Chapter 7:  National Church Response to Statistics


Good research helps the Church to understand more of what it is, what it has been and what it can or might become. Only by learning about itself can the Church make informed decisions about how best to focus its resources and energies to serve its God-given mission (Stephens, 2011).


Every organisation requires data to understand the context in which it operates, to organise its activities and to determine whether its plans are being fulfilled.   Historically, the Church of Scotland has gathered a range of statistical information to aid it in its assessment of praxis and as a guide to the development and effectiveness of its mission endeavours. The data gathered has, historically, provided valuable insight and has enabled careful future planning for all levels of its structures.  Even a casual glance at most editions of the large volume of annual reports submitted to the General Assembly, reveals a plethora of tables, graphs and charts to support the various assertions and submissions made by almost all the councils and central committees of the Church of Scotland.


Scope

In this chapter, I engage in a critical analysis of how sections of the Church of Scotland, dealing primarily with mission and discipleship issues, engage with quantitative information.  The analysis will describe the dominant actions and attitudes conveyed.  This chapter will give consideration to weaknesses and deficiencies in the approaches often taken.  Out of this chapter will come a number of recommendations which will be set out in the final chapter of the thesis.


The primary methodology in the analysis undertaken is to survey the reports and deliverances contained with the volume of reports prepared for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.  Focus will centre on the reports of the Board of Practice and Procedure, Council of Assembly,[1] Assembly council and the Statistics for Mission Group within the Mission and Discipleship Council and the Committee on Review and Reform.   A second strand of information will contain views expressed both publicly and from interview with key officials within the structures of the Church of Scotland. 


Where the topic specifically relates to presbytery planning, those issues will be dealt with in Chapter 8: Appraisal of a Planning Process - Glasgow Presbytery.


I have not attempted to follow the development and use of financial statistics or similar information of that nature, nor to evaluate the type and range of data utilised by the various other Church of Scotland committees and councils such as the Committee on Social Responsibility or the Church and Nation Committee.  Research in those areas would, I believe, be worthwhile but lies beyond the constraints of space and scope of this particular study.


General Assembly 1996

The work of the Church of Scotland is continually evolving. Therefore, choosing a point of entry for any investigation of this nature has some aspect of arbitrariness about it.  As a convenient starting point of departure for this journey, I have selected a significant deliverance passed by the General Assembly of 1996.   The deliverance was directed to the Board of the Practice and Procedure in these terms:

In consultation with other Boards, to review the collation, presentation and interpretation of Church statistics with a view to helping the Church monitor its current health and missionary challenges, as far as may be usefully discerned from such statistical reporting.[2] 


This addendum was moved by a commissioner at the General Assembly and whilst initially resisted by the Board of Practice and Procedure; the proposal was passed by a vote of 284 for and 252 against.[3]


What follows below is, in part, an attempt to chart the progress of this work.  The initial response came the following year when the Board noted that the task was still under its consideration. It signposted its intention, conscious of the public image of the church, to construct a positive narrative rather than concentrate on the more negative image of church membership decline.  The Council explained, 


On occasion, the image the Church of Scotland conveys is of an organisation battling against the odds to stem relentless and debilitating decline.  There is more talk of falling membership than of the new and deep commitment that there is year by year on the part of many.[4]


Additionally,

We have had more than enough surveys about the reasons for membership decline.  I believe we need to concentrate on the growth points…[5]


This tactic of attempting to ‘sidestep’ the issue or redirect attention when the issue of falling numbers is raised, is employed regularly by the central administration of the church.  At times there appears to be a sense of denial and at other times a deliberate policy of distraction and diversion – possibility for both internal and external political reasons.  In the September of 1997, there was to be a Scottish devolution referendum, the outcome of which was understood potentially to have a significant impact on the position and power of the Church of Scotland in Scottish society and culture.  It would have been in the interests of the Church of Scotland to project itself as a strong and significant component of national self-understanding so that its rights and privileges would continue and be safeguarded, whatever the outcome.


In 1996 the committee for National Mission was subject to restructuring and in 1997 new remits were presented to the General Assembly including, for the committee on Mission and Evangelism, the task, of among other things,  

Developing vision for the work of mission and evangelism in Scotland:

Encouraging mission and evangelism in Presbyteries and parishes through congregations of the Church of Scotland by means of research, development and training[6] 

 

It would be natural for this particular branch of the church’s work to be directly concerned with issues relating to the decline of church membership, attendance and community engagement, but in line with the apparent policy of creating and promoting a positive image for the work of the church, there is a noted emphasis on ‘good news’ stories and ongoing work which is classified as ‘successful’.  For example, the report given on the Schools of Mission and Evangelism[7] highlighted a positive engagement and response, but there is no indication in this report, or in any years following, whether the outcomes of attendance at Schools of Mission and Evangelism was demonstrably effective in quantifiable terms in helping churches grow.   As noted within the chapter on presbytery planning and the presbytery assessment of congregations, activity in itself is often viewed as a valid measure of success rather than any numerically measurable missional effectiveness of a particular activity.[8]


‘Good news stories’ usually fall into the category of ‘anecdote’ rather than any serious qualitative research which aids strategic insight, as Rendle reminds us,


Anecdotal evidence, as used by most nonprofits, is commonly a collection of the wrong stories told for the wrong reasons.  Most often these stories are told for the purpose of persuasion(Rendle, 2014, p. 80).


Beyond Barriers to Belief Study

Whilst the overall view from assembly reports in 1997 is that great work is being done and innovative work is being taken forward there is very little mention made about the constant decline being experienced throughout the church.  One significant piece of work which does seek to address the root cause of the situation is a survey entitled ‘Beyond Barriers to Belief’.[9]  The study came from a proposal at the General Assembly, 


to carry out a study of parishes where effective evangelism is taking place with a view to identifying clearly the factors which have enabled congregations to overcome these barriers to belief.


