There’s been a bit of a hoohah about Ofsted checking Sunday Schools as part of the Government’s Prevent strategy.

I’m not going to comment on the Big Brother civil liberty elements of this, or the popularity of the inspectors, but it got me thinking: why shouldn’t there be an Ofsted for churches – a Chofsted if you like. What would they find if they investigated your church? Would you be outstanding, or in special measures?

There will be some who say that you can’t compare churches but they haven’t read the book of Revelation. There will be others who say that it doesn’t matter what a church does as long as it is faithful, but the man who was punished for burying his one talent in the parable thought that he was being faithful and doing what the master wanted, when he clearly wasn’t.

So what criteria should be used? You could choose Biblical adherence, friendliness of the people or even the quality of the sermon as assessed by the mystery worshipper. However, these tend to be inward looking benchmarks, reviewing a church for its own members’ needs.

Perhaps Ofsted’s own criteria are helpful. Swap “churches” for “teachers” and “atheists” for “pupils” and you’ve got a pretty good checklist for how to run things.

Doing this substitution, for an “outstanding” grade we would start with “Churches demonstrate deep knowledge and understanding of the subjects they teach. They use questioning highly effectively and demonstrate understanding of the ways atheists think about subject content. They identify atheists’ common misconceptions and act to ensure they are corrected.”

Sounds good to me.

What do you think?

New Wine and Old Wineskins

Following on from Logan’s Run, here’s a blog post from Scott Berkun, which discusses the well known concept that science doesn’t advance by scientists finding new evidence and accepting it, but instead by a generation of scientists who held the old theory dying off, and a new generation coming through, who see the new theory as blatantly obvious.

Is there a parallel here for the church?

Who’s asking?


(Photograph ©  Tom)

There are more questions than answers  or at least so sang Johnny Nash.

 Yet I can’t help thinking that the church is sometimes trying to answer questions which God isn’t asking.

 Churchy questions I have heard are:

  • How can we foster a sense of Circuit identity?
  • How can we fill the preaching plan?
  • How do we recruit new leaders?
  • And How do we pay the assessment?

God’s questions are different. The Bible has many suggestions for what they might be, but I would start with these:

  • What are we doing to defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless, and plead the case of the widow?
  • What are we doing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoners?
  • What are we doing to seek and save the lost?
  • Where can we serve, rather than be served?

It might be argued that once we answer the churchy questions satisfactorily, then we will be better placed to move on to God’s agenda, but I don’t see any evidence for that.

Instead I wonder whether at worst it is actually displacement activity.

Thomas Pynchon wrote “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

So what questions do you think God is asking?

Logan’s Run


Last week I talked about how the demographics of Methodism are like a pyramid sinking into the sand.

I promised some answers to the seemingly terminal decline. Here at Hexham Trinity we have seen significant growth in the last ten years. It can be done.

You might expect me to talk as I have before, about the need for modern music. John Wesley’s 1780 hymnbook contained 12 hymns by dead people, out of more than 500. If he couldn’t make a go of it without using contemporary music, why would anybody expect me to able to?

You might expect me to point out that research shows the vital importance of working with children and young people when you want to grow the church.

I could also talk about leadership, courage, risk taking and entrepreneurship.

We know what needs to be done, but most congregations don’t do it.

Instead, I’m going to suggest a completely different strategy. The problem with the pyramid sinking into the sand is that the bottom of the pyramid (the Methodists in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond) is much, much bigger than the top of the pyramid (Methodists in their 20s and 30s).

With the best will in the world, any vaguely democratic institution with this demography, will vote in favour of what’s good for people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. It’s not malevolence, selfishness or stupidity – people in every age group know what is decent, normal and appropriate for church – it’s just that as the generations change, so does that normative view of what normal is.

So even when people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond think they are voting for something which people in their 20s are bound to want, they’re not always right.

My radical solution is for those over 30 to voluntarily give up their vote on any matter to do with church.

This would disenfranchise me at 51 from voting, but I think I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution. I’m not nearly radical enough for the changes that are needed.

It could be argued that those under 31 are inexperienced, immature and might make big mistakes. However, when we consider our performance of halving in membership since 1990, it’s hard to see how they could do a worse job. Why don’t we let them have a go? They will quite likely make different decisions from us.

So what have we got to lose? Our traditions and buildings? They’re going anyway as the church dies.

Am I throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Or did the baby grow up and leave the Methodist Church decades ago, but we haven’t noticed yet?

What do you think? Would you willingly give up your say, that the church might revive?

Pyramid Schemes

Imagephoto by Nina Aldin Thune

Recently I wrote a blog about the decline of Methodist Membership, under the title Year Zero. The British Methodist Church’s membership has more than halved since 1990.

Elsewhere, people have suggested that things weren’t as bad as I implied, and that the law of compound interest meant that the decline in numbers would gradually slow as the church got smaller. This is based on a disease model of decline, where a smaller population would have smaller absolute reductions in numbers each year.

So, if each year 2.5% of members catch a disease (let’s call it atheistitis) and leave the church because they lose their faith, after 20 years you haven’t lost half the church because each year as the church shrinks, the number of individuals represented by that 2.5% shrinks too. You end up with a nice smooth graph looking like this.


