Comments: From Anecdote to Evidence: An Evaluation

When the church learns to love the truth, things will improve. It really is that simple

Posted by Linda Woodhead at Monday, 13 April 2015 at 11:59pm BST

There is a Unitarian church in the UK that grows when the denomination keeps declining and seriously. It hasn't bottomed out, the elderly keep dying in faster numbers than recruits, and there is a turnover of people too. We are told it prioritises growth, but it could be that in that it grows, it can SAY it prioritises growth. The fact that it is in a communal setting, surrounded by evangelical churches in other denominations, and restrains its identity in relationship to them, and indeed has a minister, suggests that it is easier to grow than, say, some city centre church trying to be all things to all.

I suggest that policies often shift, causes are given, according to what results happen. A lot of church growth is sheer random events - someone comes, someone stays, and the someone has similar friends, or a family with a child comes, and then other children come. You can market, plan, sell, but in the end a die is being thrown, and this while the elderly continue to withdraw.

Posted by Pluralist at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 12:36am BST

I have worshipped at approximately 180 churches so far this year and more than 2,000 since 2009 (this is meant not as a boast but as evidence that I have been able to conduct my own unscientific survey of attendance). Last Sunday I attended nine services in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Absent one service, I did not see a single person in any of the churches under the age of 65 to 70; several of these churches were in large villages, but the congregations were comfortably under 10 (these were main Sunday services). Of course, all of these churches might have had an off-day after the hiatus of Easter - but I have encountered so many churches with 'off-days' over more than twenty dioceses, that I fear that 90% plus of the Church is only a few years from extinction.

I cannot endorse the Voas/Watt and Hart materials warmly enough, but it is a matter of deep regret that the authorities were not addressing the collapse in attendance by the young much more seriously from the 1970s. Churches can collapse much more quickly than people imagine if an elderly cohort of regular attendees is not replaced: I recently attended a fine church in Nottinghamshire which is the subject of a pending scheme; even as late as a decade ago, it had a respectable critical mass of ageing attendees, and now they are about to hand over the keys.

Several points: (i) churches need to adjust service times in order to fit with weekend timetables - this means more family orientated services late on Sunday afternoons; (ii) whilst Messy Church is fine, churches must concentrate on adolescents and those in the 20s - and do so fast; (iii) clergy need to get out and knock on doors in the old style (Anecdote to Evidence cites Yaxley in Suffolk, but I have seen striking instances of the success that a personable minister committed to visiting can achieve, even if the considerable effort is often not commensurate with the reward); (iii) whilst a necessary evil, multi-parish benefices can grow (pace Voas/Watt) if each constituent parish has at least one enthusiastic and affable leader, whether clerical or lay; (iv) hire nice, outgoing, people; and (v) keep hiring nice and outgoing people!

I hope these articles will attract as much/more attention than the heated recent threads re GAFCON/AMiE, though I fear they will not.

Posted by J Drever at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 1:29am BST

The work behind From Anecdote to Evidence is a big first step, and this critique shows that there is more work to be done to understand the factors at work. I have to say that I thought the amalgamations etc part of the original report was significantly weaker in terms of methodology and the sharpness of the the questions which came into view.

The report and underlying methodology look at parishes/benefices in isolation from each other. There is also a need to consider other ecological factors. For example there is no measure of penetration in the highlights (the proportion of the population engaged with the church), nor is there any consideration of life-cycle (faith growth models are themselves controversial, of course, but should be considered) - for example some of the young adults who attend churches in cities move out to other areas - do they stay with the church?

The effect of the presence of church schools is another factor which bears examination.

Some of the money should be used to fund further research - particularly into questions which may have uncomfortable answers.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 8:30am BST

Alleluia! I'm glad somebody's taken the time to say this. And this evaluation touches on only some of the problems with A to E.

For example, one of the drums being banged in response to this research is that younger clergy lead to growth. That might be the case. But before we can say that we would need to look at the sort of churches younger clergy are in. It may be that more experienced (therefore not younger) clergy tend to be appointed to larger churches (at the peak if their growth potential) and younger clergy tend to find jobs in smaller churches (where the only way is up). Or perhaps successful churches are better able to attract and bid for that rare thing of younger clergy. In either case, clergy youth is not the cause of growth. The data just aren't there. We just don't know.

