How fast should the church grow?

51zwf8ncOPLIt is often thought that the decline in church attendance in the West is so precipitous, and the erosion of Christian values so rapid, that if the Christian church is to recover something very dramatic must happen. This can manifest itself in the quest for a ‘technique’ of leading church or of mission (often brought across the pond from the States), or the seeking of a dramatic act of God in some sort of ‘revival.’ Or perhaps the effect is to make many in the church feel that the task of recovery is too difficult, and there is no option but to accept the continued decline with good grace.

Curiously, this concern is also manifest, as a kind of mirror image, in the history of the early centuries of the Christian movement, the period when the church experienced its most rapid period of sustained growth in any time in its history. Historians of the period have mostly worked with two assumptions: that the ‘triumph’ of Christianity was more or less inevitable; and that it could only be accounted for by periods of dramatic mass conversion. Without these, the numbers don’t add up.

I have just read Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, and in his opening chapter he debunks both these ideas, expanding on the detail in subsequent chapters. I should say I am a bit late to this—Stark’s book was first published 20 years ago. And the book as a whole took me rather by surprise. I expected a continuous narrative or argument; in fact the chapters bring together what were originally separate studies, mostly previously published as academic papers. At some points the work is quite technical, and Stark assumes that the reader will understand about statistical correlation and levels of statistical significance. And each study draws on a great depth of previous research; for example, Stark mentions in passing how he calculated the distances between cities in the Roman world, which actually takes quite a lot of effort. (See the detail provided by Mike Thompson in his chapter ‘The Holy Internet’ in The Gospels for all Christians, published a year after Stark.) Stark is quite unsentimental in his calculations of, for example, the impact of different rates of mortality amongst Christians and pagans because of their different reactions to the outbreak of an epidemic, and is happy to sweep aside the previous consensus in social scientific study of religion on the grounds of evident bias in earlier studies.

Stark begins with a starting figure of 1,000 members of this new Jesus movement in the year 40 (he is happy to be a little sceptical about Luke’s claims in Acts about ‘thousands’ coming to faith early on) and ends with the suggestion that by 350, Christians were in the majority by the year 350 in an Empire with a population of 60 million. This suggest to him a growth rate of the movement of 40 percent per decade, and gives this table of the growth of Christianity:

YearNumber of ChristiansPercent of popn

It looks like there is astronomic growth in the later years, as is often noted in the literature. But Stark points out that this is just a feature of compound growth (and is the reason that you ought to start investing in your pension scheme when young). The rate of growth here continues at the same rate. Stark also notes that this growth looks painfully slow at the beginning; he returns later to explore why the movement might have sustained itself through this period when new religious movements often give up, discouraged. But he also notes that this is why we have just about no archaeological evidence of Christians prior to 180; it was too insignificantly small to leave any detectable footprint. To support this model of growth, Stark correlates it with a range of estimates and data, the most convincing being actual numbers of Christians in an area of Egypt calculated by inspecting names on graves—so it looks like a convincing model. In the light of this, Stark can debunk suggestions that there must have been mass conversions or dramatic miracles for this to have happened, using my favourite phrase in the whole book: ‘There is no substitute for doing the arithmetic.’

Why is this relevant to our present situation? Well, what does 40% growth per decade actually look like? As Stark points out, due again to the compound nature of growth, it is a ‘mere’ 3.42% per year. So what would the dramatic revival that we need look like? If you are in a congregation of 50, then that means imagining perhaps one or two more people joining you in the course of a year. If you are in a congregation of 100, then it means seeing perhaps three or four more in a year’s time. What struck me about this is that it is perfectly imaginable and not at all discouraging as an unattainable goal for any congregation. And yet it is this kind of growth which saw Christianity turn from a tiny, marginal cult to a movement which transformed the Empire. We just have to ‘do the math.’

Now there are, of course, several provisos to this. It only works if the growth is a steady 3.42% per year. Stark argues that the main reason that this growth was sustained was that the early Christian movement remained a socially open network. Many churches stop growing because the members have no significant friendships outside the congregation, and it is friendships which form the bridge across which Good News can travel. In the UK, I would also suggest that small churches find it much easier to grow at a percentage rate than large churches—so to sustain growth here we would need to be committed to church planting once congregations reached a certain size. (I am just trying to think if that is being done by any large churches in England at the moment…)

