The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for more years than we care to recall, has been fretting about the loss of church members.
Ecclesiastical shrinkage is a complex problem, but I have discovered and hereby propose a simple solution. We should stop counting members and do away with membership rolls.
Such a proposal will doubtless elicit a collective gasp from the bureaucracy, so let me quickly point to the biblical justification for such a move.
David did not make many wrong moves as king–aside from the Bathsheba episode–but toward the end of his reign (II Samuel 24) he made a serious misstep. David was determined to count his people by doing a census of Israel and Judah. (I know; God told him to do it, nevertheless … ) When the numbering had been completed, David had belated second thoughts. He said to God, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done.”
I am proposing that we should say the same thing to God and stop numbering Presbyterians.
The most obvious benefit will be that, since we won’t know how many members we have, we will no longer worry about how many members we have lost or may be losing. Governing bodies at all levels can then concentrate on doing God’s will without being preoccupied with whether or not church members approve the resulting decisions. We will still be concerned about the departure of individual members, but without statistics we will be more inclined to consider them as human beings rather than as numerical gains and losses.
There are additional benefits. Without statistics there will be no need to print a statistical report, saving the church a great deal of money. I expect that some of the most ardent supporters of this proposal will be those church secretaries and pastors who have to spend so much time and energy after the first of each year in assembling (and in some case manufacturing) the data for their statistical reports. By one calculation (mine) some 110,000 hours of church staff time will be freed for other forms of ministry with the demise of statistical reports.
In calling the fishermen as his disciples, Jesus told them that they would hereafter be fishing for people. He didn’t indicate that the church should become a fishing tournament, with status prizes awarded for the most and biggest catches. It is time we reversed our direction, putting less energy into counting our members and more into counting our blessings.
Joseph C. McCutchen is pastor of Farmville (Va.) Church.