Results of the Limited Enthusiasm Model

Principles can be established for the dynamics of church growth during revival using the limited enthusiasm conversion model:

  1. Limited extent of revival growth.
  2. Threshold of revival growth.
  3. Quality, not quantity, of enthusiasts, determines growth.
  4. Revivals start slow.
  5. Enthusiasts as an indicator of future growth.

The term “revival growth” refers to a rapid exponential growth in the number of churchgoers and enthusiasts. It is similar to the epidemic phase of the spread of a disease.

Applications to the 1904/5 Welsh revival and the 1970s Nagaland revival, India.

Limited Extent of Church Growth

Not all of the population is converted as a result of the revival. This may not come as a surprise, but this failure to convert every person is not the result of spiritual resistance in the unbelievers. It comes because not all the unbelievers have been contacted and ultimately converted before the revival has burned out. The revival hasn’t stopped because of the lack of unbelievers but because there was insufficient enthusiasm (reproduction potential) in the enthusiasts to sustain the revival as the number of unbelievers (and hence contacts) fell.

A revival will certainly cease if God withdraws his blessing, maybe because of sin in his people. However, this is not necessarily the reason why revival ends. It may have ceased because it did not have sufficient momentum in the first place to reach the dwindling pool of unbelievers. To counter this dynamical reason for revivals ceasing, those active in contacting unbelievers, the enthusiasts, need to increase their contact with unbelievers rather than spend time with existing believers or new converts. Do not tie gifted evangelisers up with work that does not bring them into contact with new unbelievers!

Threshold of Revival Growth

If the fraction of unbelievers in a society exceeds a threshold determined by the reproduction potential, then revival growth will occur. The more effective the enthusiasts, the higher their reproduction potential, i.e. their ability to reproduce themselves from converts, thus the lower the threshold and, therefore, the lower the fraction of unbelievers required in society for revival growth to occur. Expressed as a formula:

Fraction of Unbelievers > Threshold = 1 / (Reproduction Potential)

For example, let the church make up 20% of society; thus, 80% of society are unbelievers. If the enthusiasts had a reproduction potential of 1.2, then the revival growth threshold would be 1/1.2 = 0.83. The fraction of unbelievers is not over the threshold, 0.8<0.83, thus no revival growth.

However, if the enthusiasts could be more effective in reproducing themselves, e.g., with a reproduction potential of 1.3, then the threshold drops to 0.76. The fraction of unbelievers exceeds the threshold 0.8>0.76, and revival growth results. Growth slows once the fraction of unbelievers falls below the threshold. The threshold is also called a tipping point.

When the threshold is exceeded, the growth follows the pattern figure 1:

Figure 1

While the number of enthusiasts is increasing, church growth is near exponential. The dominant force is conversion. Once the peak in enthusiasts passes, church growth slows. The dominant force is now the difficulty in contacting unbelievers, who have become a smaller population.

Note the following:

  • The reproduction potential depends on the potential number of converts and the fraction of those converts who become enthusiasts after their conversion. Thus, revival can be made more likely by increasing the number of converts or by ensuring that more converts become enthusiasts, e.g., through good discipleship.
  • The higher the proportion of society in church, the smaller the proportion of unbelievers, thus the harder it is to achieve revival growth. That is, enthusiasts must be more effective when the church is larger to see such growth.

Quality, not Quantity, of Enthusiasts Determines Growth

The threshold of revival-type growth does not depend on the number of enthusiasts. However small the number of enthusiasts, provided their enthusiasm stays fixed, then growth will occur eventually. It just takes longer to do so. Thus, revival can start with a small number of enthusiasts, provided their reproduction potential (enthusiasm) is high enough. This is similar to the situation with a disease, where one infected person is enough for an epidemic to start, provided they are not isolated. Thus, there is no threshold number of enthusiasts if the above conditions are fulfilled.

It follows that revivals can start with a very small number of believers. An example is the Welsh revival of 1904-5, which began in West Wales in a small youth group. Another example is the revival of 1858 in the USA, which started with one person in New York.

Exceptions to the above rule occur if some of the enthusiasts are made through existing inactive believers, a renewal process, or if the effectiveness of the enthusiasts varies over time. See Growth Through Renewal, and Growth Through Spiritual Life.

Revivals Start Slow

The growth of church numbers, members, or attendance follows an S-shaped curve, typical of the type of growth seen in revivals (or in the spread of disease, for that matter). A point comes when the growth of the church explodes because there are so many enthusiasts spreading the faith and making new enthusiasts.

The bulk of the conversions occur in the middle period of the growth.

Thus, early on in the growth, there are few contacts and hence few conversions because the percentage of unbelievers is so small. Therefore, revivals often have a slow start, especially if the church is a small proportion of society. Because growth is the main factor through which revivals are first noticed, it can mean that a revival can be underway some time before it comes to the attention of the population at large.

Enthusiasts as an Indicator of Future Growth

The peak in the number of enthusiasts in the church occurs when only half the growth has taken place. Thus, measures of church growth alone may mask the fact that the means of growth are already waning. Knowledge of the number of enthusiasts may give advance warning that action is needed to sustain growth and perhaps stem any future decline.

The peak in the percentage of enthusiasts occurs before the halfway point in the church’s growth (the vertical line in figure 2). If the number of enthusiasts is reflected in the enthusiastic “feel” of the church, then the church may give the impression of its life tailing off even though many of the conversions are still to come. Thus, churches should not give up just because the life of the revival has passed its peak but reap the fruit of that life.

Figure 2