stark0412Another major proviso is that, in order to grow at this rate, you need to replace the members that have ‘gone to glory’. Stark notes that this happened in the early church through that often-neglected phenomenon, biological growth. In other words, Christians had children and raised them in the faith. It is quite a good way of replacing those who have grown old and died! Having recognised the importance of reaching young people, many churches have invested in employing youth workers, and the whole area of ministry has been professionalised and invested in through the development of youth work courses and qualifications. The only trouble with this is that it might be precisely the wrong strategy. A few weeks ago I was speaking to someone who has been prominent in the national scene in youth work, and he pointed out to me the problems. In the ‘old days’, youth work would have been overseen by a group of adults from the congregation, working together, some of whom would have been parents of children in the group. This means two things. First, the youth work will naturally be connected with families in the church and issues of parenting, so that the two are integrated and support one another. Secondly, with a choice of adults to relate to, there is less dependence on one star to whom all youth of every background and personality must get on with and like. In other words, plural leadership connected with the wider church is far preferable to monarchical leadership which operates independently from the life of church families.

That aside, the challenge of Stark’s number-crunching is a reminder that church growth is more about focus than fireworks, more of a marathon than a sprint—something that calls for a long obedience in the same direction. Perhaps that requires more depth of thinking, praying and acting that we sometimes allow for.

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33 thoughts on “How fast should the church grow?”

  1. Ian, surely the biggest proviso here is that the historical context is completely different. There were—presumably—large scale socio-cultural forces that supported the growth of the early church in the Greek and Roman world, just as there are now large scale socio-cultural forces driving the decline of the church in countries like the UK at the end of the Christian era. The situation of the church today looks in many ways like the situation of the early church, but the early church was at the beginning of a bell curve, we are at the end of it. For our culture Christianity is behind us, not ahead of us. The reason why it is so difficult to sustain a steady 3.42% per annum growth is that we are struggling against the tide of history.

    • Thanks Andrew. I guess I would say: yes and no. The context might have an impact on the possibilities. But my main observation is that, contrary to much that is claimed, the maths shows that it is not a dramatic revival that is needed, just as it was not a dramatic revival then.

      Particularly in charismatic circles, people seem to long for the kind of thing envisaged in Acts. But Stark (indirectly) makes the point that, even if this did happen once or twice as Luke noted, that was neither typically nor necessary. I discovered that, at the time of writing this book, Stark did not call himself a Christian, but an agnostic. His position appears to have changed, in part as a result of his historical discoveries.

      And there are quite a few places in the country where the church is growing at more than 3%. See the discussion on my post How to Save a Diocese on the difference between London and Southwark. They are in similar social contexts—but one is growing significantly whilst the other is not. I think most of the levers are in fact in our hands.

      • “Particularly in charismatic circles, people seem to long for the kind of thing envisaged in Acts. ”

        I’d have though those who look to Martyn Lloyd-Jones (mainly those churches grouped together in Affinity) talk much more about dramatic revival than most charismatics. Would revival of the kind you’re discussing ever be mentioned in the many charismatic churches influenced by Hillsong? They seem to think the revival has already happened (!

          • John,

            I seek truth from facts, so the up-to-date attendance figures were interesting. And I absolutely agree with you on the sociological point. I’ve been to Hillsongs UK for a relative’s dedication (the parents attended regularly), and have recently visited an Anglican charismatic church that seemed to move in the same circles. I was struck by how many of the people attending both were small businesspeople or trying to build careers in fields driven by financial targets, such as sales. In some circles, they would be called ‘petit bourgeoisie’ ( Some of them had made money: holidays in Florida or the Maldives (your Aussie equivalent might be Bali or Phuket??), lots of expensive football shirts and tickets, and the standards of the buildings were clear evidence of generous giving to the Lord’s work. But these brothers and sisters seemed to be the first generation to have money. The talks were also aimed squarely at this constituency (illustrations about starting businesses, applications about time-management) and generally consisted of very wise advice, with Bible stories (abused?) as illustrations of the principles involved. The tone was relentlessly upbeat and positive (lots of prayers for CEOs and that we would “repent of poverty”, whatever that means). The atmosphere reminded me of what I’ve read of 19th century Nonconformity (the Respectable Working Class) and also of people in other countries who’ve got involved in multi-level marketing schemes like Amway or Herbalife. The point is not where Hillsong attendees come from (I suspect refugees and the absolutely poor are a tiny minority), the point is where they are going.

            These people were far too optimistic to wait and pray for a revival that may or may not come; their focus was on what God would do for them this week! Maybe that’s because they did not have relatives to fall back on if things didn’t work out nor did they intend to return to whence they came. It is not the classic prosperity gospel of ‘word of faith’, dollars-for-blessings; it’s more like the classic fake Bible quotation, “God helps those who help themselves,” and the church will explain it to you step by step. Of course, the leaderships are far too intelligent and sincere to use those words. I’m not sure this is particularly Australian, so much as (in Stark terms) filling the gap in the religious marketplace left by the imminent collapse of the Methodists and other 19th-century denominations.

