What will revival look like?

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 recently 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:

Year Number of Christians Percent of popn
40 1,000 0.0017
50 1,400 0.0023
100 7,530 0.0126
150 40,496 0.07
200 217,795 0.036
250 1,171,356 1.9
300 6,299,832 10.5
350 33,882,008 56.5

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. (First published July 2015)


Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.


Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

53 thoughts on “What will revival look like?

  1. Many thanks for this post Ian.
    James K Smith reflecting on Charles Taylor’s work, highlights the focus on youth in the post modern/post war commoditisation of society. This has influenced the church’s methodology of mentooring our youth. ‘Youth is our future’s is a mantra vaunted in my church (should this not be Jesus is our future?) to the exclusion of the 30 something’s who are disaffected by this and the senior age group who no longer have contact with ‘young agers’ so a wealth of experience and love is wasted. I wonder if this experience of my church is replicated elsewhere and quite how to approach concerns without appearing to be ‘not progressive’enough.

  2. We also have to be careful of the back door! So many grow disenchanted or weary of the church, or their church, or God, and leave. But thank you Ian for bringing us this challenging and intriguing take.

    • Hi Penelope,

      I wholeheartedly endorse your comment about closing the ‘back door’ and would add that, with a membership whose average age is around 61, the impact on the CofE of ‘biological growth’ is miniscule.

      It might seem easy to imagine one or two new people joining a congregation over the course of a year, but there would more likely be three or four leaving over the same period.

  3. It’s fascinating stuff, though by my reading Stark is advocating a purely sociological explanation for the growth of the church. I felt overall he is suggesting there is nothing remarkable about the emergence of Christianity – other than a convergence of particular sociological circumstances, which if repeated would yield similar results.

    He argues that the socially open network and New Testament ‘oikos’ or ‘extended household’ was a crucial engine of conversion, i.e. as people were integrated into the family of the early church they gradually assimilated its beliefs and values. This ‘conversion process’ he asserts is a well observed sociological phenomenae (I forget the technical term) of wanting to fit into your primary group.

    Clearly, I am convinced there is more than sociological forces at work! However, I think what is fascinating for the church today is the question of being shaped to be a ‘movement.’ and how the church can recover a multipliable pattern of ministry which can provide and continue to sustain ongoing incremental growth. Our work among young people is a part of that, but there are more fundamental questions of shape, pattern and culture too.

    To build in that way probably means unpicking some existing patterns, and it may not bring about short-term ‘success.’ In any institution that feels under pressure or decline, the instinct can be to go for quick results. The lesson of Stark’s analysis is to make sure that there is enough patience and vision to enable patterns of church to emerge, and a culture within them, that can have that incremental and ongoing long-term impact.

    • Thanks David. I would agree with a lot of what you say–but I don’t agree that Stark is ‘advocating’ a purely sociological approach. After all, he actually became a Christian as a result of his studies.

      But he is offering a sociological *analysis* of what went on, and it contains many surprises. Apart from ‘doing the math’, the other major challenge is biological growth, and growth through exogamous marriage–something which the more committed churches actively discourage.

      • Thanks Ian, fascinated to hear about his conversion, I’d never have thought it from my reading of his book – is there anything around about his story?
        Perhaps a poor choice of words, but I wasn’t suggesting Stark had any comment to make on the methods or approach of the church in terms of shape of ministry and strategy. Rather, in telling it as he saw it, I felt that his argument was that there were perfectly normal processes at work, that explained the growth of the church without need of reference to the power of the Gospel, or the work of the Holy Spirit.
        However, when that power is demonstrated in the actions and radically different lifestyle of believers, perhaps it is harder to argue away even for an academic? That the powerful influence and different attitudes of the early Christians in serving the poor and facing death also changed the author is an amazing story of witness down the ages. My interest is piqued, I’d love to know more about Stark’s journey.

