The Churches’ R-Number – Part Two

In August I wrote a blog about the Church R-Number and how the faith is (not) spreading.

Last month Opinionated Vicar wrote an excellent blog about the stats from the Church of England saying “This is a catastrophic decline. The Church of England now is where the Methodists were a few years ago”.

The first sentence is true, but I don’t think the second one is[1].

If you look at the graph of the decadal R-Number[2] for the last 20 years at the top of this blog, you will see 3 lines.

The thick red line is an R number of 1, the number needed to stop a church from shrinking.

The thinner blue line is the Anglican decadal R number, which shows that the Church of England has been shrinking during this period at between 10 and 15% a decade, in quite a narrow band.

The Methodists have the green line, which is always below the blue Anglican line, and the gap has been widening.

The variance between the two lines is significant. Both denominations are fishing from the same pool, and both denominations are failing, but the relentless power of the R-Number leads to such a cumulative difference, that if the Methodists could have been as effective as the Anglicans since the year 2000, their denomination would now be 50% larger than it is[3].

It may come as a surprise to the Anglicans that their performance could be seen as comparatively impressive[4], but how has the Church of England been so much more fruitful than the Methodist Church in the last 20 years?

It’s not miscounting[5], and it’s not that the Methodist cohort is just older than the Anglican cohort[6].

It’s probably a combination of factors, and I’m hoping that readers of this blog might suggest some more, but I’ve come up with 3.

  1. Suffer the little children. I’ve never seen Church Schools as being particularly effective at forming faith, but when presented with new facts, opinions have to change. Methodists have few schools, Anglicans have many, and maybe this marks a difference?
  2. Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. The Anglican Parish has a Clearer Identity than the Methodist Circuit. The Church of England as a whole is diverse, but each individual Parish has a particular flavour. You know when you go each week whether you will have a Mass, or a Preaching Service, or BCP or a Charismatic Celebration, or whatever. When you go to the Methodist Chapel there can be a less consistent style and theology as you may have a different preacher each week[7]. Those who attend often say they enjoy the variety, but as a mission strategy it would appear to be unproductive.
  3. Whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. The Church of England spreads its resources more effectively. Methodists manage shortages of staff by sharing the load in the Circuit. Anglicans have interregnums without a vicar, during which there is often decline. However, not all are equal, and some Parishes which are “difficult to fill” wait a long time, whereas others seem to have consistently short interregnums. Exciting, vibrant, growing churches attract staff quickly – others don’t. The Methodist system may well be fairer in that everybody gets the same, but the Anglican system is more effective in that resources can go to growing churches. If you abolished the Parish Share, it could be even more so.

Those three are my main contentions, but I admit the difference could well be found elsewhere – perhaps the vestments, Bishops, Canon Law, Establishment, Prayer Books and all the other things I have Harumphed about from my Low Chapel seat for many years? In the unlikely event this is the case we should have more of them[8]!

Despite both churches declining, this divergence is potentially good news. If decline were inevitable as an Atheist narrative would suggest, then both denominations would be disappearing at a similar terminal rate. The difference in performance shows that there must be some things the Church of England is doing more effectively than the Methodists.

If we can work out what those good things are, and do more of them, and at the same time stop doing the things that the Methodists are finding so ineffective, then there is no logical reason why both denominations should not grow.

We have nothing to lose in trying.

Over to you, dear reader……

[1] The Methodist Church line and the Anglican line seem to be independent from each other.

[2] Basically, how big is the church compared to 10 years ago. So if the church today is 90% the size it was in 2010, then the decadal R-Number is 0.9. Just like Coronavirus, an R-Number great than 1 is growth, less than 1 is decline. Read the previous blog for details.