 The focus of the study was on congregations which had one or more identifying features of success, such as having numerical growth over a period of five years, or being over 1000 members strong or ‘Known to be actively developing a missionary lifestyle’.  To ensure that numerical features were not overly dominant, there was to be an additional group of congregations included who were deemed ‘missionary minded’.   However, there is clearly concern about how the term ‘effective evangelism’ might be understood and so the report is at pains to address the point that ‘effective’ is not necessarily related to, nor to be understood in numerical terms.  The report explains, 

‘effective evangelism’ is ultimately not open to measurement by human perception.[10]


Although it also goes on to concede, 

‘Effectiveness’ was at least something to do with numerical increase…[11]


The report concludes that, 

‘effective evangelism’ is not simply about size and numbers, since ‘a purely numerical measure will miss many of the promptings of the Spirit’.[12] 


A reading of this section of the report conveys mixed messages as it seeks to attempt to satisfy potential criticisms both in the use or non-use of statistics. 


A major concern regarding the use of the statistics generated by the report came from the construction of the study, where ‘effective evangelism’ was defined as those who were worthy of inclusion within the parameters which were set at the outset of the study. The conclusions reported on the common themes which emerged from the seventy-eight returns received from that original group. However, what is clear from the report is that little thought was given to the design of the survey. Therefore, any conclusions drawn are vague and are generally based on very small numbers of congregations or different types of congregations, including those which fell into the various categories of effectiveness chosen for the study.  Some of these grew numerically over a five year period, some were historically large and some simply open to new ideas and categorised as ‘mission minded’.[13]


As an example of the conclusions reached, it was suggested that a possible measure of ‘effectiveness’ was where congregations found over 35% (of their membership) was in attendance on a given Sunday.   The report concedes that this figure only related to thirteen of their sample of successful congregations and noting that, of that group, most were geographically north of ‘the Highland line’.[14] To arrive at the conclusion of ‘effectiveness’ on such a small number with a likely cultural causation is dubious.  It might be the case that this group of congregations was particularly diligent in updating their membership rolls to reflect active and interested individuals – a natural consequence of which would be to have a high attendance/membership ratio.


Under the heading ‘Professions of faith,’ it is suggested that, 

one measure of effectiveness will be where congregations add more than one profession of faith for every hundred members.  In National terms, if every congregation added 3 members by profession of every hundred members, the Church of Scotland would be growing again.[15] 


There is a note that twenty-eight congregations in the group indicated more than 1% in professions of faith, but detailed information relating to that group is not given though further analysis was promised.


This basic reporting of this survey may have some value but it is, in fact, extremely limited in helping congregations or the church, nationally, discover the key growth points, since there does not appear to be any attempt at a cause and effect analysis, or to set the results gained against a randomised group of congregations.  As previously noted, the selection itself was relatively vague and without any hard and fast metrics, therefore making any conclusions very uncertain and potentially unreliable.


Committee on Practice and Procedure – Data Analysis

In addition to the natural locus for the gathering and use of statistics within National Mission, it is historically the role of the Committee on Practice and Procedure to collect, collate and present the annual statistics of the Church of Scotland.  In 1999, in the midst of the ongoing concern about continuing falling church membership and in the wake of being asked to monitor the health of the church through the gathered statistics, the committee gave voice to the limitations of their required technical ability, essential for involvement in any analysis of the information which was received.   The proposal it made instead, was that other sections of the central administration of the church might engage with this work; however, it would appear from the report that such engagement was not welcomed by the other boards and committees, perhaps because they too lacked the expertise, and so a project of detailed membership analysis was shelved.  The outcome was presented to the General Assembly of 1999 in these terms,


 The Board has come to the conclusion that while collation and presentation of the raw data is properly the function of the Board, it does not have the professional expertise to analyse or interpret this data to provide accurate statistical information.  The Board proposed to other Boards and Committees that a professionally undertaken statistical survey of the current health of the membership of the church be carried out during the year 1999 with a view to reporting the results to the General Assembly of 2000 and possibly to a wider constituency thereafter.  This project, which would have required the active participation of other Boards and Committees, did not receive a sufficient degree of support and the Board, having fulfilled to this extent its remit of 1996, therefore departs from this project meantime but acknowledges that it may in due course be a useful tool in the work of the Assembly Council and others.[16]


Rather than dispensing with the task completely, it pointed towards work which was underway within the Panel on Doctrine who were in the process of preparing a report on ‘membership’; therefore, the proposal was made that this report should be available before any significant or large scale statistical gathering changes were suggested or introduced.


Committee on Mission and Evangelism

As might be imagined and highlighted above, the Committee on Mission and Evangelism had particular concern for numerical evidence of effectiveness around the country.  In 1999, it gave voice to the national drop in membership over the years but, in keeping with other pronouncements from the central administration groups, even from this group, there was caution expressed concerning taking figures at face value and counsels that the Church should see the health of congregations in other ways:


 while the strength of a congregation cannot be solely measured in number all must be concerned that the membership of the Church of Scotland is half what it was at the beginning of the 1960s.  The task of the Church will always be to win followers for Jesus Christ.[17]


Nationally it was further noted that not only was adult membership in dramatic decline so also were other areas of the life of the church.   An area under scrutiny by National Mission in 1999 was the decrease in the incidence of infant baptisms.  The committee concedes that in tandem with an overall decline in church membership there would be an inevitable decline in administration of baptisms:


It must be noted that the decline in the proportion of babies baptised is part of a wider picture; that of an increasing disengagement of the people of Scotland from the Kirk.  Baptism is associated with believing faith.  If Christian faith drains from a society, a declining number of baptisms (whether of infants or adults) is to be expected.[18]


