Thursday, 21 November 2013

Church Growth in Medieval Christendom

 I have recently submitted a chapter for a forthcoming book, 'Towards a Theology of Church Growth', edited by David Goodhew, to be published by Ashgate in 2014. It developed out of a conference of the same title held at St.John's College Durham, under the auspices of the Centre for Church Growth Research, in September 2013.

Post updated 25.11.13; the full text of this article is no longer available here - you'll have to wait for the book! But here is the intro and conclusion:

Growing the Medieval Church:
Church Growth in Theory and Practice in Christendom
c.1000 - c.1500

Revd. Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes


This chapter discusses three key questions concerning church growth theory, and the reality of church growth, in medieval European Christendom. First, was church growth needed in medieval Europe? By the year 1000, all of mainland Europe was at least nominally Christian1. Paganism had been wiped out, and it would have been hard indeed to find anyone who had not been baptised as an infant. Rulers were Christians, and increasingly law and society were organised on Christian principles. Christianity was officially the compulsory religion of each emerging nation state. In this context, was the concept of church growth meaningless?

There is substantial academic debate surronding the question of to what extent medieval Christendom was genuinely an 'age of faith', or whether Christianity had simply been superficially overlaid on an essentially pagan culture.2 Such debate is beyond the scope of this paper to address, but it points to some of the subtleties involved when considering questions of church growth in this context. More importantly for our present purposes, there is a myth in the modern popular imagination that “everyone went to church” in medieval times. This chapter will therefore look at the evidence for levels of church going, and what scope clergy and others saw for growth in the medieval church. Accurate statistics for church membership and attendance in the medieval past are notoriously absent, but this chapter will consider what historical sources can be brought to bear on questions of church attendance and church growth.

Secondly, this chapter will then consider the medieval sources that explicitly discuss church growth. Through the words of those who were writing about this subject in the medieval past, we shall look at how church growth was conceptualised in a society where most were assumed to be at least nominally Christian. In particular, we will look in more detail at the ways in which the metaphor of 'growth' was used in medieval theology, as there are some very interesting differences here with our modern use of the concept. What did a medieval theology of church growth look like? And finally, this chapter will turn to the simple question: did it work? Was there church growth in medieval Europe?


So what can we, as budding theologians of church growth today, usefully learn from the medieval worldview? In most of our theology, the arguments and concepts that were formed in the medieval period remain foundational, and it does not seem unreasonable, therefore, for us to look here for help in formulating a contemporary theology of church growth too. In doing so, there are four points that I would like to draw out.
First, an historically accurate assessment of medieval levels of church going is a helpful corrective to the mythology of a golden age in which 'everyone went to church'. Contemporary discussions of the difficulties of evangelism often focus on the uniquely problematic nature of our post-modern context, in a way which can gloss over the reality of the situations faced by our colleagues in previous eras. It does seem to have been the case that clergy in every generation have worried about how they could increase the level of church attendance and affective Christianity amongst their flock. An awareness of this may help to prevent counsels of despair, and prompt a new realism about the task that confronts, and always has confronted, the church.

Secondly, the fully fleshed out way in which medieval theologians understood the metaphor of 'growth' is an important resource as we seek to discern a theology of church growth. Understanding the primary task as keeping down the weeds, which are constantly threatening to overwhelm the garden, resonates very accurately with the lived experience of clergy and others involved in trying to grow the church in practice. It is very easy to feel discouraged by these dynamics. A great deal of hard work is expended, yet the result is not often a great expansion of the vineyard, but simply (at best) the only-to-be-expected harvest of the vines that have been tended. In our modern understanding of work, we expect to see a product, the fruits of our labours. Emma Percy draws theological attention to the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who distinguished between three different realms of human activity: labour, the domestic tasks needed for everyday life; work or fabrication, where the end is a tangible product, and action, the work that builds up human communities.56 We tend to conceptualise working harder as producing more. Yet the wisdom of the medieval theologians of church growth would suggest that the work of ministry might be more helpfully seen as parallel to domestic work – washing, ironing, cooking a meal and washing up – which needs to be done, but then needs to be done again, than to artisan or factory work, which produce a measurable product. This does not mean that growth does not take place, but it is more analagous to natural, organic growth – the growth of a garden, or a child – rather than capitalist expansion and productivity.

Thirdly, and more positively, this survey of medieval church growth would suggest very strongly that intentionality is key. Throughout the history of the church, it has grown – numerically and in spiritual depth – when people have chosen to focus on that task.

Finally, there is a further historical question which arises from this evidence for medieval church growth. To what extent did this growth in lay involvement, in the depth and vibrancy of medieval Catholic religious practice over this period, inadvertantly give birth to the Reformation? To extend the metaphor of growth: even if we assiduously keep the weeds under control, we can't control the shape of the growth that God gives, or whether its fruit will be to our taste.



  1. Thanks for this, Miranda, I always find it interesting to dig into the history of this stuff.

    You're obviously right that we should be wary of 'golden age' views of the medieval church, but it seemed to me that much of your evidence suggested that although clergy have always agonised over church attendance, in the middle ages they agonised over whether their relative decline in church attendance was due to 'transfer growth' in attendance at neighbouring churches. This seems a rather different situation to our contemporary one, in which clergy are agonising over how to appeal to those who have either never or only very rarely attended church, a relatively small group in medieval society, but a majority in contemporary Britain. Or am I misreading you?

    I do really like your findings about the medieval view of church growth as a natural state of affairs that happens once the weeds have been removed, meaning that the 'work' of the clergy is essentially a continuous round of nurture and pruning. It does sound like it would resonate with much of the thinking behind, say, Robert Warren's Healthy Churches material: if the church is healthy then it will grow.

    Thanks again, really enjoyed reading this!

    1. Thanks, Mark! The agonising found in Utterbuck's research in C14th Barcelona is mostly about transfer, yes. But the majority of the material, eg the friars and Grosseteste, seems to be about reaching thise who know little or nothing of Christianity. It obviously isnt the same as our context, but it has surprising similarities!