Lost in the numbers

numberjumbleNumbers are a pesky necessity to our work and practice in the life of the church. They are essential in order to keep our finances in check. They are helpful when ordering the proper amounts of needed things. They tell us what page we are on in the worship folder, and tell us what hymn we are singing. When we keep data, numbers keep us in touch with reality and map trends through the ebbs and flows of months, years, and decades. When we equate numbers with success or failure, they can be incredibly seductive.

Like it or not, numbers are important to our viability. When I was a new pastor the common wisdom among church leaders was that in most communities an average of 100 worshippers per week meant that a congregation has the opportunity to thrive; call a full-time pastor, pay its mortgage, support the wider church, and run enough programmed ministries (and if they were able to afford it, the staff to provide leadership in other needed areas – like a musician, administrator and youth worker). These are large brush stroke generalizations, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was taught that 100/week was the benchmark of a healthy church.

Fast forward 5-10 years and the conversation shifted to say that in many of the same communities, 100/week was no longer part of the conversation. Now leaders considered 75/week a stable enough congregation to remain viable, whereas 50/week meant that small and shrinking congregations could remain open in the short-term, so long as they turned things around in the long-term. What is important to bear in mind is the shift in thinking in a very short amount of time based on the numbers – 100/week was an opportunity to thrive; 50/week was the last opportunity to remain open. In recent years the conversation has shifted to how congregations of any size connect with others outside the membership roll, but numbers continue to play a role in how congregations plan and implement their ministries.

Using these ratios it becomes very clear that (at least numerically) bigger is better. The assertion is that if a congregation had 200 or 300 worshippers (along with their financial resources) more ministry could happen than a worshipping community of say, 35-50, because more staff could be called to serve, more programs could be implemented, more mission dollars could be used in the wider church and more ongoing needs could be addressed locally. The reverse became true as well. As many Mainline Protestant congregations’ membership rolls contracted over the last decade or so it has become increasingly difficult to maintain buildings that are underused and aging, it has become more difficult to keep staff and programs going with fewer resources, and it has changed the outlook of many churches who once assumed their permanence within communities that continue to change and develop, and in many ways have left them behind.

The numerical question: How many people worship at your church?

Pastors and other leaders ask each other how many people worship in their churches. This question can be a source of pride, longing, comparison, envy and at times despair. We believe in the economics of numbers: if we are “good” pastors if our numbers are up; if our numbers are down we must be “not as good.” Weekly worship attendance numbers don’t account for faithfulness, nor for the dead we’ve buried, nor any of the relationships we’ve built with those who may never walk through our doors, especially on a Sunday morning. But numbers are seductive. We believe in them, and we attach our self-worth to this idol, especially when we achieve some modicum of success.

Yet the numbers don’t lie. Institutionally as well as locally, many of our churches are numerically smaller than they once were a few years ago. This reality has left many communities and their leaders on the defensive, adding emotional stress to an already complicated situation as congregations reassess their identity and purpose in the world.

Enter two conversations I have had recently…

My friend Dave Holtz (the Executive Director at Luther Crest Bible Camp) and I were having one of our late night chats last week. We were talking about numbers – congregations in decline, camps in decline, institutional decline, and of course the 100/Sunday, 50/Sunday ratios. One of his colleagues, Pastor Dave Spersted of First Lutheran Church, Little Falls, MN, had a great answer to our number question…

Here is the insight: How many people encountered grace, forgiveness and restoration through that community in word and sacrament?  ALL OF THEM!

The other conversation came at our last meeting with our leaders around our Sunday morning learning hour (we’ve redubbed – “Sunday School” as “Kid Time” here at St. Michael’s). Our last Kid Time of the season before summer was a fun game day with a scavenger hunt and even though the turnout was low – everybody that participated had a great time. One adult leader made a new connection that was shared with the leadership team, “I was disappointed. Not because we needed more kids for it to be fun or worthwhile, but because those who didn’t come were missing out on something that was fun and worthwhile, and I wanted to share it with them too.”

Here is the insight: Stop pining for more people to make things worthwhile – and instead celebrated the worthwhile things we do together, whether it is 5, 50, or 500 of us.

So how do we use the numbers?