  4. Interesting stuff and good to put the growth of the early church into perspective. Of course the respectability and patronage that came with Constantine in the 4th century helped a bit!
    On the youth ministry issue, I have long been troubled by the move towards professional youth workers replacing teams of volunteers. If a church is full of people who are too busy to lead youth work but are wealthy enough to pay someone else to do it that may say something about the church and how its social imaginary (to use a Charles Taylor phrase) is working. It also subtly alters the volunteer culture of church to have morepaid staff (as opposed to stipendiary clergy) and can change the nature of ordained ministry profoundly. If the ordained minister (often for some reason now called Team Leader) is in reality managing a team of paid staff and having relatively little contact with members of the congregation because he (and I observe that it is usually a he) is too busy that quickly creates a different dynamic. Having been an incumbent for 15 years in villages with relatively small congregations (but they were much bigger in percentage terms of the parish than any urban congregation I know) I think it’s another argument for multiplying smaller congregations which can grow more rapidly, but don’t have all the infrastructure of the larger church to finance – paid adminstrator, children’s worker, youth leader, pastoral care leader, etc. I am convinced that the rural church is onto something about church growth that has largely been forgotten in urban areas where large numbers in a congregation can hide the very low percentage of the parish who attend. Urban churches also tend towards gathered congregations who choose their ‘brand’ of worship, theology or personality, whereas rural churches still hold on to the local parish community. But all this is now very unfashionable and gets little space in the Fresh Expressions world. But it does make perfect sense in terms of church planting, so long as the church that is planted is of the place and not parachuted in from elsewhere. More encouragingly, I am increasingly hearing references to the local church as the focus for mission.

  5. As David mentioned above, the average congregational age of 61 shows that this generation has lost its children to the faith – ie little biological growth.
    Presumably Stark doesn’t touch on movements such as Methodism or Pentecostalism or try to explain their reason, impact or importance . Even Radio 4 admitted that the fastest growing movement amongst the poor in the world was Pentecostalism.
    One of the features of church planting is that it frequently ends up losing committed people. I imagine that is because it can fracture long term relationships of friendship and support.

  6. Thanks for this Ian – it’s really hard to actually add numbers to the electoral roll! Love church with multigenerational community- to me that’s what family looks like- in my curacy I’m working with a retired priest who’s still working with young people after 60 years (now in his 80s!) He tells some great stories of things he did which wouldn’t be allowed now! (Like losing kids on a bike ride pre mobile phones!)

  7. The church will only grow when existing members bring others, and that will only happen if they genuinely believe they have good news to share with their friends and acquaintances. If the “good news” involves suspending all thinking, and assenting to a series of unbelievable beliefs as exemplified for example by the creeds, then many church members will be reluctant to share that “good news”. But if the “good news” is all about the message of love and compassion seen in Jesus (and of course many others) and not centred on pre-enlightenment mumbo-jumbo, then I and many others will be ready to share it.
    There will always be people who respond well to a literalist telling of the faith, but the vast majority of western educated people have moved way beyond this.

    • I disagree. What you are proposing is a “social gospel”, not the radical life changing gospel of King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The Creeds are there to protect us from error and heresy just as the early church had to fight for truth – we find ourselves in the same fight. Without truth the Holy Spirit departs and the church dies.

    • Hi Tricia,
      Thanks for your comment. As I said, there will always be some people for whom the gospel you describe makes sense, and I totally respect that. But many church members (including many clergy) have moved way beyond that interpretation of the gospel. Probably most have just given up and left the church which is the main reason for the decline. But a few brave souls are looking for acceptance of a less literalist way of being a Christian-not to deny your way of faith which we respect, but to enable us to feel included. I hope you will respect that.

      • Chris

        So Tricia tells you “….the early church had to fight for truth…” and you counter with the open-ended and noticeably undefinable concept of “….many church members (including many clergy) have moved way beyond that interpretation of the gospel…..a few brave souls are looking for acceptance of a less literalist way of being a Christian ….”

        Does it not ever occur to you that there is NO truth to be found in such “less literlist” ways of being Christian? You have used “literalist” as false and dismissive language when Christians are not absolute literalists at all but are seekers after God and truth, seekers after light amongst darkness. They are not seeking a way amongst many ways of being Christian, they are instead rightly seeking THE way, the only way of being Christian.

      • Chris – “making sense” is about your mind and not your heart. Knowing about, is not the same as “knowing” the person. Jesus tells us that he is within us by the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to know his will and be assisted to do His will. There is life in the Spirit but death in the flesh.