Special Commission on Review and Reform

As the Church of Scotland prepared to enter the 21st century, it was facing significant questions about its place in society.  On a national level, the General Assembly, sometimes in the past termed an unofficial Scottish parliament, had lost that place as a result of an earlier devolution vote.  The continuing consciousness of ever smaller numbers of church members gave rise, in some quarters, to a recognition that something needed to be done to change the trajectory of the church, even if this was being voiced largely ‘off the record’ rather than within its official papers.  In 1999 the General Assembly welcomed the creation of a special commission in response to an Overture from the Presbytery of Edinburgh in these terms,


appoint a multi-disciplinary special commission of fifteen people, including a convenor and vice-convenor, to re-examine in depth the primary purposes of the church and the shape of the Church of Scotland as we enter into the next millennium: to formulate proposals for a process of continuing reform; to consult on such matters with other Scottish churches; and to report to the General Assembly of 2001.[19]


As part of the initial work of the Special Commission on Review and Reform, the statistics project, which had previously been shelved by the committee on Practice and Procedure, was placed on their agenda.[20]   In addition to this review, there was also put in place, by National Mission, the foundations of the Statistics for Mission group whose task would be to provide, from the National Census, accurate statistics for each individual parish.[21]


The Commission was charged with the development of a revised vision for the Church of Scotland.  It does appear that at the heart of the various deliverances, was what amounted to an existential crisis for the Church of Scotland. Questions such as, ‘Who are we?’, ‘What are we to be about?’, ‘How are we to determine our wellbeing?’, are all part of the mix of drivers behind the various new initiatives.  What was also clear, was that there was still a real reluctance to openly acknowledge the fundamental importance of numerical decline.  This was repeatedly mentioned in reports, but within those submissions, it was also actively downplayed.  Indeed, there was a determined effort to find new metrics which would give more encouraging results rather than simply consider the fact itself.


 If numbers are not the only index of health, the church needs to identify other indices of spiritual life and vitality so that the state of the Church can be assessed from a variety of perspectives and give a ‘balance scorecard’…presentation of other indicators so that success can be celebrated.[22]


The Special Commission on Review and Reform, as part of its task of finding a new vision for the church, undertook a consultation with various church groups and individuals.  The published results from the consultation produced a picture which was somewhat confusing, in that it appeared to both hold that participants were deeply concerned about falling church membership numbers and fewer numbers of young people in church, but also presented the conclusion that respondents held that these numbers were not entirely diagnostic and that growing numbers were not entirely necessary for healthy churches.   The narrative produced, highlights the view that discipleship stands over against membership, in a similar way to which quality is said to be preferred over quantity. 


As a facilitator involved in similar types of exercises across a number of presbyteries, it was consistently made very clear to me by participants, that falling numbers of church participants, of all ages, is one of the major concerns held by local congregations (since the result is the eventual closure of local churches and fears for the remaining congregations).  Issues therefore around mission, evangelism and other aspects of practical church growth were, by extension, the most likely items to be raised as a response.  That this does not feature as prominently as one might expect in these reports, must, therefore, raise questions concerning the way in which reports are presented and conclusions drawn.


An example of a typical ‘summary of findings’ is,

 While a lot of people still find falling numbers a great concern and express a wish to find a way of halting the decline, there is a growing number who regard numbers as only one of the measurements of the health of a church.  Many point out that the remaining people are more committed and that quality is more important than quantity.[23]


Of note, within the statement, is that a narrative is produced (and on that basis policy is determined) which is essentially constructed on a slim evidential base, with vague and unquantifiable assertions.  When ‘growing numbers’ are mentioned, there is no indication of scale or level.   When ‘one measurement of health’ is referenced, it is not given a context or said what kind of health is being addressed or what kind of measurements are being noted.  The reader is given only a vague idea of what the writers mean since the pronouncements lack real substance or clarity.  What the reader is left with is simply a list of questions concerning the details, for example, ‘Is there indeed any measurable indication that the remaining members are ‘more committed’ than those who have left? ‘[24]  Other than a widely accepted and often repeated mantra, in what respects are churches to value quality over quantity?  Is fruitfulness unimportant?


Church Membership

The Assembly Council determined, in the light of its consultations, that there required to be consideration of the overhaul of the approach taken towards formal church membership and it gives voice to that desire for a change of practice and policy in its report of 2001:

 while some feel that membership still has a role to play; and would not like any changes to be made, many more are in favour of a complete or partial overhaul of the membership system.  Among the sources of dissatisfaction are that the rolls so often bear no relation to reality; that nominal membership is a weakening influence on the Church; that Communion ought to be more open and that the rules and regulation put potentially interested people offthe emphasis should be on journeying, not arriving.[25]


A similar question concerning the desirability of formal church membership is raised within the ‘Church Without Walls’ report, which shares both a similar theme and imagery,

Membership is alien to people who see life as a journey, or who want a real challenge. Church membership seems too static for the searchers and tamely passive for the adventurers. They are looking for looser patterns of belonging and activities that make a real difference to the world (Church of Scotland, 2001, p. 13).


At this point, there were a number of initiatives to enhance the statistical veracity of congregational work.  First of all, the Statistics for Mission initiative was formally launched with a task group formed; 

to develop a scheme of providing accurate population statistics and trends for all Church of Scotland parishes based on the 1991 and 2001 statistics.[26]

 

The double reason, of benefiting the church locally and nationally, is clearly stated.


They should be invaluable in assisting congregations to understand their parish area and tailor-make their missionary endeavours and will enable the Committee on Parish Reappraisal to come to decisions about parish staffing with accurate population statistics available.[27]


Through a process of matching census data to postcode areas, the committee sought to make available relevant information which they hoped would produce insights and information for local Kirk Sessions as well as presbyteries and which could be utilised by the national church for its presbytery planning processes.