Let’s consider using numbers differently, by being smarter in how we use them. Often we look at membership lists and see if they are growing or shrinking comparative to prior years and then decide if we have had a lean or bumper year.  What do the numbers mean? Just implying growth is “good” and shrinkage is “bad” doesn’t help us get any smarter. We should look at who has left and why, who has joined and why, while getting them connected into ministry as soon as possible. We should also look at our growth/decline rate in relation to other churches in town and other congregations in the area of our denomination. Then we may be able to read our context a little more wisely.

When we consider our average weekly attendance per year, a seasonal breakdown and comparison is the only real way to gauge any trends. Even then attendance patterns are hard to track because even our most consistent worship participants travel or have other commitments that pull them in other directions. The questions we should be asking are not how to get more people to commit to come at an hour of our choosing so we have a higher attendance/week ratio; we should be asking how to better connect people so that when they are away they can still be part of the ministry. In addition we should be asking how to engage people when we are together. How many people worshipped here this week? All of them!

When it comes to our budget, is the only factor worth considering whether or not we end the year in the black or in the red? I am for balanced budgets and we did pass one this year, but that budget does not assess if we are ministering to our capacity or not. That question has yet to be asked. Maybe we are stretched to the limit and are living within our means. Maybe we are taking it easy and could push ourselves harder. The numbers themselves can’t answer that question. Yet we can discern what those numbers mean if we are open and honest with one another.

I learned something this spring when we celebrated St. Michael’s 50th anniversary as a congregation. A lot of people did a lot of things to get ready for it. We reached out to our members, former members and friends of the congregation. Even upon several attempts some folks simply did not respond to our invitation. Jesus did say, “Shake the dust from your feet and move on” (Luke 9:5). Rather than continue to harass them, or lament that they are not among us, we should let them go. We can remain open to the possibility that things might change in the future, but we cannot make people respond. But we can celebrate those who are here and give so much of themselves, we can continue to welcome others and share with them the faith that continues to encourage us, and we can take that faith with us into the other arenas of our lives, serving as witnesses to the good news we cherish so dearly.

church.come.and.restNumbers matter. They represent important data. They can empower us when they grow and judge us when they decline. Yet whatever numbers we have in front of us, we can learn from them, get smarter about using them, and we can encourage one another through them as we plan for the future and tend to the present as we take part in God’s mission in the world.

Pastor Geoff
Jesus said,
“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)


About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Change Proponent, Goofball, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
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5 Responses to Lost in the numbers

  1. Jay says:

    I appreciate the tension in this, Geoff. Numbers are important, but not the fullest measure. I think I hear too much of an either/or about measuring. But if we have no way to measure, how can we be sure? Un/fortunately (sic) we can use these to know if people really are experiencing restoration, grace, etc. In my limited experience I have found that if we are doing this as well as we think we are, we do grow. Often numerically, sometimes in other ways (spiritually, connection to community, etc.) but very often numerically.. If we are not, then the gospel has not compelled and they don’t come back. At that point we should ask, not how do we get more people which is easy, (hot tub religion) but how can we more effectively encounter people with the life of the Kingdom. It’s the tension for the leaders not to be a slave to numbers but to how they give us evidence of fruit for the kingdom. It is a spiritual discipline to get to the end of a low-attended ministry/program and say, “it was worth it” or “it was ot worth it”, either possibly being a correct answer.

    • Can faithfulness be measured? I’m not sure. Is someone an 8, another a 6? Probably – but who knows? Numbers of people we can measure. It is flawed and somehow incomplete? Absolutely. Is it what we have? Yep. If there is something better – I am all ears. I guess the other way to measure is emotionally – but that is subjective. So numbers are what we have and what we can use. But there is a dark side to them that makes us think they are the thing we are striving for, which gets dangerous I think. They can easily become the idol to which we cling.

  2. Curtis says:

    ” We should look at who has left and why, who has joined and why, while getting them connected into ministry as soon as possible. ”

    Who is “we”? Who performs the action of getting to know others, and inviting them into the community?

    • By “we” I mean the people in the church, the congregation, those reading the numbers. It could be a broader “we” within the whole congregation, but is likely the leadership.

      • Curtis says:

        I agree. I think the entire congregation needs to be involved. Today’s communication tools make it easy for everyone to share and collaborate. There is no need for a select group of leaders to fuss over numbers behind closed doors. Make the numbers, and the conversation, public, and let everyone have a voice. Today’s tools make it easy to do, and the younger generation expects that type of openness and engagement. If people are not engaged in the process, they’ll just go somewhere else where they can be engaged.

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