Results of the Institutional Model

As a church denomination grows, so does institutionalism. Institutionalism reduces recruitment/conversion, leading to the church decline to extinction. Institutionalism needs to be combated to prevent decline continuing and return to growth.

Institutional Lifecycle & Church Decline

Consider a small church denomination with no institutionalism and an annual recruitment rate of 8%, well in excess of its loss rate of 3%. The initial church numbers are normalised to 1. It is given a very low rate of combatting institutionalism.

The church grows exponentially with a corresponding, though delayed, growth in institutionalism, figure 1. Church growth starts slowing (inflexion point) after 35 years, whereas institutionalism continues to accelerate until about 50 years. Church peaks at 65 years, around 10 times its original value, and then starts to decline. However, institutionalism continues to grow until the year 140. This long delay is because the church takes no action to combat institutionalism and relies on the very weak natural attempts to reduce it. Institutionalism declines too slowly to prevent church extinction.

Figure 1: Church Growth with Decline Caused by Institutionalism

In reality, the decline in the church will be straighter, and extinction earlier, due to the aging process.

A comparison of the recruitment (add to church) and leaving flows, shows the rapid decline in recruitment from year 50 due to pressures to service the needs of the institution, figure 2. Recruitment declines faster than the leaving rate, thus decline, and extinction, are inevitable.

Figure 2: Comparison of Recruitment and Leaving Rates in the Church

This pattern of growth and decline can be seen in many pre-1900 UK and USA denominations, e.g. the UK Methodist Church, figure 3. Although the timescale is longer, and the overall population grows over the period in the UK, it exhibits a similar growth and decline pattern to the model. Although institutionalism is not easily measured, it is known that over this period the Methodist church moved from a very flexible and lay oriented church to a parochial, building-centred church with a professional ministry with greater integration into society – traits of institutionalism.

Figure 3: Growth and Decline in a Typical UK Pre-1900 Denomination.

Combatting Institutionalism

It is most likely that a church will not combat institutionalism until numerical decline has been set in for some time. This is because the growing church will have seen increasing institutionalism as giving positive benefits, and even helping growth.

Compare three policies to combat institutionalism with the base case of no policy. The policies with increasing effect are called weak, medium, and strong. Such policies are introduced by the church denomination 20 years after decline has started as an attempt to deal with decline. Likewise, the policy will cease 20 years after growth has returned. It is likely that after 20 years, half a career, there would be a number of new church leaders that were not impacted by the crises of the previous decline and have less interest in reducing institutionalism.

The policy increases the parameter attempt to remove institutionalism. This is a “switching” form of feedback between the decline of the church and institutionalism.

The base run and the three policies are identical until decline has set in, figure 4. Churches often find external contextual explanations for decline before deciding it due to internal reasons. The weak policy (run 1) slows the decline but is not sufficient to give a return to growth. Eventually, the decline increases again.

Figure 4: The Effect on Church of Three Different Policies to Combat Institutionalism

The medium policy (run 3) has enough strength to turn church decline into growth. But discontinuing the policy returns the church to decline. The strong policy (run 4) gives a much faster return to growth and a higher peak. The oscillations are caused by the repeated discontinuing of the policy. If the policy is continued when growth returns, then the church numbers will stabilise at a level as high as the original peak with an even weaker policy than the ones in figure 4.

Note in all three policies, institutionalism does not drop particularly low. Church decline can be reversed without having to dismantle institutionalism completely.

Figure 5: The Effect on Institutionalism of Three Different Policies to Combat Institutionalism

A very strong policy, twice as strong as the strong one in run 3 figure 4, is shown in figure 6. Run 3 shows it is possible to combat institutionalism and produce higher future growth even if the policy is discontinued on growth. Although there is oscillation, the church can stay at a very high average level.

Figure 6: Policy to Combat Institutionalism That Gives Increased Growth

Strategies to Combat Institutionalism


Deal quickly with institutionalism when decline sets in. The longer the delay in dealing with institutional causes of decline, the less effective any policies will be, and they may not even reverse the decline, see figure 4.


Do not reduce policies to combat institutional causes of decline when growth returns. These policies should be seen as long-term strategies that are not modified just because growth returns. Otherwise, a growth and decline cycle may set in, a form of institutional boom and bust, figures 4 and 5.


Policies are needed to deregulate the way congregations operate. For example, a denomination could divide up into smaller groupings with different beliefs, such as liberal and conservative persuasions. Congregations would join the group they identify with the best, or go independent. The need to convert and save people should have a higher priority than the needs of the institution.

Allow congregations to pay for their own ministers and not have to send money into a central denominational pot. This increases ownership among the people who need to be involved in conversion activities. Let congregations 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 unhindered, with healthy competition driving up standards. Enthusiasts would be generated, conversions would follow. Without enthusiasts, the Christians who make converts who become enthusiasts, the church cannot either survive or fulfil the great commission. See the Limited Enthusiasm Model.