Theology, ethics, and church growth: or, how to prove anything with statistics
There’s an old story about a journalist, a normal person, and an academic, together on a train crossing the border into Scotland and seeing a black sheep. ‘Oh,’ says the journalist, ‘sheep in Scotland are black!’
‘Come on now,’ says the normal person, ‘all we can say is one sheep in Scotland is black.’
‘Actually,’ says the academic, ‘all we can say with any certainty is that one side of one sheep in Scotland is black.’
It is an important part of the role of the academic, particularly the academic who chooses to comment in non-specialist arenas, to be very clear about precisely what is, and what is not, shown by a given piece of evidence. I picked up on a minor Twitter storm yesterday concerning claims and counter-claims about the linkage of church decline with a progressive/accepting stance on issues of sexuality. It began with various people tweeting an article from The Federalist which argued that (a) every American denomination which had adopted a progressive sexual ethic is in serious numerical decline and (b) that a step-change in the rate of decline at the point of the adoption of the policy was visible; at the same time, (c) denominations which had remained conservative on the issue were either still growing or only declining very slowly. Others responded, in particular pointing to the Church of England’s report From Anecdote to Evidence (2013; here as pdf), which found no significant statistical correlation between ‘theological tradition’ and church growth or decline. This led some to claim, in the words of one tweeter, that the Federalist article was ‘false’.
What can we say about this?
1. The Federalist would not be my go-to source for good academic evidence (or for much else, to be honest), but Griswold’s article linked transparently to the various denominations’ own published statistics; and there is no doubt that they do show the movements he claims they do. This is good data. That said, Griswold’s interpretation of it, whilst factually correct, invites misunderstanding. It is the case – as, to be fair, he highlights – that a change of policy on the issue of sexuality has been a trigger for conservative congregations (and even dioceses) to leave denominations in the USA (and in the UK, indeed); the step-change effect he describes can, I suspect (the data is not there to do the analysis), be entirely explained by this dynamic, which is rather uninteresting (in that a congregation/diocese leaving a denomination but continuing to exist is not church decline in any meaningful sense). The broader trend data seems more telling: conservative denominations are growing, or shrinking slowly; progressive/affirming denominations shrinking rapidly – but this pattern predates the decision to become progressive/affirming, which suggests that this decision itself is not decisive, but rather is indicative of a broader attitude which is the real correlate.
2. From Anecdote to Evidence unfortunately gives us no data; it states (quoting the section in full)
Finally there are some factors which do not appear in research terms to make a significant difference to growth or decline. These include:
> Theological tradition
> The gender, ethnicity or marital status of leader
This is, it is fair to say, singularly uninformative; interestingly it also looks to be wrong: whilst the dataset is not published, some of the analysis is (pdf here), which indicates (p. 92) that three questions were asked about ‘theological orientation’, all offering a scale of 1-7: ‘Catholic – Evangelical’; ‘Liberal – Conservative’; and ‘Charismatic – non-charismatic’. On the third there, was a small but statistically significant correlation between objective growth and being (or self-denominating as) charismatic; the data suggests that the more charismatic a church believes itself to be, the higher its growth. There is a significant correlation between theological tradition and church growth on this question, at least.
A couple of things are worth saying here: first, the dataset looks large (n=1703), representative, and robust. Second, the theological categories are rather crude (and in the case of the first possibly meaningless; it is at least not clear that ‘evangelical’ and ‘catholic’ represent two poles of a spectrum, although I do accept that within the peculiar context of the Church of England there is a fairly recent historical tradition of thinking that they do). Third, even if the data suggests that more charismatic churches grow more rapidly than less charismatic churches, that says nothing to us about sexuality.
What of the comparison of the two sets of data? It is, essentially, meaningless. Partly this is because it is comparing US with UK data; more pertinently though, Griswold’s piece is about denominations; the Anecdote to Evidence data concerns parishes. The data is just not interestingly comparable. (And the Anecdote to Evidence dataset has no data at all about attitudes to sexuality; at best cautious extrapolations might be made.)
There is other data, however, that perhaps overlaps both these sets, notably the Christian Research analysis of the Church Census data between 1979 and 2005 (some datasets are online here; analysis is in published volumes). This has consistently suggested that local church self-denomination as ‘evangelical’ and ‘charismatic’ both correlate with growth (or with slower rates of decline, which in terms of correlation is the same thing). It may be that trends have changed since 2005; it may be that a general church pattern is not visible in the Church of England (although this seems unlikely, given relative numbers); it may be that the fact that the measures of growth used are different - Anecdote to Evidence is more sophisticated – offers an explanation; it may be that one of the studies just got a biased sample; it happens. One way or another, though, the data is conflicted.
If we move beyond the (Anglican) parish, although (as far as I know) no statistical analysis has been done, Griswold’s broader analysis would seem to apply fairly straightforwardly to the Protestant churches in the UK: Black majority churches are growing astonishingly fast; Pentecostal denominations are generally growing; new charismatic denominations are generally growing; Baptists and non-charismatic conservative Protestant churches are growing slightly, holding their own, or shrinking slightly; Methodism, mainline Scottish Presbyterianism, and the URC are all shrinking at varying degrees of ‘rapidly’. Plotting this against a conservative – liberal axis looks fairly simple and fairly telling at first sight. Where the Church of England, which is endlessly odd, fits into this sort of analysis, I don’t pretend to understand; but even if it is a (moderately large) anomaly, the pattern seems secure.
I find most such analyses essentially uninteresting, or even positively distracting: our call is primarily to faithfulness, not to numerical growth. If I became convinced through sound moral reasoning that we should adopt an accepting/progressive position on same-sex relationships, I would push for that, even if I knew it would lead to a loss in membership; whilst I remain convinced that the best moral reasoning does not lead us to this position, I will hold the ‘conservative’ line, even if it leads to a loss in numbers. That said, on the back of my analysis above, my plea to both sides is simple: if we have to play these statistical games, could we please at least play them well?