If I was spending millions of pounds on trying to grow the church I'd want something better than weak correlations. Sadly I suspect the hierarchy is already committed to a plan of action based on what it already 'knows' is right (i.e. evangelical truisms).

Posted by Fr Andrew at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 9:35am BST

A really interesting (and important) paper.

Quoting from Voas&Watt:

"...some churches grow at the expense of others. Sheep are not stolen; they simply chose their fields, and it is helpful to understand why they roam. Nevertheless it would be pointless (from the perspective of the Church as a whole) to put
enormous efforts into activities that simply shift people from one parish to another, unless the aim is to invest in some churches and to close others."

Posted by Alastair Newman at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 9:47am BST

I find the financial implications troubling. Is the church about to spend 100 million pounds on a wild-goose chase?

Posted by Jeremy at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 12:24pm BST

The experience of J Drever - as well as mine - suggests that efforts to attract newcomers don't need to focus so much on children and adolescents, but rather on working-age adults.

Posted by Tim M at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 6:53pm BST

Jeremy, if the Church Commissioners spend £100m of what they have on things which are partially effective, that is better than not spending it, or spending it on things which are ineffective. £100m is, in fact, a small part of the excess returns the Church Commissioners have made over the last few years - it is money the church would not have without their stewardship. People who are, or who have been, Church Commissioners in the current generation are more concerned than their predecessors that the specific remit of their charitable fund (which is not "owned" by the Church of England) is respected in the actual use of the money they provide to dioceses.

From Anecdote to Evidence is a major step forward. Those who have a critique need to point to next steps, rather than steps backward. The linked critique starts to get there, and my previous comment is an attempt to do the same.

There was a comment - I think in one of the General Synod debates, there was a question - "why will the development of lay ministry work this time, when it hasn't before?" or something similar - answer "because no-one has ever put adequate money behind it before." or something equivalent.

There are people involved here who (a) know where the money is and (b) know how to use it to change things.

Judas, of course, thought the same way. And accidentally brought a conclusion he did not expect (seasonal reference). As a Chartered Accountant myself (to declare an interest) I regularly pray for those who deal with money, both within and beyond the bounds of the Church.

The big question is how to be faithful with the resources we have - how to receive the gifts God has given.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 8:17pm BST

Sorry Mark but talking about £100 million as if it was loose change is, please believe me, one important reason why people are repelled by the institutional churches. You can see that money as the fruit of shrewd investment. Or as the sum total of small legacies, tithing when it hurts, tiny anonymous offerings. Or you can see it as a scandal.

Posted by ExRevd at Tuesday, 14 April 2015 at 10:33pm BST

ExRevd "as if it were loose change" - indeed. The Church Commissioners could (a) not notice that they have more money and spend it without thinking, or not spend it without thinking; (the loose change option) or (b) act as trustees, go back to their core purposes, and ask themselves how to spend it in accordance with the purposes for which they hold money. What is being attempted is more (b) than (a). If the option were (a) we'd hear nothing about it.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Wednesday, 15 April 2015 at 7:39am BST

Mark, there is not a problem with the Church Commissioners spending millions on church growth. There IS a problem if that spending is going to be based on a faulty interpretation of one piece of research, which is what looks like what is going to happen.

No businessman would invest a penny in a project that was based on the level of proof of Anecdote to a Evidence. No doctor would prescribe a treatment with the level of proof of Anecdote to Evidence.

Yes, something must be done, but surely we can avoid the response 'this is something, therefore it must be done'.

A to E should be used as a pointer to where to do proper, in depth research. Now we have some pointers, spend a few million on doing better, focused research. Don't blow millions on the first tentative interpretations of preliminary research.

Posted by Fr Andrew at Thursday, 16 April 2015 at 7:20am BST

Mark Hart's critique is to be welcomed. 'From Anecdote to Evidence' was an exercise where the thesis directed the facts. For example, the appendix of the Report compared the usual Sunday attendance (uSa) of churches with anyone - anyone - who had come into contact with a Fresh Expression over a six month period. But the many, many hundreds who went to an ordinary parish church for a funeral, memorial service, wedding, christening, midweek service and the like could not be counted. This resulted in a massive distortion of comparative data.

