Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Number crunching the kingdom

Being a church leader can seriously mess with your numerical ability. For example, I used to think 30 (in church) was small. Now I would be delighted to preach to such an enormous number. Or 10 can be 'higher' than 20: I used to think a church of 20 adults must be in decline, until I read Fresh Expressions literature, where 10 adults who were formerly nothing to do with church, now gathering in a coffee bar to explore faith together, is perceived as a definite 'gain' on the 20 who've been weekly Sunday attenders for donkeys years yet have seen no one under the age of 50 join them for a decade. It all depends on the context.

There's safety in numbers. And anxiety in their absence. It's hard with a designated building (called 'church') to get away from the fact that it should be full of people. But it's context again. If I wander into the church midweek and discover one person praying there, I am delighted.
But one person at the main Sunday service and I would be mortified. Ten people at a midweek meeting might represent a third of the congregation of a small church, but a large church of 300 would consider 10 mid weekers a failure. 

And it doesn't help that well meaning (sometimes senior) people often give the impression that your job is to keep everything going as before, asking every time they see you 'How are numbers?' I am so tempted next time to respond 'oh, half the church have left since I came but the 12 remaining are really on fire for the Lord' (which is basically what happened when Jesus started talking about being the bread of life in John 6:66).

We live with the spectre of cutbacks and rural church closure. I have heard church closure lamented as the definitive end of Christian witness in an area. And I'm sure it is a crisis. But a crisis is not an ending. It might be the beginning of something else.

A peculiar form of mental maths goes on at the beginning of Sunday worship: which priest hasn't done some astonishing numeric leaps as they look out upon a church of largely empty pews, and calculate what a large number of people there would be if everyone who has come, ever, was actually there right now? And on being asked later 'how many did you have?' begins the answer 'well, if so-and-so, so-and-so and so-and so hadn't been on holiday/busy at work/having a lie in/recovering from the night before/preparing a meal for 27 cousins, there would have been......'

It's like that childhood game you played when you couldn't finish your plateful of food, only in reverse. Instead of pushing all the food up one end of the plate to make it look nearly empty, we spread out along the pews to make it look full. I think we need to have picnics instead - 20 people in a 'clump' on the grass, singing and praying will always be 'bigger' than 20 sitting in straight lines in a large building.

A quick trawl on biblical 'counting': David being reprimanded for taking a census of his fighting men to see how many he had (I especially think of this when asked to do my 'Mission Return'); Gideon who was told to slim back his men and keep only the keen ones and Jesus, who told of the shepherd with no numerical sense whatever abandoning the 99 sheep to search for the one. Perhaps the only evidence that more=good is the exhortation to pray for more labourers for the harvest.

Being about more than numbers, 'church growth' is hard to chart. Think of those anxious breast feeding mums whose babies don't put on steady weight along the percentile devised to measure bottle fed babies. Sometimes you appear to be doing all the right things (you 'cultivate an environment that releases the missional imagination of the people of God')* but still it's one step forward, two steps back. Because it's about people, their growth and their sanctification. Shared life, accountability, honesty about problems, holism and taking the long view.

I am trying to get out of the numbers mindset. I'm trying to resist the pressure to go for an indiscriminate 'more'. I pray for encouraging signs. Next time someone asks if the church is growing, I'll say we're working on the soil and leaving growth to the Holy Spirit.

*The Missional Leader, Romanuk and Roxburgh, p. 21


  1. Great post with some astute observations on nave stocking.

    Pews, once the tool of organizing a crowd, are instrumental in expressing in the most effective way, a dwindling congregation.

    Welcoming new persons rather than shifting the already stagnant Chrsitian population is a real challenge, though I am greatly re-assured with the statistical claims of Fresh Expressions (2 unchurched, 2 non-churched, 1 christian per 5 persons). The science of congregation numbers is made all the more complicated when issues you enter in the necessity of "change".

    Accommodation for all persons in the parish is among the most challenging aspects I anticipate in ordained ministry.

    Always open for closer relationship in fellowship, and not just on a Sunday. The shifting dynamic of the seven-day week challenges the necessity of "Sunday religion", and I believe, for the better.

  2. One Christian for every five seems a bit optimistic......?!
    I read one for every 13 in UK (LICC Imagine project, Mark Greene).
    Thanks for your thoughts though:)

  3. I'm reading the CS Matthews post as meaning that of the 5 that start coming to FX then only 1 has come from a "Christian background" that is to say a transfer, rather than suggesting that one in every 5 in church is Christian.
    One thing that I find is that the shared memories of past congregations inflate them by several hundred percent, having examined that recorded attendance figures I've found that on a simple numbers basis (never a good criterion on its own) there has been very little change in the past 25 years - but speaking to those who remain I'd always though the church used to be overflowing. The current trend for growth can easily leave those of us on the ground feeling undervalued and over stretched.
    The rural position also needs to be highlighted, only 17% of the population live in rural settings and yet they make up over 40% of church attendance - so we really should celebrate the success of the rural church and not take lessons from urban churches and leaders that have little or no understanding of the rural mindset and language.