An email I received today asked a question I am frequently asked, “How could someone who distrusts and dislikes statistics as much as you do have been a researcher for over a decade?” The short answer to this is that it’s not that I don’t like statistics — I LOVE them, and as with anything you love deeply you come to appreciate not only their strengths, but you become painfully aware of all their shortcomings as well. I am personally enamored of statistics and research, surveys and summaries. What I dislike and distrust is the misuse and misrepresentation of what stats and data actually provide.
Demographics are a prime example. Based on good statistical data, demographers track shifts in populations, preferences, groupings, income, education, and a thousand and one interesting bits and bytes. Based on good statistical analysis, a demographer may project that one particular racial/ethnic group may increase by 20% in a particular area. They may also predict that the majority of the population will be under the age of thirty-five, with a high school education and a median income of $38,750 per year. Great. So what do you actually KNOW that you didn’t before? What you should know is that you now have something to check out to discover what it really means. Any decision you make based on this data beyond further inquiry and study is most likely a bad decision. But do you know how many new church starts are planned based on little more data than that provided above? Too many (though I must admit that while we happily skipped down this blind path regularly in the 1980s and 1990s, we do seem to have learned how reckless and stupid it was, and we don’t do it as often any more…)
I have beaten to death my misgivings about the way membership statistics are abused in the dear old UMC, so I won’t say a lot about it here, except to offer one reality check. If you were to track the number of individuals involved in leadership in local churches over the past 40 years, you would note an interesting fact — it’s basically a flatline. In the same churches that bemoan a loss of members due to death, ditching or mysterious disappearance, the number of people calling the shots hasn’t changed significantly — and the age of those people calling the shots hasn’t changed significantly. The only measurable shift is that more women are calling the shots. Perhaps our inability to expand the circles of leadership and share power with younger leaders could be a relevant factor. No, probably not. We’re probably just getting old and dying…
What we count is the clearest indicator of our core values. Number of lives saved? Number of people fed, housed, visited, taught, clothed, or rescued from violence, drugs, or domestic abuse. Those numbers would say we are one kind of church. Percentage of participants engaged in ministry to others, percentage of participants growing in leadership beyond the congregation, numbers of people engaged in teaching and equipping others? That would indicate another kind of church. One that counts members, dollars, and attendance at worship? Another. If we are about ministry — impact and change — the first two will garner the bulk of our research and study. If we are about survival, the latter will prevail. About God? First one. About making disciples? Second one. About us? Third one. I am most interested in statistics that measure the first two. We have WAY too many that measure the third.
I cannot figure out when the church became fixated with quantities. Oh, there has always been a passing interest, but I am talking about when the importance of size, growth, money, and members got so disastrously over-inflated. It is, to this day, a fairly Western conceit. I remember meeting a pastor from Cambodia who had been introduced to me as “the pastor of one of the fastest growing churches outside of the U.S.,” by a colleague of mine. My friend had shared the statistics of this phenomenal church with the staff earlier. When I met the pastor, I asked him about the size of the church, and he looked at me puzzled. “What has that to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ?” he asked. His congregation numbers in the thousands, but he has no clear awareness of this. It is irrelevant — to everyone but Americans star-struck by box-store-sized churches and potential broadcast rights. Ah, but don’t worry. As Westerners define church, our witness is spreading globally. More and more churches in more and more places are now fixated on stats.
Qualitative analysis is harder. It is definitely the prime standard of scripture, where twelve truly dedicated disciples trumped a multitude of fair-weather followers. Sell your property and give it all away, let the dead bury the dead, take up your means of execution (cross), etc., is not the slickest marketing tool for generating big numbers. The Jesus “brand” leaves little wiggle room. The only measure that works is qualitative. How well we’re doing is always a more pertinent question than how many we’ve got.
Oh, well, my little harangues are not going to change anything. We love our dirty little stats just as much as we love our dirty little secrets. As long as there is something left to count — especially if it is negative and depressing — there will be a researcher somewhere generating a new report. I believe this happens 100% of the time, every 18 seconds, among middle-aged Euro-Ameri-Caucasiatic males.