Interesting views on church navel-gazing from the Moderator of the Church of Scotland in his address to the General Assembly…..
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?
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.
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.
Here is a wonderful Photo Montage from the BBC, looking at a “lost world” of the 1960s, with Chapel Anniversaries in a town I know because my Aunty lives there: Hebden Bridge.
Here in Methodist Rural Northumberland, both the Chapel Anniversary and Harvest Festival Auction live on, with the retired grandchildren of the people in the photographs. Enjoy the show….
Linda Woodhead has another blog post in the Westminster Faith Debates, talking about disaffiliation from the Church of England. I referred to her previous comments in the Default Settings blog I made a few weeks ago. Methodism traditionally does well in those areas where the Church of England is strong (hence not Ireland, Scotland, Continental Europe etc).
If religion is surviving, but the Church of England is struggling, what do the trends mean for the Methodist Church?
Eleven hospital trusts are being placed in special measures because of major failings, Jeremy Hunt has announced.
This has turned into a major row about who is to blame
I don’t think the blame game is helpful, but it is right to remove the management from failing hospitals.
I wonder when we are going to do the same with churches? Are there some that need to be put into Special Measures?
The Bible has a lot to say about the need for failing churches to change – try the Book of Revelation for a start.
Of course a church isn’t a business – it’s far more important than that. If the leadership is doing the same thing over and over, yet hoping for a different result, it must be time for change.
Perhaps we need an “Ofchurch” instead of an Ofsted?
So what criteria would you use to judge as to whether a church should be put into Special Measures?
Photo Copyright Jon Bennett
Yesterday’s “state of the art technology”, is today’s ceremonial. However, we’d never use that in combat today – here’s the Household Cavalry on duty in London (above) and Afghanistan (below). Instead we need to be nimble and ready to fight today’s battles today’s way.
I wonder if this could be a metaphor for the church? Are we fighting today’s wars with yesterday’s equipment? Just a thought…..
Photo copyright Sergeant Russ Nolan RLC
Image 45152674.jpg from www.defenceimages.mod.uk
My previous blog, https://davideflavell.wordpress.com/2013/06/22/and-the-band-played-nearer-my-god-to-thee/ received some comments on Facebook, as well as here. I’m posting my responses here – those who read this can pass them on as appropriate.
1. Is membership down but attendance up? – short answer “no”, long answer “definitely no”.
I’ve got the figures for 2002-2006 and for 2012. This year compared with the average of 2002-2006, adult Sunday attendance is down 19%. Midweek adult attendance is up 15%, but from a much smaller base, so if you combine the two, you get a decline of 16%, or about one in six.
Far more concerning, under-13 Sunday attendance is down a whopping 42% and Sunday teenage attendance down 35%. This would match with my experience, where lots of small Sunday schools have closed completely in the last few years.
What I was most surprised by was midweek attendance. With the advent of Messy Church http://www.messychurch.org.uk/, the great white hope of Christendom, I expected to see a big rise. Instead, under-13 midweek attendance is down 68% and teenage midweek attendance by 72% from 2002-2006.
It may be that having messy church once a month or less, dilutes its statistical effect, as 40 a month works out at 10 a week. It may be that other children’s activities have closed down. It may also be that the counting isn’t consistent over the years, which is why membership is a better marker of an organisation’s health.
2. Is membership down but discipleship up? – I’m not sure how you would measure this, but the idea that growing churches somehow have weak discipleship and declining churches have strong discipleship does not fit the facts. See this post https://davideflavell.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/modern-methodism-and-the-parable-of-the-talents/ for some thoughts.
3. Will the boat stay up if we all think more positively? – if I was on the Titanic and somebody said “Stay below decks, think positively, it’ll all be alright” I’m not sure I would thank them.
4. What can we do then? – There are some thoughts here http://www.flavell.vispa.com/talents.mp3 that I presented at the Fresh Ways Practitioners’ Forum earlier this month. Also here’s an article http://www.met-uk.org/met/pdf.php?type=resource&id=372 from a few years ago.