[3] 255566 instead of 169377. I’m comparing Methodist Membership figures to Anglican Adult Attendance Figures. Unfortunately, Methodist Attendance data is poorly recorded. They don’t separate out adult attendance until 2004, and then rather than give the figures, they give percentage differences. By 2007 it comes clearer, then in 2017 they put children and adult attendance back together again. When I use the figures for Methodist All-Age attendance for the two decades, instead of a 50% difference it makes an even worse 80% difference, but that includes a steeper decline in the number of children present. When I try to sieve out the children’s figures as best I can, I get about 50% again. I don’t think there’s evidence that there is a significant change in the attendance to membership ratio. If you fancy a go yourself, all the data is here  and here

[4] As Opinionated Vicar notes they are still declining catastrophically, but everything’s relative

[5] To produce these stats, the count would have to overestimate numbers by an increasing proportion every year. I can understand a vicar seeing 90 people and saying that’s about 100, but over the next decades they would have to see 40 people and say that’s about 80.

[6] If it were, that would just take the question back a step to ask “Why does the Church of England have younger members than the Methodists?”

[7] If you say there’s consistency because they’re following the Lectionary, that’s missing the point.

[8] It’s always possible I suppose, but I would assert that if your answer is “More Bishops” you’re surely asking the wrong question…….

The Church R-Number

During the Coronavirus pandemic there has been a lot of discussion of the “R” number, the Reproduction Number.

The Government helpfully explain that if R is 2, on average, each infected person infects 2 more people. If R is 0.5 then on average for each 2 infected people, there will be only 1 new infection. If R is greater than 1 the epidemic is growing, if R is less than 1 the epidemic is shrinking[1].

Sociologists have often used the “touch” concept to look at church growth[2], because one of the key ways in which the church grows is by contact between those who believe and those who do not. If the church has an R number greater than 1 it will grow; if it has a number less than 1 it will shrink.

One of the big questions of history is how a tiny Jewish cult from Jerusalem took over the Roman Empire in less than 300 years. This was a remarkable achievement, but the compound effect of growth  means that the rate of increase involved was not so much explosive, as it was relentless. Sociologist Rodney Stark posits an R number of 1.4 a decade[3]. That would mean that a church of 10 would become a church of 14 over 10 years, which is certainly achievable. When this is done over and over again, you change the world.

The Early Church didn’t change the Empire overnight (explosive growth), but it did manage to keep its evangelistic outlook until it started running out of Romans to convert (relentless growth).

This unfortunately contrasts with the church of today in Britain, where the R number would appear to be well below 1.

I have used as an example the Methodist Church of Great Britain (because I have detailed figures), but other Mainstream Protestant denominations have very similar issues.[4]

The decadal R number has been less than 1 every year since 1934 – the year after Methodist Union –before that it had been growing again after the losses of the First World War.[5]

Remember that this chart represents not the size of the church, but the speed of its decline. The decadal R number may not be going down any further since it has reached about 0.68, but that is still the fastest rate that the Methodist Church has been declining – ever.

On a Micro level, that is a church of 10 becoming a church of 7 over a decade, which is sort of the opposite of the Early Church’s 10 becoming 14. It may not be instant collapse, but when it happens relentlessly, there is only one destination.

If it doesn’t get back above the red line, the church will disappear – the lower the chart goes, the faster that decline will be.

So what can we do?

Well I have written extensively on this in the past, but the short answer is “Absolutely Anything Different”. We might fear throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but the statistics show that the baby grew up and left years ago.

The “From Anecdote to Evidence” report of the Church of England from 2014 had this to say: “it is not so much the particular style of worship which is important, but rather the fact that it was chosen rather than inherited.”[6]

I would interpret this loosely as: if you have an R number of 0.68 in your congregation, then try absolutely anything else you can – you have nothing to lose.

Now I know there will be those clergy reading this Blog who will be thinking that it is easier said than done to make changes in midstream when there is so much inertia against you. I know. I have been there.

What could help, however, is if there was some uncontrollable outside event which shut down churches for say, a whole 6 months. In that unlikely event, might there be the opportunity to start again with something completely different?

There is no point in going back to the 0.68 so why not start again?




[4] I estimate the URC has an R number of 0.65, and the Baptist Union 0.83. Anglicanism is more problematic as there is a different concept of membership, but the Average Weekly Attendance (October Count) gives an R number of 0.86

[5] The real R figures are worse than these – for simplicity I have made no attempt to include population growth in my analysis – as a proportion of the population, Church Membership has declined even faster.

