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

Radical Surgery or Slow Death?


I’m a radical surgery man myself, but the Church of England Newspaper poses the question for the church: “Radical Surgery or Slow Death?” in an article about attendance trends in Anglicanism.

The article asks why people are being selected to work in new contexts, and then trained to keep the old way of doing things on the road.

Its author, Captain Philip Johanson, wonders whether the Establishment is ready to change?

What do you think?

New Survey on Christianity in Scotland

There’s a new survey on Scottish Christianity that has just come out.

As Scotland changes from what they call “Legacy Christianity” (where many self-describing Christians don’t believe in central tenets of the faith) to a mixed post-Christendom society, they pick out several counter-trends within the overall data, particularly with younger people.

Check out the report summary.

Crowdmics app for Church

There’s a new app from Crowdmics which allows people at a conference to use their smartphones, instead of the embarrassing roving mic drop, or the radio mic with a life of its own.

You can see their demo here, or look at what the BBC said.

In these days when people want to interact, and prefer a guide on the side to a sage on the stage, perhaps this is the perfect app for church?

What do you think?

Lex cantori, non lex credendi

Recently I read this blog about The Glory of Historic Hymns. There didn’t seem to be an opportunity to reply and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with the article.

And then it hit me. The writer asserts that hymns teach us. He quotes R W Dale saying “Let me write the hymns of the church and I care not who writes the theology.”

We assume this is true, and I’ve even made that claim myself in the past, yet where is the evidence that hymns teach us theology?

Now you might say that traditional hymns are chock-full of good theology, and you would be right, but that’s the answer to a different question.

To take it to the extreme, no doubt Japanese language hymns are full of good theology too, but whether they would teach the person in an English pew is a different matter.

What is taught is not the same as that which is learnt.

Let me give an example from my own Wesleyan tradition. I had a traditional congregation sing the well-known Charles Wesley hymn Give me the Faith, which they had no doubt sung many times before. It contains the verses:

I would Thy precious time redeem,
And longer live for this alone:
to spend, and to be spent, for them
Who have not yet my Saviour known;
Fully on these my mission prove,
And only breathe, to breathe Thy love.

My talents, gifts, and graces, Lord,
Into Thy blessed hands receive;
And let me live to preach Thy word,
And let me to Thy glory live;
My every sacred moment spend
In publishing the sinners’ friend.

They sang heartily. Then I asked them, how many people had “published the sinners’ friend” and talked to somebody about Jesus in the last year? No hands went up. How many people had invited somebody to church in the last year? No hands went up.

This hymn may be teaching an evangelistic theology of Grace, but it was not being learnt. There was a cognitive dissonance between reality and what was being sung.

It’s sometimes patronisingly alleged that modern music sways the heart, but traditional hymns engage the mind. I’m not seeing that engagement.

Or how about a Wesley hymn known much more widely throughout the church? Love Divine, all loves excelling is a hymn which teaches the important doctrine of Christian Perfection. But is that what people are learning from it? Or is it a good sing for a wedding?

I don’t know what proportion of churchgoers agree with the doctrine of Christian Perfection, but I would assert that singing hymns no more makes you a theologian, than singing songs about Steven Gerrard makes you a football pundit.

If it is true that traditional hymns teach us theology, then where is the evidence?

So do people learn less theology from contemporary Christian music?

I don’t know. You would have to survey believers from churches with different worship styles and then compare and contrast.

I am aware that Willow Creek did a survey which showed that their contemporary services were not helping people to grow in their faith as much as they would like, but I haven’t come across a traditional church doing the same research.

I agree that what we sing in church matters. Absolutely it does.

I am aware that some people have a strong personal preference for traditional hymns.

What I don’t see is any evidence that traditional hymns are teaching people theology better than modern worship songs.

Unless you know different?

All Things Bright And Beautiful


Photo By DickDaniels ( (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-odd years ago, at Peter Lee Memorial Methodist Church I was doing more than 30 weddings a year. I was doing them two or three on Saturdays in the summer, as that was when people wanted them. The favourite hymn by far, was All Things Bright and Beautiful. followed at some distance by Morning has Broken.

I thought of this yesterday when I did a funeral with those two hymns. They have now moved to be the preferred hymns for despatching rather than matching. Maybe this will be the last generation who will remember them?

Last year’s stats show that there were no weddings at all in the church at Peterlee. I guess people now go to Shotton Hall instead. It is only since 1994 that venues other than churches and Registry Offices could be used and they must now be very popular.

We know what our grandparents sang, but I wonder what our grandchildren will have for their weddings?