Chapter 1: Introduction

Numbers are not everything, by a long shot.  But they are something.  The churches ignore them at their peril (Mead, 1995, p. 39).

The genesis of this thesis arose out of my personal interest in the use and potential benefits of ‘hard’ data to gain insights which might aid the development of mission within the Church of Scotland.  This, at first sight, might seem a non-controversial area of study, given that in many parts of society and in various sectors of industry, data of diverse kinds is gathered regularly and analysed carefully, in order that crucial decision-making will be developed on a clear, evidential base.  Many non-profit organisations acknowledge and lay appropriate emphasis on the benefits that quantitative data can bring to them to further their key objectives.  

It is my contention that the Church of Scotland, in a number of central areas of work, appears at times reluctant or slow to utilise the plethora of both available and potential numerical information and to interrogate in detail, the vast array of data which is there to be used.  It is also my belief that the Church of Scotland, in an era of decline, needs to invest time, money and energy into the further development of a data analysis infrastructure, along with increased data processing capacity to aid its mission and planning activities.  

Clearly, it is important at the outset of such a project to acknowledge that ‘hard’ data, such as numbers, measurements, scores and quantitative information of various kinds, has significant limitations.  Such data contributes only partial insight and limited avenues of understanding and will often require qualitative information to enhance the detail and provide a more nuanced account. 

I come to this study with an undergraduate degree which includes elements of statistics, computer science, mathematics and numerical analysis.  However, my early interest in science was overtaken when I entered training for ministry in the Church of Scotland in 1985.  It was evident to me during my training, that consideration of numbers and data gathering was not simply absent; there was a decided antipathy towards what might be viewed as impersonal and perhaps even unspiritual approaches to pastoral care, church management and practical theology in general.

My undergraduate university days are long behind me, but I have always been acutely aware that, during the whole period of my ministry, the Scottish church context has been one of severe national church membership and church attendance decline as well as the increased shortage of clergy (Faithsurvey).  The response of austere presbytery planning attempted to steward the limited resources of ministry throughout Scotland by closing congregations and restricting ministry deployment to regions of the country.  

In this context, data of one kind or another has increasingly been viewed by some, like myself, as an underused asset which could assist in key aspects of the tasks of practical theology which lie before us, though one not without its pitfalls and problems.[1]  There is a plethora of questions concerning the appropriate role of data within an ecclesiastical environment, the type and the quality of data which might be utilised and the value of such data for the purposes to which it may be put.  Is there indeed any kind of theological rationale for engagement with quantitative data, such as demographics or statistical analysis of trends, or are these purely a set of worldly managerial exercises which do not rightly belong within the workings of a church?  What also of the attitude and outlook of the ministers and other church leaders towards the use of data for strategic church management and for effective community outreach and mission?  Would available data be accepted and utilised?  What about its use in the cause of presbytery planning or in national strategic development?

The aim of this study is to critically assess and consider these and other related questions and to interrogate the strengths and weaknesses of applied statistics and quantitative data for the benefit of the Church of Scotland at national, regional and local levels. All three levels of church governance and activity being inter-related.  Nationally, the Church of Scotland, through its central offices, assists in the distribution of information and through the operation of annual General Assemblies and its committees, determines both policy and the overall allocation of resources.  National policies drive the implementation of regional presbytery planning, although there is latitude given for strategic decisions in the light of local information.  The heart of the Church of Scotland though is, at the local level, where individual congregations connect with local communities to serve and to share.

Previous Research

Institutions such as the Church of Scotland have, historically, provided fertile ground for academic research.  The greater part of the research undertaken has related to issues around history, including biography and of course, theology.  The latter area has encompassed a wide and diverse field of subject areas, but to date, there has been little formal research in relation to the value and use of collected or computed numerical information for the furtherance of the strategic mission and planning work of the Church of Scotland.

