John Richardson discovers we are already succeeding

I have recently come across a remarkable book with some remarkable lessons. The only problem lies in knowing what exactly to do with them. The book is The Churching of America 1776–1990, and its authors, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, are sociologists of religion. What Finke and Stark have done is use the insights of their discipline, and painstaking statistical analysis in particular, to show why overall church affiliation grew in America from the time of the Revolution down to the closing decade of the twentieth century.

Notice, I did say ‘grew’ in that time – not grew and then declined, but kept on growing. From a carefully estimated 17% at the time of the Revolution, church affiliation in America increased steadily to over 60% in the 1980s. Like many of my compatriots, I have been happy to criticize American Christianity as 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. But compare that growth with English Christianity – shrunken, shrinking and scarcely itself a shining example of religious sophistication – and I know which situation I’d rather be in.

What Finke and Stark also show, however, is that this growth has not been uniform. Some denominations have actually shrunk dramatically in that same period. Take, for example, the Methodists, whose 117 members per thousand head of population in 1850 had dropped to 74 per thousand in 1980, whereas the Baptists had grown from 70 to 142 per thousand in the same period. One immediately wonders what the cause of this might be – and Finke and Stark are ready with a simple answer. In fact, they give it on page 1:

[T]o the degree that denominations rejected traditional doctrines and ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper. The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.

The difficulty with this simplicity is that it is so unpalatable. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the reaction of the typical Anglican bishop would be that ‘there is so much more to the gospel than crude numbers.’ And who could argue with that? However, Finke and Stark also have something for those who are dismissive of the ‘numbers game’, because if you simply turn their insights around, you have a useful set of alternative guidelines. Here, then, for those who prefer it, is how to shrink your denomination.

Be Established

First, it helps enormously to be established. Nothing succeeds like establishment in sapping the energies of a church. At the time of the American Revolution, not only the Episcopalians but the Congregationalists enjoyed the advantages of legal establishment. The Revolution disorientated the Episcopalians for a while, but left the Congregationalists untouched. Yet the Congregationalists did not respond to the growing American frontier by seeking to expand beyond their secure power base in New England. Thus, from attracting 20% of the total of church adherents in 1776, by 1850 Congregationalism’s share had shrunk to a mere 4% overall. (In that time Episcopalians also shrank from 16% to 4%.)

But why should this be so? The answer demonstrated by Finke and Stark is a mixture of arrogance and indolence. Established churches assume they have the ‘right’ to exist. Why should they do anything as grubby as going out to win more members? Moreover, established clergy tend to assume they have the right to be paid. Why should they worry where the money is coming from? Establishment preachers are rarely hungry preachers. Lesson number one, then, is that if you want to shrink your denomination, make sure it has a privileged position.

Pay Centrally

If you want to discourage ‘exertion … zeal and industry’ on the part of ministers (to quote Adam Smith in 1776), and if you want to encourage an estrangement between your ministers and the people they serve (both factors which help denominational shrinkage), make sure the ministers are paid centrally, not funded locally. If it doesn’t matter whether you work hard and are respected by your people, or work little and are unknown to them, then the wheat and the tares will safely mix in the ministry. Of course, the reason you should give for centralizing payments is that poor areas would not otherwise be able to afford a ministry. But never let this theory be put to the test. In particular, discourage zealous ministers who might work for a pittance or support themselves part-time.

Impose the Ministers from Above

It is also important to impose ministers on a congregation from above. Don’t let congregations pick their own, and don’t let them have the power to hire and fire. That way, people get what is ‘good’ for them, not what they are hungry for. Bear in mind the maxim that ‘ministry is not a commodity to be purchased by the local church’. It is, of course, to be paid for by the local church, but it is for the whole community. Nevertheless, local people must not be allowed to feel that they ‘own’ their ministers financially, or they might begin to ‘own’ their ministry spiritually. If this policy is pursued rigorously, you will find that people are eventually much keener to pay for the upkeep of the local building than the funding of a local parson. After a while you won’t be able to afford the latter, and so you can begin to withdraw ministers from that area, thereby decreasing your membership even further whilst keeping many of your maintenance costs the same. Incidentally, you will find this works best in the countryside. You must therefore keep up the ‘urban myth’, that in the cities it is hard to find people with money to pay ministers, when in fact it is in the countryside that the population is so dispersed that even the most energetic minister can gather only a small congregation.

Train Ministers in Theology not Mission

Theological education is a vital tool in shrinking your denomination. The motto must be ‘erudition, erudition, erudition’. You want cleverness, not urgency. The aim must be to increase the ‘breadth’ of every candidate (in other words to reduce their zeal), and replace the desire to convert with a sense of having ‘inside knowledge’. Paradoxically, you must not deter candidates from wanting to minister, but ministry must have the proper focus, which must not be winning souls. It helps, therefore, if the candidates you select are keener on easing people’s lot in this world than preparing them for the next. But it is remarkably easy to turn some apparently dangerous candidates into useful ‘church shrinkers’ with a sufficiently one-sided education. On the basis that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, theological education must be kept short and sweet, and centre on expressing personal feeling, not imparting objective facts. Above all, theological education must resist all attempts to be made coherent with a missionary church.

