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Lies and statistics

Lies StatisticsNew Zealand has just undertaken our national census. This includes information about what spiritual tradition people identify with – that information does not question if or how they practise that identification.

There is also, now, the announcement that MissionKoru is undertaking a New Zealand church census.

The government census was able to be completed either on paper or online. Suddenly, a new set of statistics will become available – possibly correlating age and preference for online; possibly correlating spiritual identification, age, and preference for online or paper…

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I have mentioned here previously our care in the Anglican Church not to have national statistics. We have no idea of national Anglican Church attendance, baptism rates, clergy ages, clergy training and qualification, age distribution of church attendees, etc…

I’ve also mentioned here before, if your community increases about 4-5% a year, it doubles in size every 15 years or so. Similarly, of course, if it decreases about 4 or so percent a year, it halves every 15 years. The impression I have had, the feel I get in conversations, is that attendance has about halved in the last 15 years. I picked up our diocesan statistics books – and that proves about right.

The feel I have also had is that, because of endowments, investments, and even some increased giving, the number of paid clergy has not altered significantly in the last 15 years. Again, the statistics books confirm that sense to be correct.

[Let’s skip right over our diocese publishing with a straight face that one small parish (49 attending at Christmas) is given as having 160 worshipping congregations meeting at the church building, and 174 worshipping congregations gathering elsewhere! and move right on to…]

How to make the numbers look better

Our statistics give total attendance rather than discrete individuals attending. Say six or seven of you meet daily for prayer in your parish (the Vicar, spouse, retired priest, and three or so others): 7×7 = 49 weekly attendance already. Get a dozen or so to Sunday’s 8am and another 40 to your 10am service and your parish ends up ranking in the top third of our diocesan attendance statistics. My point: there is no way we can tell from diocesan statistics how many individuals are actually involved in a community’s worship.

Do numbers matter?

Well – no and yes. No – is obvious. Yes – but they might be the wrong numbers we are looking at. While we keep no statistics of individuals attending worship, possibly another significant statistic we do not keep is, how many people is the worshipping community serving?

In a group discussion I once heard a vicar excuse the paucity of is congregational numbers because “there’s so few people living in the area”. Well I’ve walked and driven within his parish – there is high density housing, a very popular secondary school, families, and student flats…

There are three degrees of falsehood: the first is a fib, the second is a lie, and then come statistics.

Over the 15 years I mentioned, then, the ratio of worshipper to employed clergy has approximately halved. 20, 30, up to 50 worshippers per employed person in a community is not an unusually low ratio now.

With that ratio halved, with decreasing numbers of baptisms, funerals, weddings, and the preparation for such events, are clergy using extra time for increased visiting? Networking the needs of those outside the church community? More time for prayer? More erudite, insightful clergy because of greater time for study – deeper exegesis in original languages, sermons that people flock to, services that attract? Training, forming, and motivating more effective laity? Engaging people in the new land of the internet?…

I think the Anglican Church in this country is actually quite small. I’d hazard a guess that we should be very pleased if even one percent of our population was in our churches last Sunday. Do numbers matter? I think we like to give the impression that we are big and very significant. A sort of institutional equivalent to putting on copes and big hats. This results in our being top heavy with lots of titles and office-holders and assistance and support for those top positions. But what if we acknowledged our smallness? Embraced it? Rejoiced in it? Made it a feature – rather than pretending that our massive buildings reflect our community’s size…? Some of them were never regularly full even in our imagined halcyon past…

It would not surprise me if the Roman Catholic Church in New Zealand is three or even four times Anglican size when it comes to attendees…

The articles around this topic are (sanguinely) suggesting “that about 20 percent of New Zealand’s total population attend a church at least monthly”. I am going to need a lot of convincing that the numbers are anything like so high. My suspicion is that this is about twice as high as is actually the case.