        • Thanks Tricia, I completely agree with you!
          I think I could express my faith in exactly the same way. Further I respect and accept other ways of expressing faith. The intention of my original post, perhaps badly expressed, was to point out that most people outside the church think that joining a church involves assenting to a long list of specific beliefs in an intellectual sense. As we on a theologian’s site we should remember that theologians constantly argue with each other over the details.
          Chris

  8. A colleague was telling me yesterday about the record he kept of his twelve years leading a church. He found that around 200 adults joined his church (of around 150) as regular attenders in that time but around 175 left so that overall they only grew by about 25 (his figures were precise but I’m rounding). Around 35% of the new joiners simply stopped coming (ie didn’t die or move away) whereas only around 15% of the existing congregation simply stopped, showing that one key to enhancing growth would be retaining new joiners over the longer term.

    The overall picture showed the complexity of growth, as even when you attract 16 new members a year the growth rate can be much lower than that, in this case around 2 per year.

  9. Many dioceses are supporting resource churches and church planting initiatives and training new and existing clergy to work in these new ways to help revive the church. All of which takes (some ) money. So Ian I’m still very surprised by your comment on another thread which you have not really clarified and I wonder if you could do so? You write:

    “….I am not sure the ‘orthodox’ are on the verge of departure…and I wouldn’t encourage them to either.

    I think a better scenario is that they do develop mutually supportive financial relations, and politely withdraw from central finance—which will quickly lead to dioceses going bankrupt.”

    A number of questions arise from this.

    1. Do you think it’s quite right that you, a member of the Archbishops Council, a centrally funded body if ever there was one, should be advocating the bankruptcy of dioceses?

    2. What do you actually think central finance in a diocese pays for, apart from stipends for clergy, (the great majority) and then support services for things like safeguarding, DAC, ScHools and young people’s work, church property (including the vicarages the clergy have to live in) and the already mentioned training of clergy – and their recruitment and selection of course.

    3. What does the withdrawal you advocate look like and what would it achieve?

    I’m very unclear quite what you are advocating in your comment and do think it’s entirely questionable given the aims of the AC which you represent. Would you be able to clarify for us a little?

    • Hi Andrew,

      You wrote: ‘2. What do you actually think central finance in a diocese pays for, apart from stipends for clergy, (the great majority) and then support services for things like safeguarding, DAC, schools and young people’s work, church property (including the vicarages the clergy have to live in) and the already mentioned training of clergy – and their recruitment and selection of course.

      Yep, that’s all part of the Shared Costs that parishes, like St. Oswald’s, Walkergate, were paying back in the 1990’s, when they took exception to the then Bishop of Newcastle’s alleged statement that same sex relations were not a sin.

      The PCC of St. Oswald’s issued a statement on 7th December 1997 (which was reported in the 8th December edition of the Journal newspaper) that: ‘The PCC. of St. Mark, Byker and St. Oswald, Walkergate affirms its adherence to the Bible’s teaching, and that it will therefore only be in fellowship with those leaders in the Anglican Communion who are orthodox in their faith and morals, as expressed in the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality.’

      The Ed Moll dispute (which was reported in Gill v Davies (1997) 5 Ecc LJ 131) arose when a prospective curate, who was scheduled to be ordained on 21st December, 1997, was summoned to a meeting with the acting Bishop (Kenneth Gill) and the Archdeacon of Northumberland.

      Although Moll was quite willing to render canonical obedience, he refused to renounce the PCC’s statement and his ordination did not go ahead as planned.

      Ed Moll reported (and this was corroborated by his vicar, Ken Moulder) in a briefing:
      ‘Ed Moll’s ordination had been stopped because he and his parish wanted to adhere to orthodox Christian biblical teaching on human sexuality. He was already fit for ordination, and had been since Summer 1997 (an ordination to coincide with his arrival in September had been postponed because no bishop was available).

      Further delay would both impair the ministry of St Oswald’s, and confirm the difficulty of being ordained while holding fast to traditional orthodox Christian teaching. An alternative ordination was therefore planned, at very short notice, to be carried out at St Oswald’s on 21 December by a retired missionary bishop. A High Court Injunction was sought by the acting bishop, Kenneth Gill, against the retired missionary bishop, the vicar and the churchwardens of St Oswald’s to prevent the ordination. After a four-hour hearing, the injunction was granted at the high court in Middlesborough against the retired bishop and the vicar for three months to prevent a possible breach of canon law. Apparently this is the first time a High Court injunction has been used to deal with canon law. No ordination was held on 21 December for Ed.”

      So, if revisionist bishops resort to this kind of high-handed imposition on orthodox clergy and their parishes, then they should not expect those parishes to continue coughing up further Shared Costs of the parish share.

