Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Importance of Numbers

Numbers fascinate us. They provide a seemingly concrete description of all that we do with black-and-white precision. Virtually every aspect of our lives is defined by numbers: our age and health, the size and nature of our communities, our economy, our personal finances, as well as trends far into the distant future.

It is not surprising that the church should also enjoy an equal fascination with numbers. It was reported recently that the overall membership of the largest Lutheran denomination declined again. Given it's liberal leanings, such numbers will be looked upon by some as a prediction of its eventual demise. The LCMS, on the other hand, has defined its future by an increase in numbers, even providing an on-line 'counter' to track its outreach. Mega churches, those behemoths of success, are now pushing for greater representation in the denomination, with the belief that numbers represent power and influence.

The local struggling congregation is of course not immune to this number game either. Members weekly pour over the attendance figures and the bottom line of their fellow member's giving. Decreases in either spell trouble and give rise to calls of panic that the sky is again falling fast.

Those who see great things in counting typically point to Pentecost and the record of the conversions that day. Thousands! they yell with jubilation. However, it is convenient to pass over the many uncounted disciples who left Jesus and his group at the end of John 6. Our Lord, unmoved by such fickle ups and downs simply asked those remaining: Are you leaving too?

Jesus once told the parable about a shepherd who left the 99 for the one stray that wandered away and became lost. The one was important to him as were the 99. Why do we get so caught up in the numbers, defining the success and failure of everything by their increases and decreases when our Lord seemed so unaffected by them?


Presbytera said...

Although numbers do not tell the whole story of FAITHFULNESS, they do give an indication of viability. My home congregation, although faithful in teaching, eventually had a Sunday attendance of 30 people -- not enough people to sustain Word and Sacrament ministry. This inner city congregation closed and those faithful few families were dispersed to neighboring churchs -- they in turn were a blessing to those congregations. You do need a certain NUMBER to pay the bills! At our current congregation, the numbers were declining until some younger confessionals decided it was worth traveling to our church to participate in the Liturgy. The added numbers don't change the faithfulness, but they certainly do help with the singing of hymns and with paying the bills. I look on the increased numbers as the means God is using to keep the truth being confessed at Christ Lutheran Church.

Rev. Don Engebretson said...

I agree. Sometime hard decisions need to be made for practical reasons when numbers indicate the viability of a congregation that has declined beyond its ability to support the ministry it is called to support. I have seen this in other limited ways in larger congregations that find it hard to make the choice to downsize its staff (not pastoral, but support), even when the numbers indicate the need.

My current congregation is quite a ways away from this hard choice (of closing), even though we are in the middle of farm country, miles from any of the other towns. Our total membership remains above 400, and it is possible occasionally to see up to 200 in the pews. For this I thank God!

However, the realities of time and setting are catching up with us. The farm families of yesteryear that fueled our bulging Sunday School program and made our average Sunday attendance over 500 are now fewer and smaller. While we have some biological growth (which can be a real blessing in an aging church!), it is not at the rate of the past when the whole congregation could be sustained for years to come from within. I am thankful that faithful people continue to choose to drive to this country parish (some of them up to 30 miles away!), and that God is still allowing us to reach out with the Gospel to those who need it.

And as a monthly number cruncher for my regular pastoral reports, I do appreciate the picture they can give so that members have some idea what is happening in their congregation. It would simply not be fair to spring the reality of significant decline on them at the last minute. They should see these things as they happen so that they can make responsible choices early on.

Still, congregations and their members can become too fixated on numbers as well. There is a tendency to look back to numbers of the past and call into question why the parish of today cannot sustain them now, regardless of the changing demographics and family configurations that are out of their control. This is where all manner of mischief usually arises, as parishes begin to call into question the viability of their worship and the pastor himself. By making these fundamental changes they hope to breath new life into a dying parish, only to discover that the issues behind their numbers had nothing at all to do with the worship or the pastor.

Thanks for you insights! I appreciate that you read this blog and respond.

SWJ said...

Pastor Seelsorger. I respectfully disagree with your assertion that Jesus did not care about numbers. Please read the book of Acts and see how many times that Dr. Luke notes the NUMBER of converts--souls added to the communion of saints--by preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.


SWJ said...

Pastor Seelsorger. I respectfully disagree with your assertion that Jesus did not care about numbers. Please read the book of Acts and see how many times that Dr. Luke notes the NUMBER of converts--souls added to the communion of saints--by preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.


Rev. Don Engebretson said...

Dear SWJ,
Thank you for your response and insight. I am aware of the numbers recorded in Acts, and rejoice that so many did in fact confess the Truth in faith. Yes, God cares about numbers in that He sent His Son to live and die for the "whole world." He would that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the Truth. However, as the seed of the Word is sown, not all seed takes root and produces. Some is snatched away by the evil one. Some is choked by the weeds of worry.

My point in the article is that there is another side to the whole issue of numbers in the church. While numbers can sometimes indicate the hard realities of "viability," as Presbytera said, helping us to determine whether a church is still able to support the ministry, they can also be used to define a level of success in the church that is artificial ('bigger is better' thinking.) We can become fascinated with numbers thinking that they indicate whether churches are really doing what God called them do to. However, a congregation in a demographically declining area (e.g. farm country, inner city) may indeed lose members and yet still be faithful in its ministry. Members should not be made to feel guilty when their church does not grow numerically, being told automatically that their parish is only a "maintenance" church and not one interested in missions.

Unfortunately many churches look at the "bottom line" of average attendance figures and offerings as the gauge of effectiveness. Yet numbers can neither predict nor assess the totality of the Word's work.

Pastor Engebretson