We all know those words originally penned by Benjamin Disraeli and popularized by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The statistics presented in this magazine are all accurate – at least to the best of our knowledge – but then again, we writers and editors aren’t omniscient, and the Outlook makes no infallibility claim.
The possibility of statistical inaccuracies does not pose the greatest danger here. The greater temptation to be avoided and the behavior more to be eschewed is the tendency for us to allow statistics to reinforce-via-rationalization our worst insecurities.
As Jeremy Deck points out (p. 15), some pastors notoriously exaggerate attendance, membership, and giving figures. Like the famous efforts of Lyndon Johnson to register as Democrats the names listed on tombstones, not a few of us ministers have carried on our congregations’ membership rolls not only those members who have moved to another city but also those who have been translated to a heavenly dimension. The greater the numbers on the rolls, the more we can strut among our colleagues.
Then again, in a day when the vast majority of our churches are languishing on a plateau or slipping downhill (see p. 15), it sure can feel good to read that others’ numbers have been inflated or are now flagging. Whether we hear leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention admitting that not even the FBI can find all their reported members, or somebody reports that a megachurch is less “mega” than claimed, we who serve in the shadows of such operations might find ourselves reveling in guilty pleasure over their being so exposed.
Let’s face it: Most of us love to quote statistics that confirm our prejudices, applaud our accomplishments, salve our embarrassment, or showcase our intelligence. “So what if our 10% membership growth is taking place in a neighborhood experiencing 40% growth?”
“So what if attendance is down, giving is up!”
Maybe we just ought to do away with statistical reporting altogether. Given the polling results that saturated the news through the recent political races, aren’t we all too weary even to think of statistics in any and all forms? Aren’t we hearing enough depressing numbers from Wall Street to fill our quota? We’re all about people, not numbers, anyway, right?
Then again, if numbers of people don’t matter, why does holy Scripture so often report the numbers, from the book so titled to the gospels’ accounts of crowds fed by Jesus, from the number of soldiers led by Gideon to the thousands of converts baptized by Peter and John?
As our own columnist, Tom Ehrich, claims, the promotion of Church Wellness requires us to do some measuring. In his column of September 1 (p. 28) he reminded us that “a key component of wellness is outcome-based decision-making – that is, making decisions about allocation of resources, such as time, attention, energy, and of course money, according to the results they yield.” He added, “If something isn’t working, we can stop doing it. If it shows promise but sputters, we can make it stronger. If an initiative succeeds, make it even better and keep on.”
“Now,” Ehrich summarized, “ … is a good time to strengthen your metrics.”
We echo his call for such strengthening. While none of us can solve the denomination’s overall shrinking membership problem – its causes are far too complex and dispersed for you or me to solve – we all can engage in the kinds of activities that help our local church grow: reaching out via word and deed to folks in the community, inviting neighbors, welcoming strangers, expressing an enthusiastic witness for the Good News of God’s grace, organizing events that will showcase the transforming power of Christ’s love.
Indeed, as that same September 1 edition of the magazine suggested, if we will unleash our service and extend our outreach, measuring results as we go, we will become the dangerous elders, the dynamic deacons and the indomitable disciples Jesus commissioned us to become.