      Especially, when official guidance on safeguarding, schools and young people, provide the basis for using precious diocesan funds to buy LGBT propaganda as ‘resources’ for church schools (like King and King and And Tango Makes Three) aimed at the childhood indoctrination of LGBT ideology: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/Valuing%20All%20God%27s%20Children%27s%20Report_0.pdf

      We can certainly find better things to do with our hard-earned money than that.

      Ed Moll

    • Andrew, thanks for asking the question. There are several elements to the answer.

      First, this arose on a discussion about sexuality, and I am struck, once again, how you smuggle this issue into just about every discussion!

      Secondly, as others have pointed out, I am not ‘advocating the bankruptcy of dioceses’. I am advocating that those who feel that they have seriously parted company with the teaching of the church shouldn’t leave, but should express that parting by a financial relationships which reflects that–and that I think that would lead to some diocese going under financially.

      Thirdly, yes I am well aware that central funds pay for all sorts of things. But any diocese which does not allocate the (voluntary) contributions from parishes on the basis of clergy numbers, but take other factors into account, particularly congregation size, will be receiving more money proportionately from larger congregations. On average, these tend to be evangelical congregations, whose contributions will be off-setting both ‘unsustainable’ ministry of other traditions in other areas, and central staffing. I am aware of at least one diocese which has more central staff than it has stipendiary clergy.

      So I think I am right in observing that, if larger evangelical congregations limit their contributions to covering the share of central costs proportional to their demand on central services, many dioceses will struggle financially.

      The first aim of AC is evangelism and the growth of congregations, including through church planting. If churches which take that seriously are able to put more resources into such things then that must be a good thing.

      • Thank you Ian for clarifying. Just to be clear, my questions above does not relate to issues about sexuality but about resources for growth and especially finance. So I am not smuggling anything into this discussion.

        Would you kindly tell us which diocese has more central staff then stipendiary clergy? That needs further investigation, if correct.

        And I think you don’t quite get what common fund is about. It is about those who are able to pay supporting those who aren’t, without saying ‘we will only pay if they believe in the same way as us…..’ . Our diocese is full of tiny rural congregations who can’t provide for all of their ministry, and that resource issue has nothing to do with ‘orthodoxy’ or otherwise and it’s a serious mistake to suggest that it does. If we followed your logic there would be conservative evangelical parishes refusing to pay common fund just in case their money paid the stipends of women incumbents.

        • Well, some do.

          I think it is interesting that the idea of actually having a common faith is so easily parodied as ‘if they believe the same way as us’. I have both friends and colleagues who belong to a different strand in the C of E, who are doing great work and valuable ministry, from whom I am keen to learn. But I have no real idea why I should ask my congregation to give sacrificially to support the ministry of someone who takes a non-realist view of God, and whose belief has little in common with the Creeds or historic Christian faith. Can you give me a reason why I should?

          Those (few) churches I know of who have withheld part of their common fund giving have instead sought to work in partnership with either rural or inner-urban churches who have demographic reasons for struggling financially in the way you indicate. Why is that a problem?

          The sense of shared responsibility (in finance and other things) has always been predicated on a shared confession in the form of the Anglican formularies. When the latter lack credibility or reality, then it is hardly surprising that the former comes under question.

          • 1. “Can you give me a reason why I should?”
            Because the common and faithful way to address that issue, if it actually exists, is to raise it in diocesan synod and/or with the bishop and archdeacon and then address it with those concerned in dialogue rather than taking a unilateral decision based on hearsay.

            2. “Why is that a problem?”
            Because it picks and chooses, rather than having a common fund. (The clue is in the title).

            3. “When the latter lack credibility or reality, then it is hardly surprising that the former comes under question.”
            And that would be a question for the leadership of the diocese first.

            Would you kindly tell us which diocese has more central staff then stipendiary clergy? That needs further investigation, if correct.

  10. I first read Rodney Stark’s book in a tent at New Wine during a flu epidemic (can’t remember if it was bird or swine). At the same time I read a letter from my bishop that I had stuffed in my rucksack before leaving home detailing the elaborate hygiene requirements we should follow if we wished to continue to share the chalice. Rodney Stark emphasises the enormous impact of the faith filled response of the early church to the repeated plagues that decimated cities in the Roman Empire. I couldn’t help making a connection.