But of course I could be wrong…
So I look forward to those statistics…

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12 Responses to Lies and statistics

  1. Apparently unlike in NZ, the Episcopal Church publishes lots of statistics and makes me fill out a fairly detailed parochial report. Ah, but those statistics are kind of useless as well. Partly we have the same thing with not differentiating individuals attending worship (I count as 3 persons each Sunday) and partly because our definition of “membership” is quite loose. For example, at the stroke of a pen I just reduced our congregations membership from 222 to 136. Did 90 people really just leave? No, in fact worship attendance is up (in real people) but I figured if I’ve never seen or heard from someone in a year, they aren’t really members in any meaningful way. To some degree, I really wish we didn’t bother pretending to count as its all so distracting.
    Jon White

    • Thanks, Jon. These differences are helpful to think through. Am I right that you do not have parish boundaries? Although some of our canons speak of “members” (our canons are pretty confused – which all seems cute until we end up where we are currently in High Court cases), but actually we don’t have “members”, and “membership” is not defined.

      I should have included your point about counting as 3 persons each Sunday! Here, if the Vicar and spouse are committed to praying Morning and Evening Prayer together daily in church we already have 28 attending weekly! Which is more than some parishes already!

      Yes – I am against pretending to count, and its distractions. I am in favour of honesty and openness. And, hence, a genuine attempt at understanding size and trends.

      Blessings.

      • “Am I right that you do not have parish boundaries?”

        Yes Father B, parish boundaries don’t exist in the Episcopal Church. Folks attend the parish they feel most comfortable with, even if they have to drive past three other parishes on the way to service.

  2. 12% of the population is Roman Catholic. Of those, about 17% attend weekly Sunday Mass, about 2% of the population.

    God Bless

    • Thanks, Chris. There must be some, not counted in this 17%, who are at Sunday Mass, but not every week? If a third of the congregation is in that category (would that be fair?), then we would have 3% of the population in RC churches on Sunday – and my guestimate of being about three times the size of Anglican attendance would not be far off? Blessings.

  3. Bosco, you are correct; our parishes do not have boundaries. We call them that from tradition and habit. What we really have are congregations (a seminary professor once said, scratch an American Christian and underneath we’re all baptists) and in larger metropolitan areas, my experience is that congregations grow and contract as folks move around, but that the overall number of Episcopalians is pretty flat and historically around 1 or 2 percent of the population.
    Jon

    • Thanks, Jon. I’m not sure that parish boundaries are much understood here (as in, eg, the priest & worshipping congregation having a particular care for those in that area). IMO we are tending to become increasingly congregational – with even little liturgical commonality. It is not a franchise, a chain with slight differences – it is more like completely different shops selling sometimes quite different products *ducking and running*. Blessings.

  4. Considering how the growth of the Church is reported in the Acts of the Apostles, no wonder we have difficulty now in reporting accurate numbers. Our ministries are judged by how many attend liturgy. If a large church, say over 250 people, one may not recognize one’s own parish members, so all one can count is the number attending. it seems easier when a small congregation.

    This is a conversation to be had within any congregation, but one also has to temper that talk with a better sense of mission. My little Church out here in the USA presently has no more than 40 people registered (at the height of our membership, we were maybe double that number) With a membership of 40, that means that any given Mass, I might have 20-25 people there, and not necessarily the same 20-25 people. Guests are quite noticed when they first come. But our outreach for such a small church is phenomenal: serving in a pantry that serves more than 100 families weekly, outreach to persons with mental illnesses, involved in homeless programs, volunteering to help the homebound or victims of domestic violence. All of these efforts brings Christ to others, but it may not get anyone to sit in the pew regularly. But is that the goal? End end Mass with this: our Mass and worship are over, but NOT our work, so let us go in love to serve God and our neighbor.”

    I have come to the conclusion that we come to liturgy and worship to be renewed, to be encouraged by our fellows, and to encourage others as well. As a bishop, I tell my clergy to be only concerned on how one tends to a child of God. Most will receive the gift and walk away, but at least 1 will come to offer worship. The need is met, hopefully, and that is what we should stirve for.

  5. These are some of the questions that a colleague and I are researching in a very small scale in Australia. One question that keeps coming up is to what extent have numbers really gone down over the past 50 years or so? Were they inflated in earlier times on eg Christmas and Easter attendances etc? Sunday School attendance is also interesting. PS Thanks for the link to the library, that was great.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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