In line with seeking a broader understanding of the strength of congregations, outside formal membership, the Board of Practice and Procedure, in partnership with the Board of Parish Education proposed an expansion of the ‘Persons and Agencies Schedule’.  The new section requested three additional pieces of information relating to the number of young people involved in congregational life, including the number of children who received Holy Communion, this having recently been allowed formally by the Church of Scotland in the year 2000.[28],[29]

 

The Board of Practice and Procedure, as noted earlier in the chapter, approached the Panel on Doctrine to give consideration to the nature of church membership.  Clearly, there is a movement concerned with changing the system of formal membership, the rationale for which is contained in the report of 2002.  The insights provided in the report are instructive, in that we note again, how the committee highlights what it perceives as the negative effect of adverse statistics on the morale of the church.  The text of the report reads:


the impetus for such an investigation stems partly from the belief that conventional statistics, which can seem to chart decline and which may contribute to a loss of morale, may not adequately measure the health of the Church or sufficiently assist in its missionary task and partly from changing habits and attitudes in our day to relationships and belonging…[30] 


This reaction to decline has been voiced publicly by some of the Church of Scotland’s most senior church leaders.  As Moderator of the General Assembly, the Very Rev. Dr John Chalmers’ views gave rise to a headline carried by the BBC,

The moderator said that he was ‘fed up’ with the church publishing annual statistics which showed membership decline (BBC News, 2014).


His views on the matter have been published in Life and Work magazine and were also the subject of a sermon delivered at Dunfermline Abbey where he asserted,


…it may be that we as a church should be deeply regretting the day and hour that we became a membership organization, for us to begin to count numbers on a register.  As soon as you make people carry attendance cards and soon as you organize yourself in the shape of a club, you leave yourself open to be measured by the indicators of club success - money in the bank, the number of boys in the B.B. your children in the Sunday school.  And when these things start to drift, so too does morale and purpose and popularity (J. Chalmers, 2016).


This outlook from a respected church leader stands in stark contrast to the ‘official’ position of the church as set out by Panel on Doctrine of the Church of Scotland who do not view church membership as merely some kind of ‘club affiliation’(J. Chalmers, 2016), but as an important indication of a person’s response to their baptism.  Although there was no section on church membership within their report on Baptism which was presented in 2003, the panel in 2004 went on to produce a separate Report on Church Membership, which they headed ‘Measuring Membership’.


The overall aim was to identify the statistical information which would ‘offer an accurate reflection of the present health of, and missionary challenge facing, the Church’.[31],[32]


The panel gives consideration to the trustworthiness of statistics, particularly as they related to the numbers gathered for church membership.  While it did concur, to a limited extent, with some of the concerns and limitations of statistics, such as the disparity of numbers on the formal church rolls against those who attend worship, they also noted the change in society’s understanding of church membership as culture has changed from the point of the inception of its collection in the 18th century.  However, even taking these issues into consideration, it none the less concluded 


‘membership’ in the church is a different kind of concept from that which defines who is one of the in crowd and who is an outsider.  It is a concept which does not have a counterpart in ‘secular’ parlance but finds its meaning in the unique event known as baptism... Baptism and membership cannot be separated.  Nor is it possible, as some suggest, to abandon the notion of ‘membership’ altogether.  What is necessary is to distinguish between biblical and unbiblical uses of the word.  Behind the phrase ‘members of the church’ lies our gift and calling as ‘members of Christ…what is clear from New Testament teaching about the Church is that a ‘roll of members’ is quite a different matter from a list of those belonging to any human society or grouping.[33] 

The panel does suggest that local congregations may wish to gather additional information for the purposes of pastoral administration, including gathering information on services where infants or children are blest or dedicated, but it wholeheartedly stands behind the continued use of membership rolls and related statistics, which it views not simply as administrative, but reflecting something more fundamental concerning the nature of the church.[34]

 

What appears to lie behind the difference of outlook and understanding expressed by the Principal Clerk on the one hand, and the Panel on Doctrine on the other, are different theological outlooks and understandings on the nature of the church.  Another excerpt from the sermon ‘Let’s stop counting members’ illustrates this.  The Very Rev. Dr Chalmers said,

we need to stop talking numbers and instead we need to let the people of Scotland know that they already belong to God.  And that the church belongs to them…  We have lazily accepted the ancient traditions which paint God as the separator of sheep and goats, as the stern judge, rather than God who is the ground of all our being. (J. Chalmers, 2016)


To say that Chalmers was unconcerned with the falling numbers in the Church of Scotland would be untrue.  As Moderator of the General Assembly in 2014, Chalmers raised questions concerning whether the Church of Scotland was asking too much of people to assent to particular questions of Christian belief before taking on full participation in local congregations.  This apparent concern to grow the institutional membership without seeking baptism and personal profession of faith was criticised and condemned in the press, most notably by Rev. David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland (Robertson, 2014a).


In the early years of the 21st century, in addition to church membership becoming a topic for study and examination by Boards and committees, it was also highlighted to the General Assembly that a projected decline in ministerial numbers was cause for concern.   The obvious statistical trends helped to inform a disciplined strategic response by the church, to shape and to drive forward policy to address the issue. Whilst it might be expected that such policy might attempt a reversal in the known pattern, in reality, the Board of National Mission took the view that the change required was ‘to prepare the Church for what are inevitable consequences.’[35]   This provided a clear mandate for the kind of radical presbytery planning processes which were to be implemented in the years which followed, details of which are provided in a later chapter.


