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Cleric says report on church growth belies the research

17 April 2015


A RECTOR in Chester diocese, the Revd Dr Mark Hart, has challenged the measures of church growth which are at the heart of the Church of England's "Reform and Renewal" programme.

Dr Hart, Rector of Plemstall and Guilden Sutton, trained as a mathematician and engineer. He completed a paper last Saturday, From Delusion to Reality, which looks critically at From Anecdote to Evidence, the 2014 report that examines evidence for which factors cause churches to grow.

The findings in From Anecdote to Evidence are being used as the basis for a re-orientation of central church funding, under plans put forward by the task groups (News, 16/23 January). The report Resourcing the Future proposes that half the funds should go to projects that show "significant growth potential". Another report, Intergenerational Equity, proposes spending Church Commissioners' capital - £100 million has been mentioned - to support diocesan growth plans.

In other words, Dr Hart says, "an awful lot is hanging on this single piece of research."

The trouble, he says, is that From Anecdote to Evidence "systematically misrepresents" the underlying research by Professor David Voas, Laura Watt, and a team from the University of Essex, "thereby exaggerating the usefulness of the findings for numerical growth".

For one thing, a distinction is made in the original research between objective measures of growth and self-reporting: the latter, Dr Hart says, tends to be consistently inflated, especially in parishes that have a mobile population. When the findings were reported in From Anecdote to Evidence, this distinction tended to be lost.

For another, factors that are listed as causes of numerical growth might, instead, be caused by growth. As an example, Dr Hart quotes figures given in From Anecdote to Evidence which suggest that rotating volunteers to different leadership positions produces growth: "Of those who answered that the same people tend to serve, eight per cent reported growth. Of those who said there was some rotation (tending to be among a limited number of people), 19 per cent reported growth. Of those who said there was a lot of rotation among people in volunteer leadership roles, 47 per cent reported growth" (From Anecdote to Evidence, p. 12).

Dr Hart reports a caveat that is expressed by Voas and Watt: "Although it is hard to avoid the suspicion that when lay roles seem fixed the opportunities for growth are much reduced, the direction of causality is not clear. It is no surprise that growing churches find it easier to fill lay leadership roles."

Dr Hart remarks: "It seems highly plausible that a thriving church enables rotation of volunteers, and quite dubious that an emphasis on rotating the few volunteers present in a struggling parish will produce growth."

Dr Hart said on Tuesday that he was not "anti-growth". His paper had been very focused on the question whether the levers in the original research actually could produce growth. His criticism was of the emphasis on numerical growth. "We shouldn't start from the question how we can make the institution bigger. We should ask, instead, what we're here for: making disciples, providing a service to the whole nation."

He described his own parish as a very active one. "We do all the things we're meant to do. We run Pilgrim courses; we do Messy Church - they're good things to do. But a lot of it just doesn't translate into Sunday attendance. If that were the only measure of success, it would be very depressing."

Asked about growth, he said that, in his 13 years in the parish, he had seen a bit of growth, a bit of shrinkage. The finances were increasingly difficult: they had had to raise £72,000 for their parish share last year, with an electoral roll of about 160. On the other hand, they had presented 12 candidates for confirmation at Easter.

"This emphasis on numerical growth bothers me in terms of a national strategy: by significantly exaggerating what was found, it threatens to distort the way things are done. Clergy deserve better than spin as the basis for motivating their ministry."

'Lost in translation' - Leader comment

Mark Hart's criticism of From Anecdote to Evidence

1. The reported findings are consistently drawn from the analysis of self-reported qualitative growth, without considering the equivalent findings using the statistical data from parish returns.

2. The inflation in the self-reported growth is not mentioned, nor the possibility of bias.

3. The warnings of Voas and Watt that causation is likely sometimes to work in reverse (growth causing change in the factor) are repeatedly ignored.

4. A correlation is described as "strong" when in the Voas and Watt report it is weak.

5. A correlation is described as "significant", misleading the general reader, since, while this is true in the technical, statistical sense, the correlation is actually weak.

6. One of the factors for growth reported as a research finding is actually present in the report by Voas and Watt only as a hypothesis, as yet untested.

7. One of the factors for growth reported as a research finding is actually present in the report by Voas and Watt only as a comment in response to anecdotal evidence.

8. No mention is made of the highly significant result that the factors found to be associated with growth account for only a small proportion of the difference between growing and declining churches (only 10-25 per cent of the variance was explained).

Estimation of the effect of using the identified factors as levers for the overall growth of the Church begins from the low base of having explained so little of what makes the difference. The net effect must then be further reduced by taking account of:

• those factors where the relationship is not causal, or is reverse causal;

• those factors that cannot be changed (e.g. demographics);

• the general inflation of self-reported growth; and

• the proportion of growth that is transfer between churches, with no net effect.

Therefore, according to the research, the increase in growth to be expected from the use of these factors will be nowhere near sufficient to halt the relentless generational decline, even if the resources could be found to move every lever as far as possible. 

THE analysis here implies that 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 function 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 why it was felt necessary to portray it in a way that would only create another delusion.

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