    The statistical impact of their attitude to the plague makes it, he feels, the single most important factor on “the math” of early church growth, but it derives entirely from the extraordinary counter cultural faith filled expectation of eternal life that motivated the Christians. That confronts us with the reality that it is not simply the maths of compound interest that should challenge us but the anaemic risk averse “is it safe?” faith of the present

    • Yes, I remember the episcopal missive on hand sanitiser –

      Good point – the rapid growth of the church pre Constantine was not just compound interest but a huge surge following the witness and service of the church in two major plagues. The suffering populace knew the gods had let them down, the authorities had let them down, but the christians were there to care for them.

  11. Thanks David. But none of that really answers the questions I have put to Ian. I’m happy to wait. I know he will have thought it through carefully.

    • Hi Andrew,

      There’s no valid comparison between present funding arrangements (which, by a tenuous link to revival, you’ve managed to continue your interrogation) and the discussion of a future hypothetical Hobson’s choice.

      It’s not advocating withdrawal from central finance to reflect that it would be better, when compared to the complete departure of orthodox parishes (as Karl Freeman contemplated and Ian discourages), for them to ‘develop mutually supportive financial relations, and politely withdraw from central finance’.

      It’s Hobson’s choice and I couldn’t imagine anyone describing Hobson’s customers as ‘advocating’ the purchase of the horse in his stall nearest to the door, when his only other alternative was for them to leave empty-handed.

      In fact, this perfectly mirrors the two scenarios under discussion.

      If Ian does choose to respond, he really doesn’t have a case to answer.

      • We will have to disagree there David. Revival costs money, as I explained in my comment. And if you advocate bankrupting dioceses, as Ian does very clearly, then it hinders growth. Sounds a pretty important case to answer to me, not least round the table of AC.

        • As I wrote before, for Ian to reflect that one Hobson’s choice alternative is better than complete departure is not ‘advocating’ anything.

          It’s no more than wishful thinking, for some, to hope with all their being that Ian’s AC colleagues will see it otherwise.

  12. As I write before David, Ian said this :

    “I think a better scenario is that they do develop mutually supportive financial relations, and politely withdraw from central finance—which will quickly lead to dioceses going bankrupt.”

    I’ve read people advocating things before, and this looks like advocating something to me. Let’s let Ian clarify, and answer my questions…touching though your defence is.

    • No more touching than you forming an apologetic ‘tag-team’ with Penelope on other comment thread.

      Whether or not he responds, it doesn’t help your case to mention Ian’s reference to “a better scenario”, while omitting the stated basis of his comparison, which was the ‘Hobson’s choice’ of the complete departure of orthodox parishes.

      But, who knows? Perhaps, repeatedly omitting that context might eventually twist what was written into something more sinister.

      Much like those who, before the Sanhedrin, omitted context to claim that they heard Jesus fomenting religious terrorism (John 2:19; Mark 14:58; Mark 15:29-30)

      • David: to achieve this better scenario means taking action now. That is what is being advicated. So I am asking Ian to clarify. His words seem very clear. No context is really needed. But let’s hear what he says. Here is this again for clarity:
        “I think a better scenario is that they do develop mutually supportive financial relations, and politely withdraw from central finance—which will quickly lead to dioceses going bankrupt.”

        • “To achieve a better scenario means taking action now”.

          Well, that may be your own timetable, but, in Karl Freeman’s preceding comment (to which Ian replied), he explained: I regrettably find myself agreeing on the sad predictions of what is likely to emerge in 2020.

          Therefore, Ian’s ensuing comments provided an alternative to those 2020 predictions of the departure of orthodox parishes.

          You really can’t isolate an excerpt from one comment to make your case, but your considerable persistence in trying to do so is almost commendable.

          If you’re so sure, why not write to AC and let’s see if anything comes if it? Who knows, Simon Butler might even bring it up at their next meeting and force a grovelling apology?

          Not likely, “So, I’ll count: 3..2..1 and now we’re back in the real world.”

          • David: 2020 is but 18 months away. If those parishes don’t begin the mutually supportive financial relationship that Ian advocates so clearly now then it will be much too late. In fact it probably already is as many of the bishops have talked privately about much greater pastoral accommodation for those in sane sex relationships and already many blessings of such relationships are occurring.
            But this thread is about revival. Which costs money. And bankrupt dioceses won’t have any. So let’s just wait for Ian’s comments rather than trying to guess what he meant? (Unless of course you are desperately trying to write his script, which is how it seems).