Academic research projects concentrating significantly on data associated with the Church of Scotland include a sociological study by Peter Sissons, commissioned and published by the Church of Scotland, which considered ‘The Social Significance of Church Membership in the Burgh of Falkirk’ (Sissons, 1973).  This detailed study employed a mixed-method approach to data collection so that there is both extensive statistical information as well as comment based on careful ethnographic qualitative engagement.  Sissons’ analysis noted the correlation between church membership and a number of social variables, including that of class. Sissons’ findings clearly highlighted a link in the Falkirk Presbytery area between the social world of the Church and the social life and beliefs of its members.

The families which very largely constitute the Church of Scotland congregations are substantially those of non-manual workers.  The modes of communication and social organisation of the Church of Scotland in Falkirk are primarily middle-class in characterThe non-aspiring manual worker and his family would find little to attract them to the social world embodied by the majority of the congregations of the Church of Scotland in the burgh... (Sissons, 1973, p. 290).

Sissons endeavoured to examine the nature of church membership within sociological categories relating to community and society, following the ‘Gemeinschaft’ and ‘Gesellschaft’ social groups set out by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies.  

Another more recent PhD study similarly took the Falkirk churches as a focus to consider the place of churchgoing as it affected the town during a period of industrialisation, ‘Falkirk in the Later Nineteenth Century: Churchgoing, Work and Status in an Industrial Town’ (Guasp, 2012).  The focus of the study was an examination of the social composition of four Presbyterian congregations derived from a review of valuation rolls.

A presbytery-wide study, this time in Dundee, was conducted by Cleveland Yates in his PhD research ‘A sociological and demographic analysis of patterns of church membership in the Church of Scotland in the urban city (Dundee)’ (Yates, 1985).  The study gave consideration to a detailed examination of descriptive membership statistics and information gained from a survey of church members from across the Dundee Presbytery area.  Yates, in this research, uncovered changing patterns of church membership related to mobility which interfered with the normal operation of a parish system and which led towards membership loss.  Based on the results, Yates called for a review of the current approach taken by the Church of Scotland, suggesting a more pastoral response and more imaginative development of congregations and their processes.  

The motivation of Yates for his study, was an acute awareness of membership decline in the Church of Scotland and his various recommendations address aspects of reorganisation both locally and nationally which he thought would address some of the issues arising from his urban study.  The focus of the study is, however, limited to those already part of the church and there is no real missional focus to his understanding of the greater problem of fewer new members joining churches.  In this regard, this work may have set out some idea of how to slow decline through local church reorganisation, but not how to attract more members.

Edinburgh Presbytery served as the research focus for J.F.Kirk for his thesis on ‘A comparative statistical analysis of the churches of the Presbytery of Edinburgh from 1960 to 1974’ (Kirk, 1978).  Kirk’s work, like those previously listed, does not engage in a local congregational study but is a regional analysis based largely around known quantitative data. There are two volumes explaining the research of Kirk, the first giving consideration to membership statistics and the second, financial data.  Kirk recognises that the basic problem of the Church of Scotland and the root of its decline lies in its failure to attract first communicants, i.e. new members.  He identifies changes in the Scottish cultural landscape, including outlook and attitudes which affect how people view and engage with the work of the church.  He is also clear that the church itself is limited in the effectiveness of its outreach activity, generally seeking to reach only those who are already involved in church activities. 

In his analysis, Kirk suggests that an annual membership replacement percentage rate greater than 2%, would indicate a healthy position for a congregation; lower than this would lead towards decline.  Since the time of his study and with an increasing age demographic within Church of Scotland congregations, a 2% replacement rate would now be too low for many congregations.  Of course, it is important to note that such a figure, whilst it may be useful as an overall mean, does not take into account the variability found in population and congregational demographics around Scotland.

Additional works, both from within the church and by secular analysts, which comment significantly on Church of Scotland statistical information, will be examined in some detail in Chapter two, which provides a history of the development of data usage for the Church of Scotland.  The study, unlike those before it, surveys the Church of Scotland and its relationship with numerical data, employing a comprehensive approach engaging with all three tiers of church governance: national, regional and local.  