[6] page 30

The Gospel of Matthew and the Rio Olympics


Congratulations to Team GB who have achieved the best performance in 100 years. They have done this by adhering to Biblical principles.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of The Parable of the Talents. It’s about three men, two of whom use the talents they’ve been given and one of whom buries his. When the reckoning comes, the man who has failed to use his talent is punished, and his talent is given to one of the others.

Jesus says: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

This is exactly the strategy of UK Sport, which has funded sports which win medals, and has defunded those which don’t, leading to tremendous success in Rio.

You might think that Christians would follow the same principle, but unfortunately the institutional church up until now has set up a system which rewards mediocrity, a formula described as “perverse”.

Some have argued that for Christians, there are better ways to spend money than on Olympic Gold.

That’s true, but there’s a lot for us to learn from their success in particular the words of Liz Nicholl, the Chief Executive of UK Sport: ‘[We have] a “no compromise” philosophy. We will not do any of the “nice to dos”. We won’t tolerate distraction from our core mission’.

Shouldn’t the Church have the same philosophy?

Team GB have spent the money on making marginal gains, improving equipment, training and diet bit by bit, to produce huge improvements overall. They then do it all over again, in order to stay ahead.

My guess is that most churches could make marginal gains in their buildings, music and organisation in order to improve. Unfortunately too many churches choose not to do this because they prefer not to change, which is the equivalent of doing nothing, and somehow hoping to win a gold medal.

St Paul wrote: Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.

Making disciples is far more important than winning races yet it would appear that UK Sport is more biblically astute about being distracted from its core mission than the Mainstream Church.

What do you think? And don’t forget that the man who buried his talent no doubt thought that it was important to be faithful rather than to be successful……..

In Praise of Younger Ministers

I recently attended an event where a number of young ministers were accepted for training. I found the whole event inspiring and encouraging. It gave me hope for the Church of the future.

Looking at their youthfulness, brought to mind the often heard, but factually unfounded idea that younger ministers “should go away and spend some time in the real world” before they work for the church.

The overtly negative effect of this is to cut the number of years that a minister will serve, (if they come back at all), reducing the amount of ministry available to the Church.

But I’m more concerned with the mistaken attitudes underlying the idea. Here are eight hidden assumptions which show why the statement is so damaging.

  1. It assumes that the Bible is wrong. Paul tells Timothy Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. I expect he could have said something different if he wanted to. David, Gideon, Samuel and Mary were all young when called by God. If you’re called by God, you’re old enough.
  2. It assumes the atheist worldview that the Church isn’t the real world. If Christianity is true, then the Church is involved in the new reality of eternity, and it is the secular world which is trivially trying to increase quarterly widget sales by improving Search Engine Optimisation. If Christianity is false, then we don’t need ministers anyway.
  3. It assumes that older people are the norm. If it were suggested that black ministers should be more white, or that women ministers should be more male, there would quite rightly be outrage. So why is it OK to suggest that we only want older people to lead the Church?
  4. It assumes that what the mainstream Church needs is a “safe pair of hands”. I would assert that the last thing the Church needs now is a safe pair of hands, any more than people on the Titanic needed somebody to assure them that if they stayed where they were, everything would work out alright. What the Church needs now is holy risk takers, entrepreneurs, leaders ready to change the world. Andy Stanley, the founder of Northpoint, said that when he started, all the clever people knew that what he was trying to do was impossible. He was too naïve to realise. The result? The largest church in America.
  5. It assumes that the mainstream Church knows better than everybody else, and other vocations have got it all wrong. Young doctors, police officers or teachers aren’t told that they should go away and get more experience. Do we think their professional bodies are mistaken? If the Church was doing spectacularly well then such hubris might be justifiable, but it doesn’t seem to be working.
  6. It assumes that we have nothing to learn from people younger than ourselves (which in Church terms is most of the general population).
  7. It assumes that younger people can wait until they are old in order to have role models. Could it be that the shortage of people in their twenties in the pews which the mainstream Church laments as the Missing Generation, is caused by the Church’s previous deliberate policy of restricting people in their twenties from the pulpit?
  8. It really assumes that the Church is just for old people and that young people should keep quiet and wait their turn. This assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There’s nothing wrong with a Gap Year, but what the Church needs now is leadership from the next generation.

