Faith By Numbers

When I was a kid, I used to love paint-by-number sets.  Paint-by-number was the perfect solution for someone like me with absolutely no artistic ability whatsoever.  There was a picture presented in ink outline and in each section of the outline was a number that corresponded to a color paint.  Faithfully following the number should have resulted in a passable replica of the original, except for one thing: there was never the right amount of paint.  See, there was an identical amount of a dozen different colors of paint, but each picture required colors in different quantities.  A forest picture would rip through the green, but leave enought red to paint a fire truck.  A ship at sea would exhaust all the green, brown and blue, but leave enough pink and yellow to add a flock of flamingos.  There was a fundamental flaw in the design — picture by picture, all colors are not equal.  The same rule applies to the church.  When analyzing shifts and trends in congregational dynamics, a percent is not just a percent, because not all percents are equal.  Stay with me and this will all become clear.

A number of recent surveys and articles point to an “alarming” trend in American religion:  it’s in decline.  There are fewer ‘believers,’ fewer ‘members,’ fewer ‘attending services,’ fewer ‘giving,’ etc., etc., ad nauseum.  Some have gone so far as to predict the demise of our own United Methodist Church, based on the numbers.  But there is a problem with numbers.  They’re not all equal.  Take 20%.  20% is one-fifth.  20% + 20% + 20% + 20% + 20% = 100%.  Plain and simple, and as numbers, perfectly logical.  But what happens if we use numbers as symbols for something else, like human beings.  Does anything change?  Here’s a thought exercise:  you want to build a storage shed with four friends.  You’re an accountant, but your friends are an engineer, a carpenter, a baker, and an 83-year-old retired elementary school teacher.  Now, let’s say 20%, or one person, can’t come.  If that person is the retired teacher or the baker, you don’t lose quite as much as you would if it were the carpenter, or even the engineer.  Each 20% is not equal.

So, let’s look at the church.  Recent reports indicate an approximate 2.5% decrease in weekly worship attendance.   That means, 5 people out of each 200 are staying away.  Scare mongers tell us — at this rate — we’ll be gone in 40 years (40 x 5 = 200).  But this assumes that all church participants are created equal, and common sense says that simply isn’t true.  Let’s use an artificial, but no less helpful thought exercise to put this in a healthier perspective.

  • 20% of a congregation is deeply involved, heavily engaged, financially supportive, and spiritually committed.
  • 20% of a congregation is active and regularly involved, attending, giving, and serving on a steady basis
  • 20% of a congregation attends services, gives a little money, but doesn’t do a lot more
  • 20% of a congregation shows up at Christmas and Easter, for baptisms and at weddings, and may make a financial contribution when they attend, but that’s all
  • 20% of a congregation has their name on the membership list, but virtually never attends, doesn’t give much, and doesn’t much impact the life of the congregation

When we lose members, we do not lose them equally from each segment.   I did a fascinating study in 2001 with eight churches in our denomination who lost 100 members.  The purpose of the study was to determine what portion of departing members came from a similar model of church participation to the 20% model above.  This is what we found:


Fully 90% of those leaving The United Methodist Church come from the bottom 60% of the congregation.  The least active, least engaged, least committed, and least supportive account for the vast majority of the people we are currently losing.  It is not that these people are of any less importance as children of God, but the institutional church does not rely nearly as heavily on these folks for its survival and success.

Though I have not done any specific research, I would speculate that the same principles apply to the decrease in attendance.  I imagine the largest number of people staying home come from the lower end of the spectrum rather than the top 20-40%.  Our congregations will remain both viable and strong as long as the key leadership and most committed supporters are not the ones choosing to stay home.

Numbers are indicators, not facts, when used by researchers.  It is vitally important to keep in mind that each number in a survey report represents a person or segment of people.  Statistics can point out interesting trends and alert us to shifts in people’s attitudes, preferences, and behaviors.  But to know what statistics mean is much trickier.  There is almost always more to the story than numbers alone can tell.  After all, I’m one individual and Michael Jordan is one individual, but if you want to choose one of us for a pick-up game of basketball, I can assure you — we’re not equal.

