The Numbers Game (part 3): What is the data telling you?

One of the biggest problems with numbers and data is that people (in the church and the world) report and react to data without necessarily understanding it. In fact worse than that I’ve seen people not even try to react to it.

At its worst, we see:

  1. The messenger is shot.  For example, I remember a Director telling me how he used to report the figures to the MD when things were going really badly and the MD shouting at him in front of the board. When the figures improved substantially, guess what … the MD still shouted at him because they weren’t good enough still. He learnt that it didn’t matter if you were doing badly or better, you still got shouted at. I also know of people who come under lots of pressure to provide positive forecasts when they can’t in good conscience do so.
  2. Targets are set that encourage people to perform towards the goal in a way that causes manipulation and distorts how people act
  3. People react when there is nothing to react to. The numbers drop and there is great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Lengthy meetings are called to determine what you are going to do. On the other hand, someone will celebrate and dine out for ages on an “improvement.” Yet as I have often found myself repeating “there was no real difference.” You were actually simply seeing normal statistical variation.

My point? There is a value in data but it depends on us using it properly. When data is used to help us understand what is happening then it is helpful. When it gets us thinking about how, why and what we are doing then it does serve a purpose.

So, on the one hand, we’ve seen that there is a dangerous and idolatrous numbers game but the other side of the coin is that numbers do matter in church life. After all, we do want to see more people coming to faith in Christ. We do want to see more people training for ministry and we do want to see more people sent out onto the mission-field.

I’ve got a hunch that people who pastor larger churches tend to talk happily about numbers whilst those of us that pastor smaller churches are quick to say that we are not in the numbers game.  I also note a tendency when we are talking about outreach and making decisions about things like the building size, number of services, staffing etc that we are very quick to say “but it isn’t about numbers.”

But numbers matter because they matter biblically. The book of Acts shows a great interest in telling the story of how the church grew and Luke takes the trouble to count conversions.

You see numbers matter because we care about seeing people coming into God’s family. We do want to see growth in those who believe. Numerical growth does not have to be in conflict with spiritual growth. Indeed, an outworking of spiritual growth will be a greater desire on the part of believers to share their faith which may (note “may” not “will) lead to growth.

So, numbers matter because growth matters. Healthy things tend under normal conditions to grow. Actually, most things will grow. In my garden weeds grow all the time! So the real issue is that we want to see healthy growth.

Thinking about numbers can be helpful if we don’t simply count up to boast.  My background is in systems and process management.  In that line of work, we did a lot of measuring but we did not measure simply to report. We did it to analyse and understand.

In church life that means I’m not just interested in the headline figure. I want to look at who is coming and when.  I will start to see that there are trends.  There are peaks and troughs, other things affect engagement, I notice that there is a difference between or weekly average attendance and the number of people we might consider to be regular attendees. I want to know why this is so, is it because people are not really committing or is it because they are committing to the best of their ability but things like work, family and health pressures create challenge.

It mattered when we came to Bearwood that our attendance had plateaued. A key reason for this was that the building was at 80% capacity. In fact, one of the things we had to talk through at the time was our approach to the question of growth. We realised that we were in danger of becoming comfortable. We had a fairly full building, we had fully staffed ministries, we were happy. But then we turned the matter on its head and recognised that even if the three churches on our main road were full every Sunday and were preaching the Gospel, there would still be 14,500 people in our immediate vicinity who were not in church and were not hearing the Gospel.  Our focus moved from being inward looking to outward looking.

As I have already hinted, talking about numbers should also push me to think hard about real spiritual growth. I don’t just want to see people attending, I want to see them profess faith publicly through baptism.  I also want to see them grow into maturity, use their gifts and in some cases be sent out onto the mission-field. Here’s another number. We have now sent out our first missionary from Bearwood in quite a few years. I’m praying for more.

Now, I think there can be all sorts of reasons why we see growth at some times and in some places and not others.  When we had OM teams I used to give them a little exercise when they first came. We would walk out into our grounds and I would ask them “Where would you plant some vegetables here?” They would automatically walk over to the little plot of soil where the bushes and plants are.  Then I would say “But what if I want you to plant here?” I would point to the carpark.  “We can’t” t they would answer. “It’s covered in tarmac.” “But this is where I want the vegetable plot. What will you do?” Then they would talk about how they would need to break up and remove the tarmac. They’d have to bring in soil etc.  This would lead to a conversation about how sometimes they would find themselves witnessing and people would seem incredibly open whilst at other times it would feel like the ground is hard.  We don’t have a choice in terms of the bigger kingdom picture. The Gospel needs to go to all those areas.  We can’t skip the hard places.  We need to get to work on them.

Note now as well that I’m talking about the Kingdom. I think we need to be careful about obsessing over our own numbers but we do want to be asking questions about how we encourage kingdom growth which may or may not be through one particular church. That’s why I’m excited to be in an area where there’s a strong focus on partnership to see new churches planted and struggling churches re-vitalised.

On the other hand, a ministry may be small in numbers but see people coming to faith, growing in Christ and being sent onwards into further Gospel service. That’s not just faithfulness, it is fruitfulness.