Monday, 29 May 2017

Church Growth and the Perils of Second Order Feedback

Feedback is the process where an action has an effect, which in turn changes the original action. Either it magnifies it ­– reinforcing feedback; or it corrects it – balancing feedback. In the last blog I showed how such feedback loops affect the growth and decline of the church, where changes in the size of people groups within the church feed back on its growth and decline processes [1].

For example, consider the enthusiasts – those responsible for recruiting new people to church. The more enthusiasts, the more converts recruited, thus even more enthusiasts – reinforcing feedback with accelerating growth. This is an example of first order feedback – that is, it only involves one stock – the enthusiasts in this case. A stock is an accumulation – taking time to increase or deplete. Populations are stocks, and first order feedback means they directly change themselves: short-term changes, those up to a couple of generations. Church growth and decline is mainly governed by such first order feedback [2].

Second Order Feedback

Second order feedback involves two stocks. A change in a population stock, like church, affects another stock, before it comes back to change the original population through accumulation or depletion. The “peril” of this second order effect is that the feedback process has inertia, meaning that there is a delay in the feedback process, either magnifying, or regulating, the population changes. This feedback introduces long-term changes that are very hard to control [3]. The following example from church dynamics will illustrate this.


When a new church or movement starts, it is normally quite small, free of centralised control, and spiritually lively. They are often in the hands of people where growth and spiritual purity are to the fore, and they grow rapidly, generating many people who operate in the same unfettered manner.

However, as church gets larger, there is a growing need for organisational structures to regulate church life, train ministers, construct and maintain buildings and finance salaries. These are some of the traits of institutionalism. The bigger the church, the more institutionalised it becomes. It leads to an institutionalised mindset, where maintenance and acceptance by society become a higher priority than growth and spiritual issues.

Institutionalism is a stock, figure 1. It takes time to accumulate, and is hard to remove once it is there. Institutional inertia is well known. Second order feedback, balancing loop B3, happens because institutionalism undermines the conversion process, the first order reinforcing loop R1. The institutional shift moves the bulk of the church from mission to maintenance, thus conversions, loop R1, fall to a value under the church leaving rate and deaths, loop B2. Thus church declines. But the second order effect means that by the time the decline becomes really noticeable, the church is not able to act fast enough to remove the institutionalism to increase conversion, thus decline continues [4].

Figure 1: Institutional Model of Church Growth

Overshoot and Decline

Figure 2 shows the effects of this second order institutional loop on church numbers. There is a long period of rapid growth, helped by the delays in the loop as institutionalism takes so long to build. This is the good side of second order feedback – it takes ages to have an impact. The bad side – the peril of the second order feedback – is that by the time institutionalism has turned growth to decline it has become too large to deal with. There is some natural depletion of institutionalism, (loop B4, figure 1), but it requires deliberate action by the church to dismantle it. Unfortunately, institutionalism is also a mindset, and that action is too little, too late, and the church heads for extinction, figure 2.  

Figure 2: Overshoot and Decline Behaviour of Church Growth and Institutionalism

The result is the institutional lifecycle of figure 2. This is the current state of most of the older denominations in the UK and other Western countries. The revivals of the 18th- 19th centuries have transitioned to organisations with much wider concerns than just saving souls. The timescale of this second order effect, about 300 years in this case, is much longer than that of the revival growth dynamics.

Thus the current decline in church is not primarily due to events happening now, or from the immediate past, but events of a hundred or more years ago being naturally worked out.  I have blogged before how the UK church reached its peak around the 1870s, about 140 years after the commencement of revival [5]. Institutionalism was too high, stifling revival, spiritual life and doctrinal orthodoxy. Decline followed, and 140 years further on again, the churches are in the same declining phase, but much nearer the end.

A Way Forward?

When one church lifecycle is ending, there is more space for another to start. The Methodist movement came out of the decline of a previous church lifecycle that had started at the reformation and, with much political turmoil, had run its course by the end of the 1600s. Methodism started as a renewal movement in the Church of England in the 1730s, then eventually separated in the late 1700s, allowing both to flourish, along with the other denominations also caught up with the revival. Separation allowed Methodism to free itself of the stock of institutionalism of the established church, especially the parish system, thus breaking the effect of the second order feedback loop – at least for the next 100 years before it developed its own institutionalism.

Perhaps now is the time for those who have been part of the evangelical and Charismatic renewal of the last 60 years to separate from the declining denominations. Just tinkering with effects of second order feedback will not turn decline into growth, instead denominations will continue to head to extinction.  The more radical approach of separation is needed.

Such separation is not a recipe for division. The division is already there as is seen in the fights between the biblically orthodox and liberal wings of the older denominations. A separation now would allow both camps to concentrate on what they see as their missions, rather than battles for control of organisations that have run their course. Recently, Free Church minister David Robertson has suggested this strategy for the Church of Scotland, but it really applies to all existing institutional churches – those that have been around for 150 years or more [6].

Some of the older denominations will no doubt wither away. Others may indeed save themselves from that fate, once the internal dynamics have changed. Hopefully, in the new separated churches, it would allow the revival work that has been simmering away since the start of Pentecostalism to flourish and result in many conversions. This is a controversial solution to church decline, but the history of the church is full of such separation. This year is the 500th anniversary of Luther and his objections to the Catholic Church that led to a major parting of the ways [7]. The time may well be right for another parting of the ways in the Christian denominations.


[1] Feedback and Church Growth, Church Growth Modelling Blog

[2] The Limited Enthusiasm Model is largely a model with first order loops

In a population, birth and death precoesses are first order, as are some capacity issues

[3] Overshoot and Collapse is archetypal behaviour caused by a second order loop. See the interaction of a deer population with its environment

[4] The Institutional Model of church growth and decline is described more fully elsewhere:

and applied to the GB Methodist Church:

[5] The connection between revival and church growth and decline is illustrated from the history of the Welsh Presbyterian Church:

[6] Lessons from the Disruption – How a Church Split Can be Positive! The Blog of David Robertson, 19/5/17,

[7] The Quincentenary of the Reformation, Lutheran Council of Great Britain

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