A more positive exercise would find expression through the Church without Walls Report of 2001, which, in part, set out a broad vision for the future shape and work of the Church of Scotland, and the Special Commission on Review and Reform which followed after it, which was given the remit ‘to consider the changing needs, challenges and responsibilities of the Church.’[36]

 

Statistics for Mission group

The Statistics for Mission Group also became active and in the November of 2003 officially launched their data project which would produce a data CD giving parish based information for each congregation, based on the 2001 census.  It provided a workbook called Stats have Faces to assist congregations to make the figures provided useful for their mission planning.[37]   The Statistics for Mission material would also assist those involved in the larger presbytery planning initiatives, this requiring to be supplemented with additional data.  In 2005, the Board of Practice and Procedure also began to gather data on the number of weddings and funerals performed in each parish.  It may have been a useful exercise for the church, nationally, to record the overall levels at which these rites were delivered to the people of Scotland. But since the purpose was only to measure potential parish workload levels weddings and funerals, which are not directly parish related, are not recorded.[38]

 

At this point in the history of the Church of Scotland, statistics for strategic mission and ministry resource planning were being given a more central place.   They were being used in the work of Church Without Walls, The Commission on Review and Reform, Presbytery Planning and the ongoing work of resourcing congregations through National Mission.  There are, however, signs of the church’s caution in appearing to be too empirically based in decision making.  An illustration of the expressed caution is seen in the excerpt below, made in a report by the Commission on Review and Reform,

 

We cannot serve Christ or his church well by using purely pragmatic, functional images of the management of ministry and mission.  Forward planning and leadership skills must always work in dialogue with Scripture, reason, tradition and experience so that our mission is an expression of sound theology, the life of prayer, the study of Scripture and sacramental life.[39]

 

Clearly, the activity of the Statistics for Mission group, which has already been mentioned in this chapter, would provide a focal point for the development of statistical gathering and analysis; however, this group had a very limited remit.  The sub group began with a key function, that of making the results of the 2001 census available to local congregations for local planning purposes.  In light of the movement towards greater presbytery planning, the data, being available on a presbytery wide level, also provided much needed detail for that work.  The national patterns of population similarly provided a rich vein of planning information.  However, the Statistics for Mission group became inactive after it had completed the primary task given to it following the 2001 census and it remained that way until the next nationwide census in 2011 was instigated.

 

In 2011 the Statistics for Mission Group was highlighted by the Report of Mission and Discipleship indicating that it had the ability to provide a range of ‘accurate, accessible information’[40] which could be used at every level of church planning and which had the potential to be a key driver enabling Outreach and creative discussion for re-imagining the local church.

 

In this new digital age, the Statistics for Mission Group implemented a sophisticated digital geographical mapping system (GIS) to link data more closely to parish areas (the previous system relying on postcodes being much less precise).  Information produced through the census or from other sources could be overlaid on the available parish map and made available through online web based resources. Data considered key for the missionary work of congregations such as age profiles, levels of health and employment statistics among others, including religious belonging, were chosen for dissemination.  To help facilitate the smooth integration of census data with the needs of the church, the Statistics for Mission group entered into a working collaboration with the National Records of Scotland and its Census division.[41]

 

The end result of this work was a statistical profile for each parish available via the Church of Scotland website webpage http://cos.churchofscotland.org.uk/church_finder/.  To assist congregations in the use of the statistical profile information, the Council also commissioned a guide to statistics for parishes called Who is my Neighbour? (Statistics for Mission, 2016) .  This eBook, an updated version of an earlier guide, contains much useful information though it is not directly connected with the online statistical profiles and their use but is more general in nature.  The Council also offered trained individuals who were willing to meet with congregations or presbyteries to assist them in making sense of the information available.  At the time of writing this resource has apparently been seldom used.[42]

 

As highlighted in the survey of ministers and church elders earlier, in Chapter 6, the reception of this information was extremely positive, with a number of respondents making the point that it is important for information contained in the profiles, to be as current as possible.  This view is evidently shared by the Council of Mission and Discipleship who, on reporting on the Statistics for Mission work concluded,

 

the Council believes that when this work is completed, there will be a need for some other group/council/committee covering the whole of the Church to take on board the ongoing work of updating and progressing the data and statistics which we are certain will be invaluable for the whole Church in its mission and strategic planning.  It may be that such a group would sit independently but be representative of all Councils such as the Council of Assembly.[43]

 

Although the Mission and Discipleship Council formally discharged the Statistics for Mission group in 2014, it asks the General Assembly to give the Council the instruction

 

to build on the work of the Statistics for Mission group in order to ensure that the most up to date statistics are always available and well presented for the use of the whole Church.[44]

 

It is not clear why the Statistics for Mission group was not simply given an updated remit to continue to serve the church in the production of statistical information and reports and to deal with new or additional statistical databases considered helpful to the work of the church.  The group was disbanded, with one of its key assets, Rev. Dr Fiona Tweedie, a professional statistician by training, being retained.  Dr Tweedie, who is also an Ordained Local Minister in the Church of Scotland, was engaged to work for ten hours per week, in part, developing worship in the Church Offices, but crucially also:

 

maintaining an overview of the collection and use of statistics in relation to Ministry and Mission; liaising with external bodies on the maintaining of the Statistics for Mission profiles; advising Councils and Committees on the construction and use of questionnaires relating to the work of the Church; and offering advice to Councils and Committees on quality assurance issues in the use of statistics in research.[45]

 

In a report to the General Assembly of 2016, an extensive list was presented of the contribution made to statistical understanding of the church, across many councils and committees by Rev. Dr Tweedie.[46]  In addition, she has been commissioned to facilitate an examination and revision of the type of data being gathered and to bring forward recommendations for development. [47]  Recommendations arising out of this exercise include encouragement for individual Presbyteries to ‘develop their own metrics appropriate to their context.’.[48] This recommendation moves away from the previous pattern of having a strict standardised set of data across all congregations and presbyteries towards a more flexible and contextualised approach; however, details of what such metrics might be are unspecified. 

