Average figures are taken.
  • The reversion rate was estimated at 5% per year, typical of figures that were obtained by fitting data to a variety of churches (see A General Model of Church Growth and Decline). It should be noted that small variations in this figure have little effect on the likelihood of extinction or survival.
  • Retention of children born to church members was taken as 30%. This figure is based on religious transmission rates for Christianity given as a comparison with Islam in “Intergenerational Transmission of Islam in England and Wales: Evidence from the Citizenship Survey”, Scourfield J., Taylor C., Moore G., and Gilliat-Ray S., Sociology, 46(1): 91-108.
  • The average time taken for a leaver to be open to returning to church again was estimated at 20 years, using a past survey. The survey showed that only 20% of church leavers return to church after an average of 10 years. See Brierley, The Tide is Running Out.

Results

The majority of best-fits, 66%, indicate that the church will avoid extinction. However, there is no clear sign that there is any underlying revival growth. The most likely scenario is that the Church of England will survive, but at a significantly reduced level.

A pessimistic data fit, where the Church of England eventually becomes extinct, can be compared with an optimistic one, where the church survives. Figure 1 compares two such fits with the data. There is little to choose between them based on the data from 2001 to 2011. However, extrapolating from 2012 onwards the optimistic scenario shows increasing signs of a slow down in decline. The predicted difference by 2020 is significant.

Figure 1: Best Fit to Church of England Attendance 2001-2011

Based on attendance figures alone, it is not possible to distinguish between the pessimistic and optimistic fits. A clearer conclusion could be obtained if additional information were obtained, such as the number of enthusiasts, which would be very difficult to measure. However, evidence for the effect of enthusiasts, such as increasing use of the Alpha course, community engagement, prayer meetings, church planting etc. might be easier to obtain, and would help give more confidence in one scenario over the other.

The two scenarios can be extrapolated further into the future, assuming enthusiasts remain at the same effectiveness. The top graph in figure 2 gives church attendance. The pessimistic fit shows decline at the same rate to almost 2040. However, the optimistic fit suggests the church starts growing again after 2035. This effect is due to a recovery in enthusiasts, as seen in the bottom graph of figure 2. In the optimistic scenario, the enthusiasts start increasing again, nationally, after 2020. This resurgence of enthusiasts is enough for the church to avoid extinction and keep its attendance above 800,000. However, it is not enough for the church to return to the 2001 figure.

Figure 2: Church of England Attendance & Enthusiasts Extrapolated to 2040

As optimistic scenarios were the more common of the data fits, then there is some confidence that the Church of England may not be declining so much as to become extinct and will see a small recovery in the next 20 years.


Conditions

There are a number of conditions that must be applied to this result.

  1. The church has an increasingly older age profile than society. Thus, the death rate of its attenders will increase over time. It follows that recovery would take longer.
  2. The model aggregates together congregations that are dying through aging, perhaps the majority, with a smaller number of congregations that are growing and healthy. These latter congregations are where most of the enthusiasts are based. In that case, the underlying growth in enthusiasts would be underestimated, and the reproduction potential of the enthusiasts should be higher. Thus, the church would be more likely to see a future recovery. Such a recovery would involve churches with enthusiasts re-starting congregations in redundant parishes so that new pools of unbelievers can be tapped.
  3. The birth rate has been assumed to remain constant. It has increased recently in the UK, and this may make future growth in the church a little easier.
  4. Migration has been assumed constant. Migration has had a large impact on Pentecostal and independent churches in London, but it is doubtful if it has had much impact on the Church of England nationally. Migration may fall in the future; there again, it may increase.

An update for 2012 data shows no change in the above analysis. A downward revision of the number leaving has forced a downward revision of the number of conversions, thus making extinction more likely, though slower. Discussed in the Blog.