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
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
"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
Mark Hart's criticism of From Anecdote to
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
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
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
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
• those factors where the relationship is not causal, or
is reverse causal;
• those factors that cannot be changed (e.g.
• the general inflation of self-reported growth;
• 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
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
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