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.