 

What was outlined more directly was that, in addition to the breadth of the current information collected, other items of data would be added such as the number involved in worship and activities related to discipleship development.  However, it was noted that with congregational worship being made available outside buildings via the use of video streaming, social media and other technologies, statistics on engagement will be difficult to gather and interpret.[49] 

 

The level of work to be undertaken by Dr Tweedie is remarkable given the short engagement window available each week in her contract.  Given the accepted usefulness of having the onsite services of a professional statistician, it does beg the question of why such a position is not full-time since this would allow a fuller opportunity to analyse and present the large amount of available information as well as allow for the development of appropriate research streams. 

 

The Church of England

At the same time as the Church of Scotland was being asked to review its engagement with statistics, the Church of England was also involved in a similar process.  In October of 1998 a conference entitled, ‘Statistics, A Tool for Mission’ was held, bringing together key individuals with expertise in relevant areas of data analysis, communication and mission.  The participants concluded that within the Church of England, attitudinal, methodological and missional changes were required in the gathering and practical use of statistical information, the quotations below from their resulting report capturing the essence of their thinking,

 

…a change of attitude with the adoption of a more positive view of the use of statistics; not simply to analyse historical data, but to use information to plan for the future (Church of England, 2000, p. 39).

 

…a more systematic approach to gathering information and using and reporting statistics (Church of England, 2000, p. 39).

 

the use of statistics not only for administrative purposes but also a tool for mission, may help the Church engage more fully in its prophetic, pastoral and evangelistic role – by enabling it to face with honesty the implications of changing patterns of attendance (Church of England, 2000, p. 40).

 

The Church of England has built on its positive approach to statistics and the result has seen a number of fundamental changes introduced to expand and enhance the statistical detail available.  Of note, given the earlier review of the Church of Scotland, is that the Church of England introduced new attendance measures in the year 2000.  During a four-week period during October each year, congregations are now asked to record church attendance information.  This information was in addition to the measure previously collected, namely the Usual Sunday Attendance.  There was also the gathering of attendances at the major Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas.  Vitally the statistical exercise also asked congregations to estimate the size of their ‘Worshipping Community’.  This concept would include people who come regularly to church including those who come less frequently than weekly; it also includes those who, were it not for illness, infirmity or some other impediment would otherwise be in church for worship services.  The chart below (Graph 2) provides an example of the type of rich data presentation which can be generated from elements of the church attendance data (Archbishops' Council, 2017e).[50]

 

Graph 2: Example of Church of England data chart

 

Benefits of more focused engagement with statistical data is evident in reports presented at regular intervals to both the Church of England (Archbishops' Council, 2017e) and the Methodist Church in the UK (Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes).  An ongoing partnership between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in the collection, collation, analysis and presentation of Statistical data highlights clearly the benefits of a central processing bureau for church statistics across the UK.[51] It is clear from both denominations that the analysed and presented data provides invaluable guidance for strategic planning purposes. Rev. Dr Tweedie has already developed strong personal links with the Archbishops’ Council Research and Statistics group and her expertise has been used by them in detailed analysis of aspects of the Church of England Church Growth initiatives (Tweedie, 2014).  

 

Clearly, the technical aspects of statistical analysis require specialists, which small denominations such as the Church of Scotland, have difficulty financing.  It, therefore, appears to be an efficient and wise approach to pool both people and resources in this area for the good of all.   The 2016 ‘Columba Declaration’ between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England has provided a useful, official framework for such mutual cooperation through its commitment to strengthen partnership in mission (The Church of Scotland, 2015).

 

It could be envisioned that partnerships with other ecumenical partners would allow for enhanced religious statistics on a UK wide basis.  As mentioned previously, the Scottish Church Census has taken place at irregular intervals, dependant on the will and finance of participating denominations and para church groups.  Each census has required contracting with a freelance independent statistics consultancy to provide the necessary expertise and staff.[52]  An expanded central statistical group representing the churches of the UK would have the means to conduct more regular nationwide data gathering initiatives of this kind and others, which would have the potential to radically enhance the information gathering and analytical powers of the churches in the UK, including a more uniform approach which would aid research of trends and patterns across the whole of the UK.

 

Invisible Church

To count those who come through the doors of churches, or who are willing to engage in the normal practices of church life, is relatively straightforward, but what of those who once came but don’t anymore, or those who don’t come at all?  National census returns and other social research has consistently identified a larger group of people who self-identify with the denomination or with the Christian faith in general.   It is with this background knowledge that Steve Aisthorpe, one of Mission and Discipleships Council’s mission development staff, undertook research centred initially around a group known as the ‘de-churched’, those who were once part of a local congregation, men and women with some degree of Christian faith, but who subsequently departed from those congregations.  The research was extended to consider the ‘unchurched’, those who claim a Christian faith but who do not participate in regular congregational worship.  The research reported a number of challenging conclusions.

 

It was reported to the General Assembly in 2012,

 

Research suggests that in Scotland, more than twice as many people are ‘de-churched’ as those who count themselves as ‘regular churchgoers’.  These are people who were once engaged with a local church but are no longer.  Evidence suggests that most of these people have not lost their Christian faith.  Rather, they make up one part of that growth sector of the Christian community that lives out faith in a non-congregational way.[53] 

 

And in an article written by Steve Aisthorpe,

It has been conventional in recent years, when thinking about Christian mission, to talk about ‘the 90%’, those with no regular contact with a congregation, as being those who need to be reached with the gospel message. However, it is now clear that a sizeable proportion of that 90% represents people who are already on a journey of discipleship with Jesus Christ (Aisthorpe, 2014).

 

The findings have been seized on by the Church of Scotland as providing some with a sense of hope that amid the formal numerical decline within the membership of the church organisation there is, outside the church, a vibrant Christian community, many of whom have simply disengaged from organised religious worship but who none the less remain ‘committed to their Christian faith’ (Aisthorpe, 2016, p. 31).

