“Whenever a man can get hold of numbers, they are invaluable: if correct, they assist in informing his own mind, but they are still more useful in deluding the minds of others. Numbers are the masters of the weak, but the slaves of the strong.”
― Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher
As a math major in college, I have a deep love for numbers. Manipulating them always came easily to me. I always believed that a great deal could be discovered from looking at numbers. As a sports fan, I always loved statistics…batting average, earned run average, etc. It was fun to compare my favorite players with the greats of the game. Nowadays, statistics (at least in baseball) are far more complex than when I was young…or perhaps I just understand and read more about them. Minor league baseball players are graded based upon stats I’d never even heard of, like FIP, xFIP, BABIP, and many more. It seems like people analyze a player more on their numbers than on what they see when they watch the person play.
The same can be said about the church. We analyze the numbers. Your membership is dropping? Must not be healthy. Expenses are exceeding income? You’re in trouble. Not having many baptisms or professions of faith? You’re a dying church. We say the same about our ministries. Our youth group went from 10 to 4. Must be doing something wrong. Our Sunday school had only 10 kids this year. We need to advertise better or the pastor needs to get out and visit more young families. It seems that we’ve begun to judge our churches more on numbers than on what we actually see when we are there. And I think that is a huge mistake.
Numbers only tell part of the story. I will not go as far as to say that numbers have no value. We can learn a lot from looking at the statistics of a church. But the numbers only tell a part of the story. The size of a church does not define its character or its faithfulness. God can do just as many amazing things through a small church as God can through a large church. A growing church can be unhealthy and a shrinking church can be on the path to wellness. Numbers only tell part of the story. We need to know more in order to know what a church is about.
Also… Numbers can lie. For the first few years of ministry at our current church, the numbers made it look like our church was shrinking rapidly. Our membership was dropping significantly each year and our average worship number looked quite a bit less than it had been prior to our arrival. The problem with this is that the numbers were lying. We weren’t really losing members in droves and our weekly attendance was no worse than it had been. The fact was that we had a lot of people still on the role who hadn’t been attending our church for years. And no one had really been keeping track of our weekly attendance numbers, so they had just left the number the same for years. The numbers were not really telling us the truth of the situation. The numbers lied to us.
And beyond that… Numbers can be manipulated. We can make numbers say what we want them to say. We can highlight all of the positive numbers if we want to present things in a positive light. Or we can dig up some really low, ugly numbers to make something look bad, if making it look bad serves our purposes. We see this often in politics. Want to make your opponent look bad? Dig up some negative stats about them to throw out in a commercial. It’s simple. You don’t even have to be a math genius to do something like that. We’re all pretty gifted at tearing others down and building ourselves up when we want to.
So, if numbers don’t tell the whole story, they sometimes lie, and they can be manipulated for personal gain, how then do we measure a church? Well, the Belgic Confession talks about how we measure a church in Article 29:
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.
How do we measure a church? Well…is the Word of God discussed and studied there? Are the people eating together at Christ’s table and celebrating the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit through baptism? Are authentic relationships present where people are able to challenge one another and spur each other on toward Christ-like living? These characteristics are far more difficult to encapsulate or define, but they speak volumes more about a church’s health and vitality.
In a world that runs on numbers and statistics, it is hard to buck that trend in the church. We are so used to growth strategies and head counts. We feel more comfortable with numbers that are getting bigger than those that are shrinking. Even our language convinces us that “negative” numbers are bad and “positive” numbers are good. But God is not concerned with the numbers. God is concerned with our faith. I remember a story Jesus told of someone bucking the numbers pretty profoundly. He spoke of a shepherd with 100 sheep. And he says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” In Jesus’ day, his listeners would have probably thought it was obvious that they would go after the lost sheep. But in our day, I think we are often far more concerned with keeping those other ninety-nine. After all, is ninety-nine really all that different than a hundred? We’d rather take the hit than chance losing more. God takes that chance. God does not desire that anyone be lost.
How do we measure the church? Like the world does? Or like God does? In order to measure it like God does, we need a relationship with it. We can’t just sit back and look at the numbers. Will we be slaves to the numbers? Or will we let God be the master of all?