            It is also surely of the tragedy of Protestant nonconformity: that because we don’t all gather in the parish church, we sort ourselves by personality types and miss out on the gifts and challenges that the Lord would like to bless us with.

            And I would be interested in evidence for the idea that Hillsongs is moving to a centrist position. It seems to me more that it is pulling many other planets of the evangelical/charismatic firmament towards it, with its music being a powerful attractive force.

          • Dear seek truth,

            Sorry if this response ends up above your latest comment which did not have its own “reply” button.

            You make some very good points. The petit bourgeois nature of Hillsong and other pentecostal churches in Australia is readily observable. The entrepreneurial spirit of the pastors and the congregations make for a good match. And I would agree that there are generous givers in the movement but when you do the numbers it turns out that Hillsongers are not much more generous than Sydney Anglicans, both groups are way short of tithing.

            I think you are right to compare it to 19th century nonconformity. Well done on an acute insight. I am told that in the early years Hillsong pastors had Amway businesses, so your Herbalife and Amway reference is spot on.

            In the Australian context I think the Hills campus which is in the outer suburbs of Sydney has attracted immigrants and including refugees, but the overseas campuses often seem to be in locations (Central NY for example) that would mean a different audience.

            Once again I agree with you that in churches we do sort ourselves by personality types and I think Hillsong is a good case of this.

            As to evidence that Hillsong is moving towards a more centrist position or that it is attracting people to its position: I think both are occurring. Hillsong for example are taking greater care with the content of their songs (and have set up a process to improve that). the move by their denomination to upgrade the education of their pastors (to masters level with Greek) will have an effect in time, and the speaking roster at Hillsong conferences has changed (but not enough for some). Some Pentecostal distinctives are played down (and there Pentecostals are critical of this). On the other hand, there are now people from other denominations that plan their holidays around a Hillsong conference. But there’s also people that really do not like their music (often on theological grounds) and ban it at church. A third position is held by some conservative evangelicals in Sydney, they acknowledge the changes in Hillsong, but would like to see other changes such as a clearer gospel proclamation, but are “friendlier to Hillsong than they were in the past.

          • FYI, replies are only nested three times. After that, comments are organised as common replies to the last comment that has a ‘reply’ button. This means discussion happens within one column, rather than constantly being nested deeper and deeper.

          • John,

            Thank you for taking time to explain more of how Hillsong has developed, both financially and theologically. Even though the church network has such a strong, centralized brand, it seems that different locations can shape their membership and methods. It will be interesting to see how they adapt if they continue to grow and whether, as with the Methodists, the ageing of charismatic early leaders will lead to Weberian institutionalization.

        • John that is really interesting…but there is some tension there in the language.

          At the foot of the ‘revival’ article, it mentions previous revivals in specific years, which suggests one-off events. That is quite different from sustained, relatively low-level growth of the kind we are talking about.

          And the association of Hillsong with Joel Osteen is uncomfortable. With his ‘prosperity’ teaching, I think there are very different sociological factors going on there…never mind the theology.

          • The revivals I mentioned in that earlier article were one off events, and I mentioned them precisely because there is a tension with the language of revival Hillsong used at its conference. Hillsong belongs to a denomination which owed its early growth to the Sunshine (a suburb of Melbourne) revival. So Revival is part of its DNA. But through the seventies and nineties a period of explosive growth in that denomination was led by a steady though rapid church planting movement, and now mega church expansion seems to be driving continuing growth.
            One way of looking at Hillsong is that it is a church moving into a centrist position within the evangelical and charismatic spectrum, with leaders such as Rick Warren and Nicky Gumbel at the Hillsong conferences. But it does not want to cut off old friends like Olsteen. Brian Houston when interviewed by me has disavowed a prosperity gospel. But he wants his people to dream and work hard. This is where sociology becomes relevant: Hillsong attracts a lot of recent arrivals to Australia and this message is very appropriate. One reason why Sydney Anglicans (my denomination) have a different emphasis is that they tend to have a different audience. A well fed North Shore lawyer in a Gothic Anglican church may need to hear that the Christian life involves suffering, a refugee in the Hillsong auditorium already knows this and may need a message of uplift. Hillsong would say they have a different message from other pentecostals; they have a emphasis on practical living. Which is a very Australian approach.

  2. Stark’s book is one of my favourites on the early church. He argues (from a social sciences background) that other reasons for growth include Christians caring for the sick more in plague epidemics; providing a better environment for women; and generally loving others and being prepared (at least some people) to die for the faith.

