Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Role of Numbers in the Church

Every year, our church sends reports to denominational officials. We send a host of numbers. There are budgets, membership statistics, worship attendance and a host of other facts and figures. Sadly, we do next to nothing with the numbers. They just sit on a shelf gathering dust.

I wonder what would happen if we used the numbers. I know many would balk at the thought. The church they argue is not a business. We can't quantify faithfulness. Attendance or the number of baptisms do not demonstrate the vitality of a congregation. I would agree.

If nothing else my degree in mathematics has shown me that numbers have hidden dangers. As an abstraction, they are useful to make comparisons or calculations, but valuable information disappears when we reduce people or objects to mere number. In The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the narrator mentions the subtleties lost when adults are consumed by numbers.
"When you tell [adults] that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, 'What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?' Instead, they demand: 'How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?' Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him."
Another problem resulting from abstraction means that numbers can be manipulated for ill. Scientists have been caught using only data which confirmed their presuppositions and prejudices. Politicians and advertisers have manipulated public opinion with skewed or selective reporting. As Mark Twain once said, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

The Scriptures also suggest a danger of numbers which might surprise some. Numbers can lead to the sin of pride. In the ancient world, taking a census was a sign of control and power. Kings used numbers to coerce populations through taxation and conscription into the army. In the Old Testament, God gave Moses specific instructions relating to a census to curb this temptation. Each person involved in the census had to pay a "ransom" as an offering to God (Exodus 30:11-16). An offering was a costly reminder to the leader that God was really the one in charge. The consequences for failing to follow these rules were severe. For example, King David later took an illegal census, and God punished the kingdom with a plague (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21). I could just imagine a church pastor busting with pride as he recites the number of new members added this year. Heck, I have been that pastor.


Nonetheless, we shouldn't ignore numbers. We must be on guard against abstraction, manipulation and pride, but church leaders shouldn't be blind to the results of their ministry.

Perhaps, we are just looking at the wrong numbers. The percentage of members who come to worship might be a more useful statistic than simply attendance. The number of youth who are still active in church after college is much more helpful than numbering the crowd who gathers weekly. I would assume that there are even more creative ways to measure a congregation's impact on the community.

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