The Numbers Game

Every Sunday after worship, Oscar could be relied upon to update Rev. Ellen on the morning’s worship attendance total. “We were down by seven this week.” Or, “Ten new visitors—let’s hope that boosted our offering!” Rev. Ellen dreaded Oscar’s weekly report (which usually came during the fellowship hour when she was connecting with people) because her understanding of what these numbers signified, and their level of importance in the life of the church, differed drastically from Oscar.

In recent weeks, a few articles have been written about tracking worship attendance, each with a different opinion on the matter. One author even asserted that churches should cease taking attendance altogether. The majority of these commentaries, however, have failed to “see the forest through the trees”—they focus on the numbers themselves as the problem or the solution, rather than placing numbers in their appropriate context.

I tend to take a less extreme approach—as a statistician, I rather like numbers; but I also have a very realistic understanding of what the numbers do and do not mean. Worship attendance numbers do not provide a complete picture of the vitality of a congregation or its impact in the wider community. In this time and place in our history, they do not really help us to gauge the financial resources of a particular congregation. They do not give us an accurate measure of the total participants in a congregation’s life because a) there are multiple points of connection beyond worship for any given congregation and b) the “new normal” of worship attendance has become once or twice per month. In reality, over the last 50 years, the comprehensiveness with which worship attendance measured certain phenomena has decreased dramatically.

But all is not lost in tracking worship attendance, and there are some things that these numbers can tell us about a congregation. They do tell a part of the story about a congregation’s vitality, just not a complete one. They do help in tracking trends over time in terms of monthly, yearly, and decadal averages that contribute to the history of a particular congregation (or on a larger scale, a particular denomination). These numbers do help in predicting future trends, though random events can always change any future predictions. And they do serve as a signal for immediate issues or circumstances that may be occurring within the congregation, aiding church leadership in assessing and addressing the impact of a particular event or change.

That being said, I believe that churches (and eventually the UCC as a whole) should track other numbers in addition to worship attendance (and membership, for that matter). As the church in the world continues to shift, there are now different points of affiliation and connection for people over various measures of time. For example, how many people in the community are impacted by your church’s ministries on a weekly basis? A monthly basis? How many people download the sermon podcasts from your website each month? How many people participate in a new parent support group but don’t attend worship on Sundays and are not interested in becoming members? These numbers are equally as important as worship attendance and, in many cases, more important.

Because Oscar focuses on worship attendance from week to week, he may not see that the church’s bi-monthly meal program for the community’s homeless population is growing and having a great impact on the congregation’s vitality and witness in the world. Or he may not notice that the church is gaining an online following through its social media presence and weekly virtual Bible study.

But most importantly, Oscar may not recognize that he is giving too much power to the numbers themselves. Many of us fall into the same trap. We equate numbers with self-imposed measures of “success” or “failure,” seeing them as the ends (the finished outcome or product) of a congregation’s ministry, rather than the means by which we can help measure the ends. Numbers are indicators, guides, signals—they are never the end-product or the total descriptor of a church’s ministry. Numbers should simply inform the question, “How are we living out Christ’s call to be the church in our lives and in our community?”

How is your congregation living out Christ’s call to be the church in people’s lives and in your wider community? How are you tracking this numerically? Non-numerically? What power do numbers possess for you? What power do they possess for your congregation as a whole?

This post is also published here through Stillspeaking Weekly, a series designed with pastors, lay leaders and committees in mind, offering thoughtful and practical reflections that invite and inspire dialogue on how churches can strengthen their ministries.


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