Erect Barriers to Mission

High fences not only make good neighbours, they shrink denominations. No useful (in other words, shrinking) ministry is going to survive if other ministers can step in and start the denomination growing again in that area. You must therefore operate a system of religious protectionism. Divide your country (or better still, the world) into geographical units and then make it a disciplinary offence (if you are established, a legal offence) for one minister to trespass in another’s territory. That way, if anyone is actually expanding their congregation the fires are contained. Even the gospel can only travel so far without people to proclaim it. Of course, you may find other denominations springing up in ‘your’ areas, but that is actually an advantage since the keener members of your own churches may be tempted to go there, thus accelerating your own decline even further.

Be Relevant to Today

Contemporary relevance is a fundamental tool in denominational shrinkage. Not only does it deter people from going to your churches, it actually camouflages the fact that they are not. The ‘relevant’ church will be praised by all and sundry, especially in the media, for being ‘in tune with the times’, or whatever. But of course nobody will commit themselves to a church which is preaching what they (the non-churchgoer) already practise. Sundays are for resting, in bed or with family and friends, not sitting in uncomfortable buildings (do, incidentally, control building ‘improvements’) watching badly performed rituals and listening to the blessed thoughts of the half-unbelieving and half-trained, though well-intentioned, minister (see above). Since there will be fewer and fewer people going to your actual churches, however, the impression of relevance relies on those at the top of your denomination. They must be selected for their ability to speak to ‘today’ in terms that ‘today’ not only understands but approves. Every media opportunity must be seized to show how ‘in tune’ they are with the modern world – or at least, those sections of which the media pundits approve. That way, interviews on Radio 4 will be warm and full of approving grunts, nobody will be upset and the listening public will be reassured that they have been right all along.

Media Control

And speaking of the media, it helps if you can make sure that religious publishing and broadcasting is controlled in such a way that only the voice of liberalism and ecumenicity (see below) gets a regular airing. It seems almost unimaginable that all broadcasting could be in the hands of the Government, and that even in the private sector religious broadcasting would not enjoy freedom of speech – yet that is what we have, by the grace of God, in the United Kingdom. It is vital that this should not change. Meanwhile, keep the media – especially your own media – on side with the institution. It is vital that the news should be ‘upbeat’, and therefore any criticism should be dismissed as ‘knocking’ or ‘unhelpful’. And remember, the Church is never ‘smaller’, only ‘leaner’.

Drop Your Demands

Most of all, shrinkage depends on dropping your demands. Of course, demands can also be helpfully overdone. The Amish aren’t growing any more than the Anglicans. But maintaining the demands of orthodox belief generally doesn’t sit well with denominational shrinkage. A broad church is, by and large, a leaky church. If you want to lose the average person from your church then, paradoxically, you must declare as ‘faith’ what the average person already finds it easy and comfortable to believe. Never mention the afterlife except in terms of cosy reassurance about the love of God. Specifically, never mention hell – except when assuring people that a loving God could not possibly send anyone to such an awful place invented by vindictive humans etc. (It may be necessary to keep off the Bible in general or Jesus’ own words in particular at this point.) Conversion should naturally be avoided, although increased ‘commitment’ is occasionally allowed (after all, someone has to keep enough of the institution going for essential staff to remain in a job). Differences should also be minimalized. Divisions tend to go with enthusiasms. On the contrary, unification should be at the top of your agenda, because in general only shrinking denominations unify. Either you must add them to your own organization, so diluting yours further, or, when you have shrunk enough, you can be swallowed up by someone else.

Exclude the Troublesome

Denominational shrinkage can be quite difficult to manage. It must not be achieved too quickly or people will notice. Nor is it always easy to change the theological message without alerting some members. When this happens, it may be necessary to take drastic and distasteful action by excluding them from the institution. Here, however, is another paradox. Denominational diversity can work in your favour here by giving the ‘awkward squad’ somewhere else to go. Your farewells to them should always be tearful, no matter how vicious you may need to have been earlier. Use the moment – your sadness will help offset any guilt you may be feeling! Wish them well in the name of Christ, and be genuinely thankful that any vigour they may have brought to your own institution is now being deployed in groups which you can write off as ‘marginal’.

Good Luck!

Well, that’s about it from my reversal of Finke and Stark. I would say to those who have been reading this as Anglicans, it just remains to put this into practice. I would say this, but I can think of hardly any area where it is not being done already. Nevertheless, hopefully this article is not entirely wasted even on the Church of England. It is vital that we keep on doing what we are doing if our current shrinkage is to be sustained. So go out, buy the book and learn from it. The Churching of America 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy is published by Rutgers University Press, New Jersey (1992).

Revd John P Richardson is Senior Assistant Minister to the United Benefice of Henham, Elsenham and Ugley