Numbers and the Whole Story

What I try to talk myself into is not paying attention to numbers. After all, so much of ministry is intangible. How do you quantify the impact an 8-week bible study makes on someone? How do you measure how a sermon might change the thinking and behavior of one of the Sunday morning hearers? What difference does it make, quantitatively, for someone to give a Sunday evening at the local homeless shelter?

Yet I can’t help thinking about numbers. I find it difficult to purge myself of the notion that if numbers are ascending, then good things must be happening, and if numbers are going the other direction, then failure and decline must be setting in.

A good friend and colleague gave me a mantra to help guard against too much attention to numbers. He encouraged me to reflect on any event in terms of who needs to be there. And to assume at any gathering that the people who needed to be there are there. And that sometimes just a few can have a disproportionate impact going forward. That’s been helpful. (Thanks, Bob!)

My most recent love/hate relationship with numbers goes back just a few days to Christmas Eve, and then our Sunday service on New Year’s Day.

For several years now, we have had four services on Christmas Eve: 3:00, 5:00, 8:00 and 10:00. The first two services are more informal and we market them as family services, planned especially with children in mind. The two later services are traditional candlelight and carol services.

Over the past few years an attendance pattern has emerged: light attendance at 3:00, overflow at 5:00, overflow at 8:00, and light attendance at 10:00. This year, after the 3:00 service I found myself buoyed in spirit noting that the attendance at 3:00 was larger than years past. Then I was a little disheartened to see that 5:00 wasn’t as well-attended as previous years. The same thing held true for the later two services. So, while the trends didn’t hold true for individual services, the cumulative total was on par (and even a little more) than previous years.

So, it’s a reminder again not to place to much credence in numbers, especially in the short-term, narrow perspective. It’s also a reminder that in this work of the church, so much of the impact of what we do defies explanation. And even when we try to come up with an explanation, I always come away with feeling like any explanation is as good as another. Why the change in the attendance trends compared to the last few years? Good weather? Christmas Eve on a Saturday? Go ahead. Come up with one of your own. I’m sure it would be as good as either of the above.

Because both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day happened to fall on Sundays, we altered our normal Sunday service schedules. While we normally have three services (7:30, 8:45, and 11:00) and normally have about 375 in attendance, we decided to have only one service at 10:00 those two Sundays. What has brought me delight is that attendance exceeded our expectations for both Sundays. Especially on New Year’s Day, I didn’t know what to expect. One can excuse not attending on Christmas Day because most folks would have been in church the night before. But on New Year’s Day, the only excuse is a night of partying the night before, hardly an excuse for which one would want to get into an argument with God about. Still, I was not optimistic about attendance. I’m delighted to say that we had a church-full. Not the numbers of a normal Sunday, but still more than I expected. And there was something encouraging and exhilarating about starting the new year in the sanctuary, around God’s gifts, with a church full of people. Another sign that numbers will never tell the whole story.

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