Church growth and decline in the UK 1: Are UK denominations headed for extinction?

John Hayward has recently attracted a lot of attention with a couple of blog posts that claimed (1) to predict the date of extinction of many UK denominations, and (2) that church decline in the UK was linked to denominations ‘embracing progressive ideology’.

His methods are interesting, and I am certainly not against such analysis; that said, I think (1) there are good reasons to believe that the ‘extinction dates’ are unfounded, and (2) there is no good reason to believe that there is any link between church decline and ‘progressive ideology’.

I will deal with (1) in this post; (2) in the next.

So, extinction dates:
John’s methodology is explained in detail on his website, but essentially likens the spread of Christianity to the spread of a disease: we are all now unhappily familiar with the ‘R number’ in epidemiology, and he proposes a similar model for church growth, with ‘conversion’ replacing ‘infection’ (and loss of faith or death replacing recovery): a church gaining more members than it is losing will grow, exponentially; a church losing more members than it is gaining will die, sooner or later.

John then proposes that the ‘infectivity’ of a church might be measured in terms of the proportion of its members who are ‘enthusiasts’—actively engaged in evangelism.

Finally, he uses standard church membership statistics to calculate the R numbers of various denominations, and uses this to extrapolate the future of those denominations, resulting in the ‘extinction dates’ he proposes.

Now, there are various comments I might make on this. A ‘clever-clever’ response might note that both the New Testament and common experience suggest that some people are just much more effective evangelists than others, and so we need an equivalent of the K number, not just the R number, and space in our account for super-spreaders. I think this is probably true, but (absent any suggestion that gifted evangelists are disproportionately gathered in particular denominations), I don’t think it invalidates John’s analysis.

Instead, I suspect that John makes the wrong analogy between epidemiology and ecclesiology. I suspect his mode of analysis would work quite well for particular congregations, but that it is misapplied to denominations.

There was a period in late 2020 when the R number of Covid-19 in the UK was definitely below 1, and so the disease seemed to be disappearing. We did not know at that point, however, that a mutation had appeared in Kent, the ‘Alpha variant’. The R number of Alpha was way above 1, and so it rapidly became the dominant variant, and resulted in the Christmas lockdown.

Suppose—on a longer timescale—that, as John calculates, the R number for the Church of England as a whole is presently around 0.95, and so the CoE is on his calculation destined for extinction in the early 2060s; now suppose that there is some factor—let us call it ‘Alpha’—that is present in a minority of parishes, but that causes those parishes to have an R number above 1. The prognosis for the CoE then is not extinction, but rapid growth of ‘Alpha parishes’, which might eventually transform England’s experience of Christmas, although not by lockdown.

I do not say this to laud the Alpha course—I think it is a good thing, but the conceit was based merely on the coincidence with the variant name. Rather, I simply want to suggest that growth and decline happens primarily in local congregations, not in national denominations. Of course, if every local congregation in a denomination is losing members, then the denomination is destined for extinction, and if every local congregation is gaining members, the denomination has a secure future in the short-term at least.

Consider, however, an imagined denomination, in Scotland, which presently has historic congregations covering the whole country, but in which the urban congregations are in rapid decline, whereas there is consistent growth in the congregations in rural areas, and on the islands. (I choose this example because I am fairly sure no denomination fits the pattern.)

Depending on the present balance between urban and rural congregations, it might be that the national R number for the denomination is well below one, and so, on John’s analysis, it is destined for extinction; a more granular analysis would suggest that it will survive in a changed form, a church on the margins, largely excluded from the Central Belt, but flourishing wherever the hills are high (& in Caithness…).

Every denomination I know has flourishing congregations and struggling congregations. This is true of the denominations that John’s national analysis show to be growing fast (Vineyard; RCCG), and of those it shows to be in rapid decline. John’s national-level analysis assumes that, in the latter cases, the struggling congregations will drag the flourishing minority down with them. There may be structural factors that encourage this (financial arrangements that redistribute money from flourishing congregations to struggling ones; patterns of ministry appointment; the attempt to maintain certain sorts of geographical presence, such as a parish system; …), but these will vary significantly from denomination to denomination, and will probably not be determinative in most cases.

If these arguments are correct, they do not disprove John’s method of analysis, so much as suggest that it be re-focused, from national to local expressions of church. In a given locality, we might be able to describe accurately the future fortunes of particular congregations, but any national account will depend on properly aggregating these local stories.

To take the world I know: John has UK Baptists facing extinction by the end of this century; it might of course happen; but my sense of the more granular picture argued for above is that the various UK Baptist denominations are struggling generally in rural and inner-city contexts, but more than holding their own in city centres, suburbia, and towns. Absent any fundamental change in the dynamics of the denominations, then, I do not see us as becoming extinct in the next decades, but rather as becoming more focused on particular sorts of locality.

Now, Baptists are less centralised than most denominations, and so probably less susceptible to national trends impacting local congregations. That said, in Scotland (the world I know), I think only the Church of Scotland, with its commitment to a parish system, is really vulnerable to dragging down its most resilient churches with the rest—and (if Fife is anything to go by) recent, albeit drastic, plans for reorganisation suggest that the Kirk understands the danger and is addressing it.

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