 

The results are undoubtedly thought provoking for the Church of Scotland, in that they point towards a growing irrelevance for some current congregational practices - although Aisthorpe does not concede this point, suggesting instead,

 

The fact that some people feel the need to escape the Christian bubble does not necessarily suggest a shortcoming of a congregation (Aisthorpe, 2016, p. 181).

 

Perhaps most surprising of all is that the Mission and Discipleship Council appears to extrapolate this research as being useful and applicable across the whole of Scotland.  This may indeed turn out to be the case, but clearly, the research itself is limited to a geographical area and so the particulars may reflect a local or regional phenomenon or pattern.  Aisthorpe is clear in his thesis which forms the foundation of later publications, that

 

The themes that have emerged from this qualitative study require quantitative inquiry in order to ascertain their prevalence in the experiences of a wider population (Aisthorpe, 2016, p. 182).

 

The national church has rightly invested significant effort towards charting the scale of those who have ceased to participate in local congregations and that is to be welcomed.  However, the current pressure in some areas to pull back from taking careful measurement of numbers and trends of those within or around the church is therefore surprising, as is the tendency to shy away from careful and systematic examination of numerical data from a variety of sources.

 

Criticism

The Rev. David Robertson, a fierce critic of the Church of Scotland from within the Free Church of Scotland, has, over a number of years, publicly highlighted not only the ongoing decline of the Church of Scotland but also the type of responses made by its leaders and official communicators (Robertson, 2014b).  Rev. Robertson, on his regular online blogs and in printed articles, has accused the Church of Scotland of gross negligence in its response to the downward trends, of producing ‘spin’ in its communications designed to hide or to distract from the situation and has instead given a stark assessment,

 

The C of S will have its committees, press office, projects and politicised structures for many years to come.  But will it be a living and growing church or just one in which the spiritual parasites live off the rotting carcass of a once vibrant body? I suspect that it will be the latter (Robertson, 2016).

 

The Rev. Robertson is not an unbiased commentator; his criticisms in many ways reminiscent of the denominational war of words of an earlier era.[54]  Although both the tone and the motivation of his comments are suspect, there is undoubted substance to many of his criticisms, which have already been highlighted in this chapter.

 

Firstly, Rev. Robertson as an external commentator, is aware that the reaction and response to the quantitative indicators of decline have been, at best, muted or even completely ignored.  This stands in contrast to the more transparent approach of the Church of England, which produces an extensive report and commentary on its various statistics (Archbishops' Council, 2016).  Secondly, there is a question raised concerning the substitution of ‘Good news stories’ for raw data, in order to provide a positive gloss on an otherwise negative situation.  Rev. Robertson may well be shining a light on the Church of Scotland for his own ecclesiastical political purposes, but that does not nullify his contribution.

 

Rev. Robertson views the situation of the Church of Scotland as one of general decline and demise.  His assessment finds unlikely support from research carried out by Jim Collins, who writes extensively concerning companies and organisations and what principles, based on historical data, lead towards their growth and vitality (J. C. Collins & Porras, 1994).  Although his publications are chiefly concerned with large scale profit making enterprises, at least one of his works, ‘Good to Great’ (J. C. Collins, 2001) has been interpreted for the non-profit making organisations (J. Collins, 2005).  His book charting the stages of organisational decline, ‘How the Mighty Fall’  (J. C. Collins, 2009), although referencing profit generating companies and groups, does appear to align well with non-profits such as the church.

 

The negative role, place and treatment of statistics is, in Collins’ five stage scheme of deterioration, viewed as strongly symptomatic of the pattern of behaviours of a declining organisation.  In stage 3, which Collins terms ‘Denial of Risk and Peril’ there is an active refusal to heed the message of the metrics. Alongside this tendency, there is often an unhealthy focus on positives in order to play down the evident negatives. Collins says,

 

There is a tendency to discount or explain away the negative data rather than presume that something is wrong with the company, leaders highlight and amplify external praise and publicity (J. C. Collins, 2009, p. 81).

 

As an example, we might examine the response of the Church of Scotland to the publication of the 2016 survey church attendance, in April 2017, which was announced publicly by the Sunday Herald with the headline ‘Why Christianity is in Crisis in Scotland – Easter Sunday shock leaves clergy reeling as new figures reveal church attendance at all-time low’.  Within the newspaper itself, there is comment from a variety of Scottish church leaders indicating a general disquiet over the drop in numbers.[55] The Church of Scotland contributor, by contrast, attempts to give societal reasons behind the drop together with a list number of recent Church of Scotland initiatives to stem the decline.  The Church of Scotland, carrying a fuller version of the commentator’s views, trumpets the census results online with the headline, ‘Green shoots of growth as 390,000 Christians regularly attend church(The Church of Scotland, 2017d).  In explanation of the green shoots, it points towards growth in the Pentecostal group of churches and to the rise in churches linked to immigrant populations.  The news piece produced by the communications department also sets against the statistics of church attendance decline, a number of other unrelated pieces of statistical information, attempting, it seems, to downplay the fact of, or the importance of, the decline being reported.   Three areas of civic life are highlighted to make the point: weekly cinema going, football match attendance and political party membership.

 

Stage 3 in Collin’s scheme, also sees a number of other points of failure, such as setting goals that fly in the face of the facts or run counter to experience.  There is also a move towards activity and programs which are not backed up by clear evidential base.  Collins notes that a component, often seen at this stage, is the movement towards internal re-organisation as a method of not facing the facts and even of blaming external forces to avoid accepting responsibility and changing processes of discernment.

 

Sadly, the scheme which Collins outlines, reflects some of the organisational behaviours currently at work in the Church of Scotland.  On examination, there is evidence to suggest that the Church of Scotland has moved beyond stage 3 and has entered into the activities of Collin’s stage 4, ‘Grasping for Salvation’, the stage prior to ‘Capitulation to Irrelevance or death’.  In stage 4, hopes are placed on unproven strategies, with more desperate movements towards finding a ‘big new thing’ on which to focus. 