The Methodist Church slowly shrinks into the future, but is still around in 50 years time, with a membership of 60,354. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world, and we can know that our grandchildren will have a church of some kind to be part of.

Unfortunately, the disease model of gradual decline is wishful thinking, because it doesn’t match the evidence. The Methodist Church is not shrinking because people are becoming atheists. Numbers coming in and out each year just about match. There isn’t a great crisis of faith.

Instead, the Methodist Church is collapsing because people are dying, and they are not being replaced, and churches are closing and they are not being replaced.

Here’s a more accurate model of decline. Imagine the Methodist Church as an Egyptian pyramid, with the elderly at the bottom and the young at the top, as that is a good description of our age profile. The cohort in their seventies is larger than the cohort in their sixties, is larger than the cohort in their fifties, is larger than the cohort in their forties etc. Now imagine that pyramid sinking into the desert.

Each year, people die. Those in the older cohorts (of which Methodism has a lot) tend to be more likely to die than those in the younger cohorts (of which Methodism has few). As the pyramid sinks into the sand, the larger, older cohorts die off, and we are left with a smaller and smaller pyramid. Because the new generations in their twenties and thirties are not coming through and replacing the larger cohorts below (Methodism is aware of this), the future is bleak. If this scenario was accurate, we would expect the percentage decline in membership to be accelerating, and this is exactly what is happening in the official figures:


The pyramid model seems to fit the facts a lot better than the atheistitis model, but it isn’t encouraging reading, as the pyramid looks as though it disappears completely into the sand in 2033.

Is there an answer to the problem?

I believe there are some answers, and in my next blog next week, I will make radical suggestions.

Irish Eyes


Here’s a great blog post from Tom Burke, the minister of Grace Church Cork.

I went to visit the church five years ago when I was doing a study of growing churches in the British Isles and America.

Grace is unusual, in that it has worked really hard to enculturate itself into the Cork context.

Over many centuries the Irish have defined themselves over and against their domineering neighbour to the East. To be Irish is to be Roman Catholic, to speak Gaeilge and to be a fan of Gaelic Sports.

This has meant that when English and American protestant evangelists come in from outside, they can be perceived with suspicion, as bringing in a foreign religion. The psychology of nationhood is strong.

Grace Church has enculturated itself, first of all by meeting in a Christian Brothers’ School. The idea being that they can’t be that bad, even as Protestants, if the bishop has allowed them to gather there.

Secondly, a lot of the songs have both English and Irish verses, to which everybody sings along.

Thirdly, there is much emphasis on the GAA and Irish sports.

The overall aim is to give the warm feeling of an Irish Pub.

The church has been very effective in reaching out both to the locals, and also to the increasingly international community in Cork. They have been successful in making a church where people can feel at home.

So my questions are: If that’s what it means to be Irish – what does it mean to be English? What are the three things a church could do here, to make people feel at home?

Year Zero Numbers

After last week’s blog I’ve had several requests for the numbers the data is based on, so here is membership of the British Methodist Church since the end of the War. Some of the figures are simply straight line interpolated from the 5 year official numbers. I do have figures for all the different branches of Methodism going back to their origins, and for Wesleyan Methodism going back to 1770. If you would like the full raw Excel file then you can download it.

One correction is that I said that Methodism had more than halved since 1984. This is true, but I was just using a rounding for the last 30 years. It’s even worse than that – membership has actually more than halved since just 1990. Hope you stats folks find the numbers useful.

1945 752659
1946 746757
1947 743003
1948 740872
1949 743474
1950 744815
1951 741596
1952 743590
1953 743983
1954 744659
1955 744321
1956 742444
1957 739680
1958 736781
1959 733658
1960 728589
1961 723529
1962 719286
1963 710774
1964 701306
1965 690347
1966 678766
1967 666713
1968 651139
1969 634712
1970 617018
1971 602014
1972 587010
1973 572007
1974 557003
1975 542000
1976 531194
1977 520388
1978 509583
1979 498777
1980 487972
1981 481777
1982 475583
1983 469388
1984 463194
1985 457000
1986 450508
1987 444016
1988 437524
1989 431032
1990 424540
1991 416131
1992 408107
1993 399322
1994 389818
1995 380269
1996 371430
1997 362584
1998 353332
1999 344849
2000 331560
2001 325130
2002 318550
2003 306308
2004 293661
2005 283333
2006 273000
2007 263500
2008 252000
2009 243000
2010 231372
2011 221879
2012 219359
2013 208679

Forever Young


Photo by Dena Flows by Licence

Here’s the latest research from the Evangelical Alliance which shows that despite 26 years full-time with the Methodist Church, I am still younger than the average minister.

In the 1990s I used to cringe when I was introduced at Blackhall Methodist Church as “and now we’ll hear from our young minister……”. it’s depressing to think that they could still say that today.

But will there be young ministers tomorrow? Perhaps the answer comes from these two photographs of Cambridge Methsoc in 1984 and 2012.

Fewer children in church means fewer people of student age in church, which leads to fewer young adults in church and thus fewer young ministers.

If as the article suggests, younger ministers are more effective, then should we not be putting our efforts into discipling the young, rather than catering to the elderly? Of course, it’s easy for me to say that as I’m still youthful – at least in church terms.

What do you think?