What did 'From Anecdote to Evidence' conclude on the basis of this distorted comparison? That both Fresh Expressions and parish church ministries were equally effective in terms of numbers. This is just not true. But the research in the report was shaped, and then spun, to reach this erroneous conclusion. Those funding the 'research' set it up to achieve this goal.

Comparable problems exist in the current five areas of reform - backed by "research" - commissioned by the Archbishop. The research simply lacks sufficient academic calibre or empirical quality to pass muster. The "research" underpinning the 'Resourcing Ministerial Education' report is especially suspect. But those driving the agenda for reform also control the budgets and the committees overseeing the work; and the scope, meaning and interpretation of the research that supports the agendas being driven.

It is an extremely serious situation, and one in which any emerging critiques of the proposed reforms are met by shrill responses, claiming that any opposition is 'anti-mission', or against church growth and necessary changes and reforms. This stance is neither commendable or particularly Christian. The church needs to serve the truth rather better than this, and certainly with more integrity.

Posted by Martyn Percy at Thursday, 16 April 2015 at 9:36am BST

"No businessman would invest a penny in a project that was based on the level of proof of Anecdote to a Evidence. No doctor would prescribe a treatment with the level of proof of Anecdote to Evidence."


From Rev. Mark Hart's analysis, it seems that the Commissioners are proposing to spend the astronomical sum of 100 million pounds on "investments" that are statistically unsupportable.

Of course the Commissioners should act as trustees. But are they doing so in this instance?

Trustees have a duty of care. Perhaps more "due diligence" is required?

If someone is trying to spin anecdotes into evidence, it won't wash.

Posted by Jeremy at Thursday, 16 April 2015 at 6:19pm BST

There may be weaknesses in the Church Commissioners current approach. I think they were right to reappraise. The question for those on the liberal side of this argument should not be how to resist the intentional deployment of resources towards the perceived levers of church growth, but how to use those resources to sustain a better narrative of church health.

The status quo is, in my mind, indefensible. Go beyond, transcend, subvert - bare opposition to change has no traction politically within the church or theologically either. From Anecdote to Evidence is better than what went before (really it is) - it isn't great and can be criticised till Kingdom Come (eschatological reference used often by my father when exasperated) - any constructive critique needs to do better (and better is hugely possible).

In particular the inherent dynamic of further research needs to be pursued - admit that the research has taken us forward, and secure a commitment to more and better research to inform us. The whole package of the reform agenda is short on deep thinking about the church and its future, when that is the part of the current research which is argued to have been most fruitful.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Thursday, 16 April 2015 at 9:53pm BST

"[A]ny constructive critique needs to do better."

Nonsense. That is the usual line from those with power, and funds, and decision-making authority, to those who lack them.

Needless to say, I lack the resources to commission "church growth research" and then to act on it.

But evidently evangelicals lack the money too--or they wouldn't be asking the Church Commissioners to spend it. "That's where the money is."

My suggestion is that before the Commissioners spend £100 million of Other People's Money, the Commissioners should conduct more research to see what the real levers of church growth are.

And most importantly, the Commissioners should ensure that once the research is done, it cannot be energetically spun.

For as matters stand right now, they raise serious questions.

Is Anecdote to Evidence being used by those who would dearly like their own notions of church-growth programs to receive £100 million?

In other words, is Anecdote to Evidence being used by evangelicals to try to make the Church more evangelical?

Posted by Jeremy at Friday, 17 April 2015 at 10:49am BST

Yes to Martyn Percy's comments, especially on how dissent (or even just asking questions!) is currently being treated. I come from the bit of the Church (evangelical, charismatic) which ought to be cheering at recent proposals etc. but I am cautious instead. I believe firmly in church growth, including growth in the number of Christian believers (i.e. in people becoming Christians - if 100 people became Christians and 100 other Christians died the net result is 0 church (militant) growth but I rejoice in the 100 who found faith - and in the faith and continued fellowship of the 100 deceased).

But growth must always be more than numbers. The discipleship initiative has promise. (Just realised when I typed that sentence it could be a backhanded compliment / comment on the Great Commission!)

I am intrigued though by Martyn's comments on the RME report resting on false assumptions / research - can you say more? I think RME offers us some possibilities worth pursuing - but it needs the details revising.

