Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Causation vs. Correlation

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Published Mar 21, 2012

You visit a church that has become known for its rapid growth.  You take down a number of observations, seeking the “key” to its “success.” 

You note that the pastor is young, dynamic, and hip.  The music is loud and edgy.  It is situated in an affluent area of the city.  They “market” their “brand” unblushingly. 

The temptation would be to do the following:  take note of the music, the sermon topics, the communication style, the outreach strategy, the type of facility it rents or has built, and deem yourself informed about what makes that particular church “work.”  Throw in a few designer tees and skinny jeans, and you think you’ve got this one covered.

There would be so much wrong with this it’s hard to even know where to begin.  First, it’s one of the poorest ways to study church growth.  Second, it assumes that whatever works in one situation will work in a different context under a different leader.  Third, it mistakes cosmetic issues – the kind gathered from a site visit – the most substantive ones to note. 

But most of all, it runs the very high risk of confusing causation with correlation.

Seth Godin gives the example of noticing how, in most cities, every time you observe that lots of umbrellas are out and open, it's raining.  From this analysis, the obvious way to make it rain is to be sure that everyone has an umbrella, preferably a black one, since that seems to be the kind that's most visible during big storms.

But that would be confusing causation with correlation.  There is a correlation between umbrellas and rain, but not causation.  The umbrellas have nothing to do with whether or not it rains.

Let’s return to our church visit.

What if the deeper reality is that the church was actually the beneficiary of unprecedented transfer growth due to several large churches in its proximity going through some kind of split or internal dissension at the same time, and they just gathered the disaffected?  What if one church alone sent over 1,000 people its way, and another nearly 2,500?  And further, the high baptism rate was not true conversion growth, but Presbyterians getting dunked by Baptists, or rebaptisms for rededications?

Suddenly what might deserve to be studied is how to position a church for transfer growth, largely through the disgruntled and the disaffected, and to see the maximum value of that church’s education more in the realm of assimilation than outreach.

Countless other examples could be offered of fast-growing churches that beg to be examined for music or teaching or style or innovation, but in truth:

...the church reached out to Christian high school students, and then the parents followed in fear of becoming spiritually separated from their child (but in truth, didn’t really like the church at all). 

…the church was planted in a small town, rural area with a large population base built by many nearby small towns.  They became the transfer growth magnet due to being the only contemporary church in the region, almost its only “entertainment.”

…the church has such a flaming evangelist for a pastor that the church would grow regardless of the style of worship or strategy.

…the church is benefiting from the fastest-growing edge of town and interstate access.

I know all of this is crass, and plays into some of the worst (read “secular”) reflections on church growth.  My apologies.  But the point is that whenever we study any model of church life, health or growth, or get ready to anoint the “next, next thing,” we must dig deep to make sure we are determining causes, and not just correlations.

Most of the time, the umbrella has nothing to do with the rain.

James Emery White



Seth Godin, “Getting confused about causation and correlation.” Read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president.  His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.