In the following chapters, I chart major aspects of the historical, theological, phenomenological and practical engagement of the Church of Scotland and its functionaries with empirical data.  

Thesis Structure

The thesis comprises four distinct sections.  Part one, comprising chapters two to four, examines relevant historical, theological and practical contexts for the use of numerical data in the Scottish church.  In part two, chapters five and six, three different surveys of church leaders are analysed, providing insight into the views and practices of church leaders in relation to statistical type information for their ministry. In the third part, chapters seven to nine, three case studies are examined, critically assessing the use of empirical data at national, presbytery and local levels.  The final chapter concludes the thesis by providing a summary of findings and setting out a number of recommendations for improved good practice and avenues for future development. 

Part One - Contexts

The thesis commences by setting the use of quantitative data within a Scottish historical timeline.  The range and type of ecclesiastical, demographic and sociological data which has been gathered by churches in Scotland is examined, with a primary focus on the activities of the Church of Scotland.  The chapter will also point toward the types of information gathered and made available by governmental bodies, independent groups and individual researchers which have been appropriated by the Church of Scotland for its own purposes and understanding.

Chapter three charts how practical theology has been understood since Schleiermacher, in its relationship with the insights that came from the ‘sciences’, noting the development of empirical theology as a discipline.  This chapter presents the pastoral cycle offered by Richard Osmer (2008) as an example of the practical and theological importance of data for the development of praxis.

Chapter four considers the importance and impact of specific influential ecclesial approaches to church mission and planning which employ quantitative information and measurable goals, namely the Church Growth movement, Church Health, Purpose Driven Church and The Natural Church Development Process as well as some dimensions within Congregational Studies.

In summary, part one provides a three-part foundational platform indicating the long history and close connection of the Church of Scotland with statistical and numerical data.  It outlines an understanding of the crucial role data plays in the development of ecclesial praxis.  Thirdly it provides insight into a number of common missiological schemes in which the role of hard fact and relevant data is critical.

Part Two - Surveys

Two specially designed surveys are presented in chapter five which investigate the general attitudes and perceptions of Church of Scotland ministers towards actively working with statistics and demographic information.  The first is a general survey of attitudes towards those church statistics and data pools which were available prior to the release of data from the 2011 UK population census.  The second survey was carried out as a follow up shortly after the release of that data by the Church of Scotland Statistics for Mission group, providing ministers and church leaders with parish level statistics for each congregation derived from the census.  

A further survey, detailed in chapter six, was undertaken following the release of the initial data from the 2016 Scottish Churches Attendance Census to probe the effect on ministers of this largely negative raft of quantitative information.

Part Three – Case Studies

Having mapped out an understanding of various historical, theological and missional landscapes and the levels and types of engagement by individual church leaders, I turn, in chapter seven, to consider recent developments in the Church of Scotland in the use of statistics, as evidenced chiefly through deliverances and decisions of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and a number of its key Councils and Committees.  I will chart its own self-appraisal of key data indicators such as church membership and how that metric has been viewed and treated.

Chapter eight, the regional case study, examines in detail one particular presbytery which sought to put an emphasis on numbers of various kinds for its own presbytery planning decision making.  A critical analysis of the data utilised for that process will be undertaken along with an assessment of the handling of that data.  This section of the study will highlight some of the problems, pitfalls and potential involved in such an enterprise.

In chapter nine, I use a congregational case study to investigate the practical benefits and the limitations which faced one congregation as it gathered numerical data to inform local decision making.   The study considers the type of data currently available and how it has impacted on the understanding of the congregation and the decision-making processes of the church leadership.  In this chapter, I outline a method of planning based on Peter Drucker’s The Five most important Questions, which utilises both quantitative and qualitative data for its operation.

Chapter ten moves beyond the critical assessment to bring forward twenty-eight recommendations detailing a list of practical responses to the issues encountered throughout the thesis.   

[1] The subject of my Master of Theology thesis looked at the Natural Church Development process and charted some of the issues of implementing that particular scheme within one Church of Scotland congregation.  (Vint, 2007)