 

The research of Collins does indicate that even at stage 4 there are activities which have led companies to have reversed this level of decline; these include,

 

Formulate strategic changes based on empirical evidence and extensive strategic and quantitative analysis, rather than make bold, untested leaps... Get the facts, think and then act (or not) with calm determination;Gain clarity about what is coreFocus on performance, letting tangible results provide the strongest case for a new direction (J. C. Collins, 2009, p. 90).

 

This pattern of viewing data as instructive stands in contrast to what is sometimes the expressed attitude of some church leaders concerning the futility of statistical data.[56]   

 

Collins might attribute such an attitude to ‘hubris’, a type of arrogance or self-importance borne out of past success.  Those within the Christian church often possess a kind of hubris which believes that God will not let the church die; however, there is sometimes within that mode of thinking, a confusion between the church as a human constructed organisation and the church as a theological entity.  As a minister of a congregation which has previously belonged to three denominations which have totally or largely disappeared from Scotland, it is clear to me that the ‘old organisation’ can disappear.  The question facing the Church of Scotland is, ‘should it allow itself to die in the hope that something better and more alive will take its place’ or ‘should it strive towards recovery and renewal’?

 

Conclusion

The national statistics of decline are not, of course, deterministic of what the future might hold but I would submit that it would be very unwise to close our eyes to the message being given by the numbers and what they represent. The Church of Scotland needs to become much more serious about how it engages with metrics of all kinds.  As the Church of England helpfully acknowledged, to make statistics work effectively for the organisation, there needs to be a change in attitude within the church itself.

 

Such changes in attitude need, however, to be translated into practice, such as a ruthless determination for honesty and transparency to be pursued without recourse to the use of propaganda materials to obscure reality.  As an organisation which holds ‘truth’ to be invaluable, even sacred, then the Church ought to distance itself from activities which attempt to subvert even part of the truth, for such would constitute an unworthy practice.  It may be that those in positions of authority are genuinely concerned for the morale of those within the organisation, but surely morale is truly countered by ensuring that obstacles and challenges are faced and overcome rather than ignored for a time.

 

The role of statistical data, in this arena of current membership decline and potential future church growth, is vital.  Data has the power to inform and guide, help and direct and in various individual aspects of the work of the Church of Scotland, that is how it is utilised, but we must strive to be more open and more responsive to where that leads, not simply as human exercise, but as guided by the Holy Spirit.  Some have viewed numbers as somehow unspiritual and their message unholy.  I believe that is to misunderstand the divine/human interaction in the totality of our work as part of the kingdom of God. 


 Chapter 8



[1] The function of the Assembly Council is the setting of priorities among the councils and committees, and taking necessary administrative decisions between General Assemblies.

[2] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 p1/3 

[3] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1996, Part 3 Section B – Minutes page 7

[4] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 10/4

[5] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 3.2.2

[6] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/17 6.1

[7] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/42

[8] In correspondence with the convenor it was suggested that there was ‘some evidence’ of those going to the school benefiting from attendance though such evidence was subjective in nature rather than objectively quantifiable. 

[9] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/53

[10] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/53 1

[11] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/53 1

[12] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/54 2

[13] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/54

[14] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/54 a

[15] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1997 17/54 b

[16] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1999 1/4

[17] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1999 20/49 1.2

[18] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1999 20/85 11.8.2.2 

[19] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1999, page 9, 2. 

[20] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2000 1/11

[21] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2000 20/18 7.3

[22] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2000 11/6 2.1

[23]Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2001 3.12.1

[24] One metric previously gathered by the Church of Scotland until was ‘the number who communicated at least once a year’.  This number provided one possible proxy measure for commitment (even if it was to be commitment at a low level by some).  When the total number of those who communicated once is set against the Church of Scotland membership over time then on that metric there is no noted increasing commitment indicated.

[25] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2001 11/16 3.12.2

[26] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2001 20/31 7.6.1

[27] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2001 20/31 7.6.2

[28] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2002 1/9 10.

[29] Section IV of the example Persons and Agencies Schedule in Appendix 19 contains the questions added.

[30] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2002 13/19

[31] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2004 12/1

[32] The quote included within the aim, ‘offer an accurate reflection of the present health of and missionary challenges facing, the Church’ is a direct reference to the Report of the Board of Practice and Procedure, 1998 1/4

[33] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2004 12/5

[34] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2004 12/7

[35] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2002 20/6 1.1.3

[36] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2004 10/24 appendix 2

[37] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2004 20/19 Statistics for Mission

[38] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2005 1/9

[39] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2008 19/227.2 

[40] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2011 5/12 5.7.1

[41] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2012 5/8 3.7.1

[42] Interview with Lesley Hamilton Messer, Secretary to Mission and Discipleship Council

[43] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2013 5/18 38.2

[44] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2014 Mission and Discipleship

[45] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2015 8/17 10.1

[46] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2016 4/26 10

[47] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2015 6/6 8.

[48] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2016 10.5

[49] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2016 5/11 9.3, 2016 5/12 9.6

[50] Appendix 13 contains the data gathering form used by the Church of England and appendix 14 further examples of the range of statistical output which is generated for reporting purposes.

[51] The Methodist Church depends on the Statistics Unit of the Church of England to process its collected data

[52] Dr Peter Brierley has been the lead consultant and has had the responsibility to design, gather and analyse church census data.  The raw data gathered has remained the property of Mr Brierley.

[53] Reports to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2012 5/8 3.6.1.1

[54] Chapter 2 highlights something of the friction and debate between elements in the Free churches and the Church of Scotland

[55] Sunday Herald newspaper 16th April 2017, p4,5

[56] Chapters 5, 6 and 7 reference some of the negative attitudes along with those already expressed in this chapter.