What do you think?

On the sacking of Mr Gary Neville

nevilleGary Neville has been sacked by Valencia. This now seems inevitable: football, like church, is a results game, and failure to perform cannot continue for ever.

Questions are being asked about whether he can return as a pundit for Sky TV and how he is going to talk about tactics, having failed in Spain.

Yet that’s a bit unfair – it might just be that nobody could have succeeded at Valencia with their infamously demanding fans.

In the English Premier League, Aston Villa have been terrible this year and have just sacked their manager. But even if they had a world class manager like José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola or Neil Warnock, they would still be going down, because of bad decisions made again and again over many years. Villa could play 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or even a Double Diamond formation with Catenaccio and a false number 9, yet because their players just aren’t good enough, there would be no difference.

I’ve spoken before about how if the Mainstream Church was a football team, there would be people outside singing “Sack the Board” because of the relegation standard performance over many years. But should they want to sack the manager/preacher?

There’s a similar idea that if you just get a new person in, they’ll be able to fix what the previous one couldn’t. If you just get the right person, then everything else will follow. Unfortunately it isn’t true, especially if there are fundamental underlying problems which need to be confronted.

Today a friend of mine posted the text below on her wall.

jamespaul It is a standard Protestant idea, that if the preaching is right, everything else will follow. Just Preach the Gospel is all you need to do. The corollary to this, is that if the church is declining, then there must be something wrong with the preaching.

I’ve preached in growing churches and declining churches, and I can assure you, I used the same sermons.

There are some congregations who would listen impassively, even if Billy Graham was their minister.

Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance which inoculates against the gospel, and to admit that the new person might not be able to fix the unfixable. Perhaps we should try a different approach? It might not work, but it could hardly be worse……..

On the Appointment of Mr Rafael Benitez

The big news round here this weekend is the appointment of Rafa Benitez as manager of Newcastle United, the troubled football club.

Rafa has won most of the major club competitions including the Champions’ League in 2005, and started this year as manager of Real Madrid.

How have Newcastle United been doing? Recently they have hit hard times and have had 4 managers in the last 15 months. The most recent incumbent, former England manager Steve McClaren had presided over a terrible run of form and has been fired. Taking on Rafa was a bold (and expensive) move, but it was clear that the present structure was not working; it was time for something new.

So let’s ask a different question: how’s the Church been doing?

If the Mainstream Church in England was a football team, it would be doing even worse than Newcastle United. It would have suffered serial relegations over the last 50 years. There would be fans outside demonstrating, chanting “Sack the Board”. It would be clear that the present structure was not working; it would be time for something new.

So is the church looking for a new direction?

Apparently, Church Contemporary Music is on the way out. Now I don’t see any evidence for this, but if it is true, then maybe we should try Rap, or Bluegrass or Electronic? If it’s not working, then surely the answer is to go for something new?

Yet bizarrely, in blog after blog after blog I read that the answer for the church is to go back to singing the hymns of the Eighteenth Century.

In all the heartache and desire for change at Newcastle, nobody has suggested going back to the managers who have failed in the past. In fact, of the 12 different people who have managed Newcastle over the last 10 years only one was a returnee, Kevin Keegan, and that ended in tears.

So why do people see the answer to church decline as being a return to that which we know has failed?

My experience of working in the mainstream church, is that it felt as if I was pushing out from inside a rubber balloon. As long as I kept pushing, things would change, but as soon as I stopped, it would all snap back to what it was. There was an inherent tendency in the system to return to singing the old songs.

This is the football equivalent of the return of John Carver – which nobody wants.

What do you think?

PS My tip is that Sunderland will stay up, and Newcastle will join the unable to score Norwich City and the dismal Aston Villa in the Championship next year.