Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Cold Hard Numbers

I'm really not a fan of annual reports. Don't get me wrong - I know their value. But as a pastor, reviewing the year's stats can be depressing. As I was amassing the attendance figures and the membership losses and gains, I was faced with that familiar inner tendency to judge the so-called success of the ministry by the cold hard numbers before me. Average attendance down again. Net loss of membership again. My members have been kind about not holding me personally responsible for this. But a pastor struggles not to do it to himself.

It's at this point that I'm particularly glad that my daughter gave me Klement Preus' book The Fire and the Staff (CPH, 2004) for Christmas. I have only begun this work, but two items were especially comforting to me as a pastor. The first occurs early in the book as Preus confesses his seeming failure in campus ministry at the University of North Dakota. To his fellow pastors he admitted:

"During my whole ministry I have been listening to the glowing success stories of other pastors. I have felt intimidated by those who obviously knew an awful lot more than me about growing their churches. Out of sheer self-doubt I have shirked the daunting task of saving the world. I have felt guilty because my Gospel presentation is apparently not winsome enough. I have lost sheep and lost sleep. My joy has taken a vacation and my natural optimism has deserted me, all because I have not done what the experts said. And I refuse to tell you gentlemen how great my current ministry is. It's bad. All the numerical indicators are down. I am losing members. I am losing leaders.....Yet, gentlemen, despite this terrible news I still think that God is doing just find in my church, and I think I am too. Here is stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me."

Much to his surprise the pastors applauded. He said, "Later I realized why the men applauded. I had put words to their own feelings. These pastors were faithfully serving small, rural congregations in shrinking communities. They were, demographically speaking, in the wilderness with no view of the Promised Land. But they were still faithful, even vibrant, ministers of Christ. Most of these pastors had already learned that the indicators of success in the ministry have always been the same. We call them the marks of the church." By the "marks" he was referring to Word and Sacrament.

I knew this even before I read it. But it was nice to hear him say it again. Although I have long known that "success" in the ministry, if one dares to use such a word, is never measured by numbers. Sure, numbers can be an indicator of trouble at times. And yes, a church whose pews are rapidly emptying due to an inept and unfaithful shepherd needs to be addressed. But that's not the normal situation.

A little later Preus also takes a swing at the Church Growth movement and their fascination with numbers. "I have often heard Church Growth advocates use the statistics in the Book of Acts to justify their expectation for numerical growth in the church. I am impressed with the remarkable growth reported in the first six chapters of Acts. Everything seems wonderful until you read these ominous words: 'And there arose on that day a great persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles' (Acts 8:1). After that, the Jerusalem church never grew again. Is this failure? Had they not read about the 44 ways to increase church attendance?"

My church is one of those rural churches in a demographically challenged area. Overall we are fortunate that we are not shrinking faster than many rural churches. This is a very stable congregation with a lot of children and young families. And last night I also found out that our giving increased in December even as the overall attendance decreased from the previous year. Yet when all is said and done, the numbers simply don't tell the complete story, or even a fraction of it. I'm even wondering now why I put them all together for the report. For those fixated on such things it too often encourages people to develop myopic pessimism.

For now the only number that matters is the one solitary figure on the cross, and the unlimited grace which he won for all people. As long as that doesn't change, I'll be ok.

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