Danger in Distraction

Statistics are never as straight forward as they at first appear, indeed:

“Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

Aaron Levenstein

Over on his blog Kelvin has been looking at the SEC statistics and he has some interesting things to say, however there are also some things he doesn’t say, those vital things that statistics conceal.

The SEC statistics are collated by clerics or vestry secretaries and are drawn from the registers and the rolls of congregations, in them we are given the bare facts on numbers who have received communion and appear on rolls, along with those who have been baptised, confirmed, married and died.  The final four of these are pretty straightforward (well not really as they often include those with no live church connection) but the first two are very complex, indeed deceptively so, for example:

  • They conceal multiple communions by the same person on the same day.
  • They conceal those who are on more than one congregational roll.
  • They conceal regional and diocesan services.
  • They conceal – and yes this happens – those the special services which are arranged for the days when numbers are taken.
  • They conceal those who don’t receive communion.
  • They conceal the varied patterns of attending church – fortnightly and monthly becoming increasingly more common.
  • They conceal spiritual growth – for they only record numerical decline or growth.
  • They conceal necessary pruning – how much of that 15% headline figure was removing people who should never have been on rolls in the first place?
  • They conceal children – apart from when they are baptised or receive communion prior to confirmation.

Those are some of the things they conceal but they also don’t even attempt to measure other things, things which are a priority for many churches.

  • They ignore the numbers being received into the SEC from other denominations.
  • They ignore services which are not Eucharistic or an occasional office.
  • They ignore Bible studies and the like along the numbers attending them.
  • They ignore work being done in the local community.
  • They ignore pastoral work – apart from home communions.
  • They ignore outreach.
  • They ignore inclusivity.
  • Indeed they ignore the vast majority of what actually goes on.

Numbers will only ever be numbers and no Christian is a mere number and we do ourselves a dis-service and run the risk of distraction if we look solely at numbers.  Yes we should take heed, but unless we are being ostriches then we can not fail but know the Church is in decline.  There is much work to be done, but it isn’t in counting and the more we look at numbers the more we will be distracted and the more energy we will waste trying to better them alone.

Yes Kelvin is right when he says we should take notice of the trends, but we should not waste time in worrying.  Do not worry, our Lord tells us, seek first God’s righteousness and God’s kingdom will follow (Matthew 6).  The Church has always been bickering over something and probably always will as it strives for that righteousness, Kelvin writes:

It is a fairly obvious thing to say though my suspicion is that most church folk still think that churches are highly regarded in society and haven’t realised that with a huge number of people they are not.

That is what the Church universal needs to wrestle with for it is now far too well known for its bickering rather than its love.  For many people now their only knowledge of the Church is from news headlines, which are rarely favourable, and the things which many in Church assume to speak clearly about who we are and what we do are not obvious to those who have no personal knowledge of church.  Whilst in M&S buying a few bits and pieces about a year ago (M&S is across the road from the church) I was chatting to the young man on the till, he was going through his spiel:

Him: Nice day.
Me: Yes it is.
Him: Are you working today?
Me: Yes, just had a service now off for a spot of lunch before visiting.
Him: In the church across the road.
Me: Yes, there is a service every Wednesday.
Him: What is it you do?
I then went on to tell him about the service.
Him: No, I meant what is your job?

I was wearing my dog collar and this young man didn’t know it was anything other than a clothing choice, it really made me think and still does.

Now I am not saying the SEC doesn’t need to do something about its membership but we do need to look at the statistics with an eye on the vital things the statistics conceal.  We need to come to terms with the fact that we are the odd ones out the strangers in the today’s world.  Later this week as members of General Synod file in and out of Palmerston Place Church, will those walking and driving past even know that a church meeting has been taking place, even with a sea of dog collars on show?  Will they care what is going on beyond the columns of what looks like a rather grand building but not particularly like a church?  Will those who do realise look on with suspicion, wondering what the church is trying to conceal and who they are trying to exclude?  Never before has the Church been held in such low esteem by society, never before has the good stuff it does been so invisible even when in clear view, that is where our work lies, and the numbers?  Well if we have something non-judgmental, vital, loving and joyful to offer, and are known and seen as having and being that, then the numbers will follow.

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