          • Happy to wait, but there’s nothing desperate about pointing out your flawed reasoning on a public blog.

            In contrast, you seem all too hopeful of finally nailing an adversary in debate with this trumped-up charge of advocating withdrawal, when ‘better’ is only by comparison with Karl Freeman’s potential Hobson’s choice of departure.

          • Andrew, I actually raised my own eyebrows too at Ian’s comment, not in disagreement (quite the opposite) but on account of how it squares with his AC membership. I’ve no idea if an expectation of ‘collective responsibility’ means he might be considered worthy of discipline, ejection even, but if that were to hapen it would be hypocritical and self destructive to the point of utter farce.

            The complete breakdown of discipline over the sexuality issue is beyond dispute (you mention this with approval yourself). In that circumstance to censure someone for addressing a not unconnected reality with a rational response in an open blog would require possession of the skin of a rhino.

            Many already believe the CofE’s future is hanging by a few threads; to start wielding scissors in a fit of bureaucratic pique would suggest a self destructive mentality born of madness. It ain’t going to happen is it? nor should it if there’s any integrity left around the AC table. Addressing the realities of CofE management and future planning is surely the very essence of the AC’s existence. Part of that has to be ‘blue skies thinking’ – something which is painful and requires a licence to think the unthinkable. The last thing it needs is to lose the very people who are capable of offering that however inconvenient the reality may be.

            The future of the CofE will need a lot more eyebrows to be raised if it is to survive as a living church rather than a dead institution.

          • Don, as I say in my answer to Andrew’s question as originally posed, I am not ‘advocating bankrupting dioceses’ but advocating that people stay in (with whatever financial measures they need to take) rather than leave. I think financial trouble for dioceses would be the inevitable consequence of that.

            But expecting bishops to abide by, and even teach and advocate, the teaching of the church in both doctrine and ethics is perfectly compatible with membership of the Archbishops’ Council. One of the things we are aware of is the need to improve the working relationship with the House of Bishops–but it is not really a secret that the House itself does not function well, which is why we have bishops making pronouncements contrary to the teaching that, at their ordination, they committed to uphold. I think that is difficult, and the AC’s commitment to church planting and church growth means I am bound to try and support evangelicals in dioceses where their bishops are making life difficult for them by questioning church teaching.

          • David: of course it isn’t Hobson’s choice anyway. It has been a pointless exchange and my three questions to Ian remain, whether he is proposing something now or something hypothetical.

            Don: I agree that we need all the voices around the AC table to effect a solution to the current situation, not least to support the work of things like the resource churches and church plantings that will help with the subject of this post. So I would argue for Ian’s voice remaining. Bankruptcy ain’t going to achieve that. Revival will have to walk hand in hand with pastoral accommodation. That isn’t Hobson’s choice but the only choice and Archbishop Justin implicitly recognised that in his speech to synod in Feb 2017.

          • Actually, what’s been pointless has been your persistence in trying to isolate Ian’s remarks from the comment from Karl Freeman which prompted it.

            Given that clergy have faced disciplinary action and routine denial of preferment for entering a same-sex marriage, the Church’s listening process has never been a pastoral accommodation.

            Furthermore, Andrew Goddard has cogently explained why it would be problematic to extend a pastoral accommodation to same-sex couples, including the fact that, as with divorce, it would involve an admission that such relationships are a breach of God’s will.

            And it’s hardly revival for for numerical growth to be accompanied by capitulation to the next phase of the ‘affirming’ camp’s campaign, which is reception of ‘alternative patterns of faithful committed relating emerging alongside marriage’, as David Runcorn described them.

            That may not represent Hobson’s choice to you, but many orthodox parishes would beg to differ.

          • “Given that clergy have faced disciplinary action and routine denial of preferment for entering a same-sex marriage, the Church’s listening process has never been a pastoral accommodation.”

            Two or three clergy in well publicised cases have faced that. Many, many more live with their partners, are not subject to intrusive questioning by their bishops, and their parishes gladly invite those partners to social events and weekly worship. Sounds like greater pastoral accommodation to me……..

          • You obviously missed the bit I wrote about routine denial of preferment, which I highlighted as far back as 2014.

