A Church of Statistics or Stories?

As I perused the annual conference recaps for the Southeastern jurisdiction, I found some interesting paradoxes. The statistics state that only five of the 15 conferences in the Southeastern jurisdiction showed an increase in membership. North Georgia led the way reporting over 4,000 new members. Ironically, of the five conferences reporting an increase in new members, none were able to report an increase in worship attendance (according to summaries listed at UMC.org). Only one conference in the Southeast showed an increase in worship attendance (Kentucky) and that conference showed a decline in membership. However, while every conference showed a decrease in either membership or worship, every conference told wonderful stories! They reported a variety of wonderful ministries, new and exciting opportunities, vitality in new church development, and the continuing development of new leaders. The statistics led to confusion about the state of our church, but the stories led to hope and joy.

What do the statistics really tell us? Is the picture as grim as the numbers say? If we are ever to get a handle on what is truly going on, we will need to adjust our learning processes and cease putting so much emphasis on the statistics. Many in our church scan over our yearly, quarterly, and monthly statistical reports like Wall Street analysts reading the Fed reports. “Did you see so-and-so church lost 30 members the first half of ’06? They must be having huge problems,” we state with scientific certainty. After all, we are children of rationalism and numbers don’t lie. We believe we know the truth because we know the numbers.

The only way you can really know someone is to listen to their story. Margaret Wheatley, in her book Finding Our Way: Leadership for Uncertain Times, states that we tend to treat organizations (churches, in our case) more like machines than living systems (organisms). We look at the output and production and make our pontifications about the state of things in the church. We formulate steps, plans, and methodologies so churches can follow someone’s “Five Easy Steps to Church Growth”. These plans and platitudes treat churches like machines that just need to be operated correctly to be productive. We say the church is a body – a living organism – but we often treat the church like a piece of machinery. It is time to rediscover the stories.

What are the stories behind the numbers? Do we know? Do we care? We can make the statistics say anything we want. We can spin the increase in giving to counter the loss of members in many ways. For example, many of the conference recaps heralded the increase of overall giving for 2005. What many did not clearly state was that overall giving included gifts toward relief efforts for natural disasters. Very few conferences actually paid a higher percentage of denominational apportionments over previous years.

The point is this: Why do we feel the need to allow the statistics tell the stories? Let the stories speak. The stories are rich and powerful. Why does almost every district in our church take half of the monthly district newsletter to list statistics (apportionments paid and net gain/loss in evangelism)? Stories would be better use of our space than statistics. Narratives of resurrected lives speak with more integrity than numbers.

There are stories behind the numbers. Stories of lives changed, hearts reborn, and relationships healed. Let us take time to rediscover the power of stories before we lose our hearing from the cacophony of statistics.

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