    His numbers on growth also show that the Empire would have become Christian at some point independently of Constntine, who is more of an indication of the growth of the church rather than a prime cause.

    • Yes indeed. I meant to include that observation in my summary: Constantine’s recognition of Christianity did not cause growth—it was a politically astute, or perhaps necessary, response to the growth that was already there.

      It is fascinating the way that Stark overturns so many points of previous consensus–and mostly on the basis of common-sense observation.

      • Even Stark’s numbers show that Constantine’s conversion was accompanied by explosive growth, with the proportion of Christians shooting up from 10.5% in 300 to 56.5% in 350. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but it can certainly indicate it.

        By all accounts, Constantine converted because he believed that the Christian God helped him win battles, and with them, power. Given that Christians were a despised minority recently persecuted by the Tetrarchy, embracing their faith was a heckuva risk, and appears to’ve been genuine.

        • The ‘explosive growth’ from Constantine’s conversion is growth at exactly the same rate (40% per decade) as throughout the four centuries. It’s just that the numbers become large. Any parallel universe game has no ‘right’ answers, but I’d hazard that Constantine’s conversion may have made a difference of at most 20 years to Christianity’s progress (and I suspect less).

          I agree with you that Constantine’s conversion was probably genuine.

          • Exactly my point, Jonathan: the rate of growth stays consistent, instead of leveling off.

            In the alternative, what’s Stark’s basis for these numbers? In his intro to The Rise of Christianity, for A.D. 300-350, he says that he grabs a broad average from the work of historians (themselves little but informed guesswork), takes a number of 5,000 Jesus followers from Acts (a work of unknown provenance, open to much historical criticism), and then knocks it down to 1,000, a reduction, Stark admits, that’s pure assumption. This is flimsy stuff.

            Moreover, this “rate of growth” ignores the issue of coercion. After Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, people didn’t freely choose to become Christians: they were forced to convert, and, with the short exception of Julian the Apostate, pagans were persecuted more ruthlessly and consistently than Christians ever were.

            This is, at best, of vanishingly little relevance to evangelization and growth in pluralist democracies.

          • It isn’t ‘flimsy stuff’ at all. He knocks down the figure in Acts out of a desire to avoid the kind of wishful thinking that you criticise. And he pegs his figures to some key externals.

            Even if most historians are hazarding a guess (what alternative is there without actual census data?), Stark shows his results tie in with the best estimates.

            And, fascinatingly, at the time of writing he was agnostic—not a Christian, let alone evangelical.

  3. Constantine’s conversion shouldn’t be downplayed: even if Christianity was fated to become the majority faith (itself open to question, both on the accuracy of the numbers, and their continued rise), it could’ve taken centuries, and taken a radically different form from the Christendom we got circa A.D. 300. Without Constantine and his successors, there would’ve been no anti-pagan laws, culminating in the Theodosian Code, and no “orthodoxy” imposed from on high.

    Speaking of which, many Christians, such as mainline Protestants in America, and many Lutheran churches in Europe, would take issue with the claim that “Christian values” are in decline, as they’d define those values very differently.

  4. Thanks Ian, this is a really nice perspective. I think the biggest difference in terms of mission between us and the early church is that, in England at least, Christianity is nothing new. Christianity is embedded in our culture and crucially most of the people who are not attending church will at least think they already know all about it. This is perhaps why other places in the globe are seeing huge numbers of converts because the people there are open to hearing because they don’t think they’ve already heard.

    I’m not sure what the solution is to this, but I do feel it would be a good idea for the church to represented in the media as if the cross had central place instead of frictions and factions and scandal. I do not think the media is to blame in misrepresenting the church as what gets covered is as much about what church leaders choose to talk about as it is media obsessions.

    I think a net growth of 2/50 is actually quite a challenge if all/most of your congregants are over 60. They aren’t going to be making baby Christians and the death rate will be higher. I would think there is a proportion of people under 40, which once you dip below, your congregation cannot recover from.

    I do think a problem with youth work is that it has become disconnected with church, but I think to reconnect it with church will require some sacred cows being dismantled, i.e. I think a lot of the disconnect is young people not really being welcome in some churches (hopefully welcome to attend, but probably not welcome to interfere with the service). I think we really need to start realising that young people are not the church of tomorrow, but are the church of today.

    • Pete, you comments about being an elderly congregation are keenly felt in many places—though again, the stats might suggest something different.

      The proportion of people becoming elderly in our society is growing—and that means that the ‘pool to fish from’ is growing too. In other words, the number of people reaching 60 each year is increasing, which is good news if you want to lead an ‘over 60s’ church. Their might not be babies being born—but what about grandchildren?