            The partial connivance that you describe is no more than “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t advance” and that’s hardly a pastoral accommodation.

            Name one such member of the clergy who is same-sex partnered in the manner that you’ve described and is not in a career cul-de-sac.

            And your assertion about pastoral accommodation doesn’t square with Andrew Foreshew-Cain’s experience of being blacklisted in the Manchester diocese? https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/30/gay-vicar-andrew-foreshew-cain-quits-and-attacks-institutional-homophobia-church

            Given that the focus of this post is on revival, I’d suggest that we return to that topic.

            Your tenuous links between revival, the prospect of mutually supportive financial arrangements among conservative parishes and now pastoral accommodation appear severely strained, if not broken.

          • “The partial connivance that you describe is no more than “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t advance” and that’s hardly a pastoral accommodation.”

            It’s pretty accommodating for the couples concerned!

            You seem somewhat angry David.

        • Hi Andrew,

          What’s there to be angry about?

          Clergy who defy the 2014 pastoral guidance are either disciplined or routinely denied preferment. The Church’s religious exemption from the Equality Act has been sustained in case law.

          Liberal commentators have little faith in the episcopal Teaching Document delivering significant change.

          You should save your attempts at amateur psychoanalysis for Andrew Foreshew-Cain.

          If anyone’s angry with what you view as pastoral accommodation, it’s him.

          Let’s move on.

          • David: I’m not quite sure why you are so obsessed with clergy and their ‘careers’ (which is an odd way of looking at the issue) and ‘preferment’ – although we do of course have Deans and canons and at least one bishop as well as parochial clergy in openly gay, committed relationships. But the majority of people in the church are not clergy! It’s the laity who are enjoying having their relationships openly acknowledged, blessed, prayed for, celebrated and above all recognised in the church as they are in society. That looks like greater pastoral accommodation to me, and there have been indications, not least from the archbishop himself, that this will increase rather than decrease.
            The church is rather more than clergy.
            But yes, let’s move on.

  13. Although there has been criticism for Stark’s sociological approach, I think this does deny (for me) that the growth of Christianity was the work of God. Paul wrote that “at just the right time…Christ died for us” and I have heard it said that it was “just the right time” because of the social and political landscape in the Roman Empire.

    One of the reasons Stark draws out for the expansion is that Christianity continued to draw converts from Hellenised Jews. I certainly have had the impression of increasing animosity between the two faiths in the latter part of the first century. But perhaps the dividing wall of hostility was still being broken down. The familiarity of the Christian faith to many themes of Judaism should encourage us in the West where people, although lacking much true understanding of the faith and being trapped in habits of thinking which are antithetical to it, nonetheless are haunted by the Christian history of our culture.

    Simon mentions, above, care for the sick in the plagues. This is a particular example of care for the weak and the poor. It was not only successful because Christians were simply more likely to survive, thus increasing their proportion of the overall population, but because it presented a different way of life that was extremely counter-cultural but very attractive.

    Another reason for the rise is related: the status and honour given to women. Christianity has always been a religion which appealed to women. Again, this is counter-cultural and attractive. (I think that Constantine was probably negative for this, with the association of Christianity with the Imperial – patricarchal – structures.)

    Ian draws attention to Stark’s argument that the early Christian movement was a socially open network. This chimes with something I seem to be coming across in different places about the importance, first, of the Christian community living its life together – this means more than on Sundays, and, second, that the life of the community should be visible to outsiders.

    One source of this idea is from a book I am reading at the moment (slowly, it is a solid read): Michael Gorman’s “Becoming the Gospel”. In it he tackles the idea that Paul does not tell the early Christian communities to evangelise. The response is that this evangelisation is by the very lives of the Christians, in relation to each other and to the world. He uses two words, please to me as a former physicist: centripetal and centrifugal. The life of the community should draw people in, but then also fling them out into the world.

    This is the work of the Spirit, in forming Christian character in individuals, and in forming Christian communities. Without the Spirit it cannot happen. I think the challenge for us is to find out how we can assist the Spirit in the formation of these communities, which are counter to what seems to be a rapidly fragmenting modern culture, and which presents an attractive alternative.

  14. Thanks for a thought provoking piece, Ian. The effects of exponential growth are amazing if one starts with patience and faith!

