Thinking Anglicans

From Anecdote to Evidence: An Evaluation

Updated

From Anecdote to Evidence is available here.

Mark Hart, Rector of Plemstall & Guilden Sutton, Diocese of Chester, has written an 18 page essay which evaluates this report. He has titled it From Delusion to Reality and you can read it in a PDF file located here.

His analysis makes use of a previously unpublished update dated September 2014 to a report by David Voas and Laura Watt, which was originally published in February 2014.

The updated version is now available here.

As the title of his analysis hints, his evaluation concludes that the evidence does not support the arguments now being made for the investment of substantial money by the Church Commissioners in order to stimulate church growth. His concluding paragraphs read:

The Church has recently embarked on a wide-ranging programme of ‘Reform and Renewal’, led with considerable energy and resolve, and this has quite understandably been a great source of encouragement to many. However, the Church Growth Research is cited as the evidence base for the success of these plans, and From Anecdote to Evidence represents the level of understanding of the research among the senior leadership.

It has been estimated that it will be necessary to borrow at least £100m from the future, using Church Commissioners’ funds, in order to implement the Task Group proposals. This paper therefore calls into question the basis for considering this an investment likely to pay back a return, in terms of either finance or church growth. It also calls into question the From Evidence to Action initiative which is designed to encourage parishes to implement the research findings as presented in From Anecdote to Evidence.

Despite appearances, this is not meant to be a negative analysis, even though it asks the Church’s leaders to accept that their research has provided no answer to the question of how to achieve sufficient numerical growth to offset the continuing decline.

The analysis here implies there is a need for much more radical thinking and planning, not less. The questions go wider than ‘How can we increase attendance figures?’ to include ‘What are the reasons for decline?’ and ‘What is an appropriate ecclesiology for a national Church in today’s social context?’ That requires attention to be given to all aspects of the Church’s role in society. And it requires the questions to be asked with a positive, outward look towards the people of the parishes rather than an inward, anxious focus on institutional strength.

The Church has officially moved from delusion to reality on attendance figures. It now needs to face the reality of what its own growth research is saying, and of why it was felt necessary to portray it in a way which would only create another delusion.

Read it all for yourself.

Update
I omitted previously to link to the blog article introducing this written by Mark Hart. He said:

…My paper shows that ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ systematically misrepresents or misinterprets the underlying report by David Voas & Laura Watt, thereby exaggerating the usefulness of the findings for numerical growth.

This has implications for the ‘Reform & Renewal’ programme (involving many Task Groups) which plans to borrow an estimated £100m from the future, on the evidence of this research, to invest in church growth…

Mark has now written a further note, From Even More Delusion to Reality, which says:

The C of E press release issued when ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ was published was even more false than the report itself:

“Researchers have concluded that while there is no single recipe, there are common ingredients strongly associated with growth in churches of any size, place or context:
These include: Leadership; A clear mission and purpose; Willingness to self-reflect and learn continually; Willingness to change and adapt according to context; Lay as well as clergy involvement and leadership; Being intentional about prioritising growth; Actively engaging children and teenagers; Actively engaging with those who might not usually go to church; Good welcoming and follow up for visitors; Commitment to nurturing new and existing Christians; Vision” (my bold)

Every one of these factors, it is claimed, according to a professional research conclusion, is strongly associated with growth, in any church in the land.
This is so untrue, as my paper shows (and see previous post).
This is not an academic argument. It is about the people and clergy of the parishes. They are affected by decisions made on the basis of these ‘findings’. They deserve better.

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Linda Woodhead
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Linda Woodhead

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

Pluralist
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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… Read more »

J Drever
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J Drever

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… Read more »

Mark Bennet
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Mark Bennet

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… Read more »

Fr Andrew
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Fr Andrew

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… Read more »

Alastair Newman
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Alastair Newman

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.”

Jeremy
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Jeremy

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

Tim M
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Tim M

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.

Mark Bennet
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Mark Bennet

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… Read more »

ExRevd
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ExRevd

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.

Mark Bennet
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Mark Bennet

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.

Fr Andrew
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Fr Andrew

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… Read more »

Martyn Percy
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Martyn Percy

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… Read more »

Jeremy
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Jeremy

“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.” Precisely. 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… Read more »

Mark Bennet
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Mark Bennet

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)… Read more »

Jeremy
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Jeremy

“[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,… Read more »

Charles Read
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Charles Read

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… Read more »

andy gr
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andy gr

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… Read more »

Martyn Percy
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Martyn Percy

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… Read more »

Anne
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Anne

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… Read more »

Perry Butler
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Perry Butler

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… Read more »