      My observation about why elderly churches do not grow chimes in with Stark: it is because, very often, elderly churches have in fact become closed social networks. Address that, and you are more likely to see growth.

  5. The Church of England attendance was 40% in 1983 and declined to 17% last year.

    It is a reduction by 23% to go down from 40% to just 17%.

    What is not discussed at all in the media is that political party membership has declined by a massive 68% over the same period – but the media is not predicting the end of political parties (but the parties themselves are discussing whether or not the STATE should pay for their activities instead of the membership … I wonder why?)

    The reality is that membership is declining throughout society for the majority of activities and membership has to take a new form.

  6. The above Guardian article (I am not a “Guardian” reader) is one of the very few I could find and even that doesn’t make the figures clear to readers.

  7. From Stark, I was amazed at the risk Christians took in times of plague. They frequently died with those they cared for, but in areas where they cared for the sick, three times as many survived. That is, 3 out of 10 died rather than 9 out of 10. That’s awesome. Much tougher figures than medics assisting in Ebola situations – and they are fantastic folk.

    Professional youth workers are fine – especially if they are part of a wider team of volunteers.

    • Thanks Dave–yes indeed, and all rooted in doctrine, that is, a different view of theological anthropology—what humans are and how God views them—as Stark also highlights.

      We are not going to see the church grow by assimilating to society!

  8. Two questions Ian,
    (I) how do we know the early Christian movement remained a “socially open network”?
    (ii) do you think today’s churches are a socially open network and if not, what changes would you like to see to correct this?

    • Thanks Jamie. Stark cites a range of evidence, from both the NT and from other sources about Christians and their activity. He also infers things from the nature of discussion amongst the ‘fathers’, including evidence of exogamous marriage.

      I think churches vary. At the moment my observation is that ‘liberal’ churches tend to be open, but not that distinctive, whereas evangelical churches tend to be distinctive, but not socially open. I think Stark is arguing that the early church grew because it was both distinctive and socially open.

      One part of the agenda of the Missional Communities movement is just that—to combine the two.

  9. I agree completely with the description of aging congregations being unwilling to allow any change that would help families with children back into the church. The average age in our church is 69, there are no children or families despite a thriving messy church there is no willingness to make any accommodation. It’s a huge problem in our part of rural Devon and there seems no prospect except to see more and more churches closing! Sorry just so frustrated at the moment, we live in a big village with a school and lots of families none of whom go to any of the 3 churches Anglican Methodist or Baptist because they are all the same, exclusive members clubs!

    • Thanks Mich–and I think your comment ties in with my response above. If there is to be change, it has to start with the sense of vision within the church. Do we in fact want to grow?

  10. Ian, have you seen Stark’s latest book, The Triumph of Faith? Although I felt there were a couple of weakly demonstrated jumps in the argument about the reasons for decline in Western ex-Christendom Christianity, what it clearly demonstrates is that faith (and particularly Christian faith) is in the majority worldwide and that Christianity is alive, well and growing in the world as a whole. If early Christianity grew on the back of the Roman Empire, and Christendom went hand in hand with the fading Western hegemony, is it surprising that God is now at work in a bigger way in the parts of the world that seem likely to be strong and powerful in the future, particularly China?

    What this means for the church here is more opaque. My sense is that we are being pruned to rediscover the God who is real and active on his own terms rather than the personally and socially therapeutic God of modernity. We have to detach ourselves as Christians from the sense of cultural superiority that comes from the West’s history and demonstrate an alternative flourishing based on things other than the assumptions of market capitalism and individual human autonomy expressed in maximum freedom of choice. Easy to say……. The starting point is I guess the call to love our neighbour as ourselves and, as Jesus pointed out, our neighbours are not only PLUDs (People Like Us, Dear).

    Btw, two of my three children worship in New Frontiers congregations and their model is certainly to build congregations and then plant from them when they grow ‘too big’, which leads to an emphasis on continuous development of new young leaders and giving them responsibility early. From what I can see they seem to be thriving (by which I mean spread of ages from babies to elderly, pretty equal numbers across the sexes, seeing new believers come to faith on a pretty regular basis and a strong call to discipleship). So I think at least one ‘church’ is adopting an approach like that you wonder about at the end of your second proviso. What I don’t see clearly in those two congregations is huge socio-economic diversity, though I do see many young couples thinking and living missionally and making choices about careers, and how and where they live, that would not be those of their secular contemporaries. That said, my third child goes to an independent church full of people you would not, I suspect, see in most other churches.


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