    In one sense revival is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit. But few Christians would think that absolves us of evangelistic responsibility. Some of that is undoubtedly down to individual talent for leading people to Christ (we probably all know of people with that amazing ability), but strategy and practicality cannot be avoided. Retention is fundamental.

    One aspect for us in the CofE today (and which really perplexes me) is how to do this in our now utterly fragmented society. It seems there are two basic choices: complexity or simplicity – I’m sure there’s room for both. Either churches apply themselves to every cultural strand of what’s going on in their local area – a gargantuan task which it seems can only result in a commensurately fragmented local church – or they go the opposite way and aim for an extreme simplicity which somehow grabs the minds of all the cultural strands within one universally approachable vehicle of worship and teaching.

    Of course the second option is simply what now appears to be the luxury of how things worked in past times (except that the Book of Common Prayer was not ‘simple’, but was absorbed from early childhood), and many would say it can no longer work; but surely it is in the nature of the Gospel that it appeals to the human heart rather than the varieties of culture. And the human heart – it’s needs and its longings – are unchanged despite people’s external presentation which makes us assume sophisticated techniques of attracting and keeping them are now unavoidable.

    If we look at the ‘simplicity’ option, I can think of 4 essential aspects:
    1) People (all church members) need to know, understand and be able to present to others what the Christian Gospel is.
    2) They need to believe it for themselves in their hearts and live it out in their lives
    3) There needs to be one central Sunday act of worship, of lifelong value in its depth, where all attend (including – especially – children). Please let it not be a Communion service.
    4) A leader (all flocks need a shepherd) who utterly believes in what is being offered and is capable of delivering it with total conviction and sincerity (poor presenting skills are not an option).

    A naïve nostalgia for times long gone? Or a vision which matches the arithmetic simplicity of exponential growth? Well they say an engineer is someone who designs a product that costs £5 that anyone could design for a cost of £500. Perhaps we need some good Christian church engineers?

  15. I’m intrigued by the idea that we should expect the church to have grown consistently by 40% per decade when growth patterns typically follow an S curve – slow start, fast middle, tapering off at end. Does Stark give any reason beyond being open (and birth rate) why growth followed a linear pattern in this instance? Sustaining linear growth for centuries seems pretty miraculous to me!

  16. As I said when this was last posted, and as Stark would surely accept, these figures for early church expansion are guesswork, informed by what few ancient sources we have. That being so, I wouldn’t place much weight on the rate of expansion, certainly not to inform a modern context.

    So how to bump up numbers? Charismatic evangelical beacon churches are a demonstrable success, but can suffer from high turnover: the exit can be just as busy as the entrance. I suspect that this is, in part, because the initial enthusiasm wanes and the lively faith struggles with life’s setbacks. This isn’t to echo the “evangelical faith shallow, liberal/Catholic faith deep” cliche, but to highlight the importance of taking new members onto the next step, whatever tradition it may be.

  17. “Please let it not be a Communion service.”
    Whyever not?
    It was a direct command of our Lord’s own lips, along with Baptism. It centres on the precise act of our redemption (whatever your theology of that is) and absolutely on Christ. It’s probably the only thing left distinguishing some meetings from a coffee morning with entertainment.
    I don’t want to go back to my teens where Communion was once a month, if you liked that sort of thing, and restricted to grandmothers and religious “nuts”/nerds – who still form the praying backbone of the 8 o’clock service every Sunday. Most “ordinary” Christians could go a lifetime without ever doing it at all, and many had a half-felt superstitious fear of its strangeness.
    And the vehemence of your plea to exclude it as normal experience for Christians makes my spiritual alarm system beep warningly. Without the frequent reminder of Who we worship and what it cost Him – and our public obedience to at least *one* of His commandments – it is all too easy to start wandering off into more “fun” pursuits that will not support us in the hour of need.
    Perhaps we need *more* Communion, not less?

    • I totally agree Karen
      I have just read Don and was shocked
      I half wonder if he accidentally/unintentionally inserted ‘not’ and meant to say
      ‘let it please be communion’

      I believe it should be the principal service: putting first things first, grace to nourish us, shared cup to unite us, the gospel proclaimed in word and sight and the only unique Christian event

      • Thank you Simon: perhaps Don will reply and explain what he meant and his reasons for saying it.
        The times when it feels most odd and out of place (like Christmas Eve) are precisely the times we need to be reminded of its meaning.

Leave a Comment