Guest commentary by Arthur Fullerton
Attending the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s most recent mid council leader gathering in St. Louis earlier this month, it was clear that the church is busy birthing something new. But like new wine in old wineskins, what we are becoming likely won’t fit our familiar categories. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our choice of what to measure. For example, Betty who faithfully volunteers at the church’s breakfast program for the homeless doesn’t get counted as attending because she has to work a Sunday morning shift. Lilly officially attends worship every week – coming in just as the sermon wraps up so she can make a meal of the coffee hour. Thanks to his mother who holds up one end of the congregation, 60-year-old Bill is still on the rolls of the church where he was confirmed – even though he has visited fewer than a dozen times as an adult. Jose isn’t on the rolls as a church member, but he ushers nearly every week. He says it would kill his mom if he officially left the Catholic Church. Our LGBTQ members, officers and pastors have ostensibly been the source of much church fighting for the past 30 years, but you would never know it from our statistics where they are almost invisible. Our multi-race members are similarly either pigeonholed into a portion of their identity or not counted. (See last week’s featured commentary for more on racial identity.)
Or look at how we measure congregations. Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on the Upper East Side of NYC has a small budget, almost no endowment, maybe a dozen members officially on the rolls and has a similar number for Sunday worship – but the church serves 5,000 people in the neighborhood each month. Other churches have fine facilities, large endowments, big numbers in worship on Sunday morning and guard an empty fortress during the week. These are just a few examples of how the PC(USA)’s current statistical measures fail to capture the 21st-century reality of working for Christ through the church.
What we currently track
Currently our denomination tracks measures that might have made sense in a mid-20th-century context: worship attendance, financial measures of income and expense and membership by gender and a handful of racial and ethnic categories. In our mid council discussion of 1001 New Worshipping Communities program, the point was made that it is easier to begin with diversity than to transform our existing faith communities into diverse communities. Some might argue that we can apply new measures to new communities while preserving the old measures for existing congregations. This would be a mistake. Whether we are fated to wander in the wilderness as a Moses generation or we are a Joshua generation preparing to enter the Promised Land, as strangers in a new land we need new measurements of what makes a church vital and alive in the 21st century.
Why do church statistics matter?
I think there are four main reasons why this statistics matter today:
- What gets measured indicates what’s valued.
- What gets measured gets managed.
- What gets measured shapes how we define and judge success.
- Failure to measure the success of minority members leads to an unintentional “white-washing” of the church. When the accomplishments and contributions of non-white, non-male and non-straight disciples gets left out of the story, we see majority privilege at work.
I am an openly gay moderator-elect in Albany Presbytery. I’m surely not the first LGBTQ moderator in the denomination, but since we don’t track that information I don’t have a mentor I can call who has walked this path before me. Keeping LGBTQ leaders invisible also means I can’t serve as an effective role model for young LGBTQ people in the pews who could see me serving Jesus and the church in this role and know that one day they can do likewise. Knowing that service is theoretically possible is different from seeing it happen. With suicide rates among LGBTQ teens higher than average in part because they can’t see a positive future for themselves, silence really may equal death. This is why coming out is so important. Our church needs to come out, too.
What measurement criteria might be relevant for 21st-century Christianity?
- Engagement: attendance and finances are just two of a host of potential measures of the people participating in and contributing to the church’s ministry.
- Discipleship: alignment of lives with the values Jesus taught.
- Spiritual formation: Developing the fruits of the spirit
- Stewardship: both individual and collective utilization of capacities.
- Unity in Christ: expressed through equality in diversity (economic, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, language) as noted in Galatians 3:28.
- Impact: How would our communities miss us if we were gone? Would they miss us at all?
This is not a definitive list of what will be important in a 21st-century context. Perhaps Facebook friends or YouTube sermon views makes sense for some congregations, while meals served or nights of shelter provided might be more relevant to others. Nevertheless, the statistics we gather today tell us almost nothing about the effectiveness and impact of our various ministries on the lives and the souls we are trying to win for Christ. We can and must do better.
What can we do?
Perhaps the task of developing new measures could be taken up by one of the existing groups looking at our denomination’s future. Perhaps presbyteries around the country might draft overtures for the upcoming General Assembly calling on the PC(USA) to develop better measures that more accurately reflect the reality of 21st-century discipleship. Perhaps (in good Presbyterian fashion) we can form a separate task force to research the matter and make recommendations to the next General Assembly. Whichever course of action we adopt, it is essential that we change and begin to measure what matters.
ARTHUR K. FULLERTON is moderator-elect of Albany Presbytery and a ruling elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York. He has worshipped and served in Presbyterian churches in Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, California, New Jersey and New York.