Can't someone get a group together the work out an alternative vision / plan and present it in an accessible way? Martyn - can you set this going?

Posted by Charles Read at Friday, 17 April 2015 at 10:51am BST

So much of the church's money now seems to be spent on paying clergy to take care of older people with traditional musical tastes who are already church attenders, that it could be seen as a matter of sheer justice that some be spent on younger people and those whose musical tastes are less choral - especially if this involves resourcing lay people to serve non-churchgoers. I would argue for this even if the statistics in Anecdote to Evidence were discredited (and I think they are being legitimately questioned in some respects). If you look at it that way, some - not all - of the criticisms of the proposed new investment might be seen as unintended collusion with clericalism and institutional ageism.

Posted by andy gr at Saturday, 18 April 2015 at 6:55pm BST

In response to Charles Read's comments above, I would indeed like to get something together on theological education in the autumn.

Meanwhile, I commend - fully and warmly - Alister McGrath's excellent critique of RME in the 'Church Times'. An excellent contribution to the debate.

The issue for RME was the claim made by John Spence - to all the Principals of Colleges and Courses at a gathering in July 2014, that the proposed changes to theological education would be "rooted in research".

The criteria announced by Spence for re-shaping the delivery of our training and formation, however, were published in advance of any research undertaken. The CofE would, in future, we were told, be investing in "effective training, effective candidates and overall effectiveness". Mr Spence was able to outline what he thought this looked like. It did not correspond to any vision for theological education, training and formation that many would own, or be happy with. If I recall correctly, the word 'formation' was used in only one of the sixteen criteria - and only in relation to forming a curriculum, not persons of virtue, character and ordained life.

Of course, the Principals/Wardens and Theological Education Institutions (TEI) were then all summarily excluded from the subsequent consultation and the research that followed, on the basis that they would have 'vested interests'. Spence holds the purse-strings for the Archbishops' Council, and is also driving the direction and destination of all this change. (But this is not a conflict of interest, apparently).

So as with the Green Report we have the same methods (no consultation with the relevant stakeholders, and excluding academic experts) and yet the same claims by CofE management on achieving ‘research-backed’ conclusions, which simply don’t stack up under any scrutiny. In fairness to the RME report, Prof. Sarah Coakley did sit on the steering group - but her resignation from this group, and her reasons for it, are now a matter of public record.

Can I ask TA readers, what interest might there be in a day to explore future directions in theological education, training and formation, in the light of RME?

Posted by Martyn Percy at Sunday, 19 April 2015 at 12:42pm BST

This is a bit of a sweeping statment, Andy gr. From my experience the preference for different musical and spiritual styles is no great respecter of ages. My church choir consists of all ages, and I have found that the young people often prefer the "traditional" music to the modern. Preferences for "traditional" or "contemporary" worship and spirituality also can't be pigeonholed by age, and some of my young (and older) people have said quite freely to me that they are irritated by the assumption that they will prefer "modern" or "traditional" services. It seems to me it is more a matter of personality than age, and that what people need is permission to be, and to worhship, as themselves.

Posted by Anne at Sunday, 19 April 2015 at 1:31pm BST

I think the concept of " formation" goes back to a paper by Dan Hardy of Durham in 1986 or 7..I don't know if it was ever published..I saw it as part of a job interview at ACCM as it was. He argued for a more integrative approach to ministerial training...but he based it on the view that the C of E must decide what it believes priestly ministry is in the context of what the C of E is for.But that is surely the problem..where is the similarity between formation as conceived by ,say, Oakhill and Mirfield and some of the non residential courses.? It might be an idea to as people working in post ordination training ,KIME 4 to 7 as it now is, how they find the situation they inherit with the newly ordained.

Posted by Perry Butler at Monday, 20 April 2015 at 1:55pm BST
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please note that comments are limited to 400 words. Comments that are longer than 400 words will not be approved.

Cookies are used to remember your personal information between visits to the site. This information is stored on your computer and used to refill the text boxes on your next visit. Any cookie is deleted if you select 'No'. By ticking 'Yes' you agree to this use of a cookie by this site. No third-party cookies are used, and cookies are not used for analytical, advertising, or other purposes.