7 replies

  1. A question this raises for me is like the 150 member church above. How many people are being moved from nominally or irregularly active church members to committed followers of Christ with a biblical world view? That seems to be more important than church membership numbers.

    • Tom, you are right on target — moving people into a deeper relationship with God is important… and the evidence is that, as a denomination, we’re not doing a very good job of this. Estimates of “inactive members” on UM membership lists is somewhere between 24-37%. When 1/4 to 1/3 of our membership falls into the bottom two quintiles we have a major challenge on our hands. Over the past 40 years, these numbers have increased — meaning that some of our members are becoming less engaged instead of moreso. I believe that numbers are indicators only, and that there are many more essential and crucial measures of transformation. Losing even one soul from the fellowship should be unacceptable, but it is also important that we have a clearer picture of the current landscape than many survey reports tell us.

  2. i love paint by numbers, but it really never did look at good as the box showed. that was always my beef.

    would this, could this, be a vantage point that would give some church types excuse for explaining church loss? ‘oh, but it wasn’t the core people. we still have those.’

    i love your thoughts, but my analytical risk management side is thinking how people might manipulate the manipulated numbers. &:~)

    • Man, you are right on — we do not need to replace one abuse of statistics with another abuse of statistics. I can see how people would jump at the chance to say, “See? We’re not doing so bad.” What I am trying to do is strike some balance between the sensationalists that spout doom and gloom and ignore everything that doesn’t support their thesis that the church is going to hell in a handbasket. We have gotten in a mindset of obsessing about our failings without strategizing around our strengths. Denominationally, we are not asking, “How can 8,000,000 United Methodists unite to change the world for the better?” Instead, our focus in on “How do we compensate for the 5,000,000 we’ve lost over the past forty years?” Getting new people is more important than equipping and mobilizing the one’s we’ve got. How screwed up is that? We need a positive vision to move towards, not more fear and despair messages aimed at “escaping the wrath to come.” Anyway, thanks for your observation — it is critically important.

  3. I too am enjoying our conversation. It is good to connect. I engaged in FaithQuest and it is good to “talk”.

    I understand the fixation on numbers. I now have to turn in monthly attendance figures and professions of faith to my DS (Disctrict Superintendent for non UM).

    I think we need to look at several figures. Worship attendance and the number of people involved in ministries and small groups. Together I think this will give us an accurate picture of church health.

  4. Thanks, Bill. I’m enjoying our exchange. Our denomination has been so fixated on numbers that almost nothing else matters. Numbers are important, but they often block real understanding of what’s going on instead leading to it. Last year I attended a church that had been written up in The Interpreter magazine — averaging 50 new members a month for over two years. When I was there, I sat through three services where a total of 250 people showed up. The head usher told me that 250 was about normal. Now, if a church averages 50 new members over a twenty-four month period, wouldn’t one assume that worship attendance would be closer to 1,000? Another church four miles away grew over the same period of time from 40 members to 125 members, and approximately 150 people attended worship each Sunday. Beyond that, this smaller church engaged just about every person in some faith formation small group and a service or outreach ministry. Yet, no one wrote any articles about them. In my mind, the second church is much healthier and a much better illustration of growth than the first. Our values are all topsy-turvy and we keep looking at “the numbers” to figure out our next move. Perhaps our answers aren’t in a demographic survey, but in doing well whatever we can to share Christ with whoever we can.

  5. Ok – you have convinced me – I do realize that numbers are important, and can be manipulated. In my own congregation, attendance is up and giving, in a down economy, is also up. So if we extapolate this, can we say this is true across the board? Of course not. I do appreciate you insight and your passion for the numbers, because behind these numbers are REAL people.

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