My church is abysmal at keeping statistics. The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia appears almost frightened of them. We have no real idea of national church-attendance, baptisms, weddings; we do not know our clergy age-distribution, their qualifications, or where or if they trained; etc. This means we cannot observe trends or do any strategic reflecting or planning.

Compare this with the United Methodist Church. Every Monday, churches log in their numbers for attendance, baptisms, giving and other measures. All this appears on dashboards (image left). Pastors—and anyone else—can see how their numbers stack up against other churches. Every Tuesday the bishop logs in and can see the trends.

One danger, obviously, is to become obsessed by numbers rather than pastoral care, orthodoxy, holiness, or other important foci. Competition between clergy can take over from cooperation and collegiality between them (there may already be an element of that; I pointed out the notice boards of the closed church buildings don’t provide, alongside the information of where that particular community now meets, information about the nearby Anglican churches that are still functioning fine for local people thinking about coming (back) to church).

Contrary to the contemporary obsession with growth are the nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic stories of priests who, if they found their early Sunday Mass with increasing numbers, were concerned that the radicalness of the Gospel wasn’t coming through their preaching and practice!

There is also the danger that big becomes regarded as better. I want to affirm the positive value of the small church community. Populous can hide problems. Someone who founded what looked like a large, thriving Pentecostal church spoke to me about his concerns. Some churches worry about not having younger people – his worry was that he had far too few older, experienced people. He had done the stats. On average people stayed in his church for 18 months – and when they left, they didn’t go on to some other church or denomination, they generally left church for ever. His concern was how to change the culture to provide space for the life-long Christian journey.

In a smaller community where I was parish priest I would emphasise changing the culture from being surprised when a new person turned up – to being surprised when a new person didn’t!

I know of one church that has the names of its regulars embroidered on its altar cloth. How long and how regularly do new people have to attend before their name gets added?!

Although small has value, there are issues – particularly with younger people. Say you have a community of about a hundred. That’s one or two in each year cohort if you are (surprisingly) lucky in having a spread that mirrors the local community. Someone aged 53 will probably be able to find support in the fifteen or so people aged 45-55 if the ages are evenly spread. But a 13 year old may not identify so quickly with an 11 year old or a 15 year old…

What do you think…

Read more about the dashboards here and here

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