Want to be totally disoriented about church culture these days just check out some of the latest stats. They used to be the reality check I needed occasionally to engage the retro-rockets of mission. Suddenly, they don't light any fires of urgency. The reason is simple. They are polarities apart in their depiction of where we are.
Maybe it's just me, an optimistic 65 year-old retiree, but progress is most accurately measured when the starting point is fixed. "You are here" is an important X on the map of life. It is a simple compass marker that gives next moves clear direction. When the numbers are trending downward, however, there's often a tendency to read them from a more positive angle. That, perhaps, may define the sudden distance in many of the numbers about church. You won't hear any gripes from me about putting as positive a spin as possible on any of our data. Still, presenting the facts should be the goal of authentic research, especially if those statistics can ignite sufficient passion in us to overcome the inertia that settles us in place.
Then, there's the reminder of what's not on the bar graphs. This has been a wood shed learning item for me many times in the past thirty-five years. I tend to push the numbers a little too hard and depend on them for establishing mission context. The old accountant in me, accustomed to analyzing financial statements, projecting revenue streams, running the ratios of corporate life, and developing growth plans based on all the analysis, has been a little too dependent on the quantitative elements of leadership. There's significant truth not depicted in our surveys, statistics, or even best research.
Pie charts, bar graphs, trend lines, or diagrams cannot depict the economy of heaven----
1. God's provision cannot be quantified.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,
according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3: 21-22, NIV
But he gives us more grace.
James 4:6, NIV
2. God's economy reverses conventional measures.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is
stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:25, ESV
3. Christ's mission is not limited by human qualifiers.
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
John 16:33, ESV
4. God's people are confident in Him.
So we confidently say, "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do
Hebrews 13:6, ESV
5. Human norms are never final in God's work.
But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with
God all things are possible.”
Matthew 19:26, ESV
It's hard to deny the power of numbers and statistics in developing strategies for just about any human enterprise. Most pastors are people of truth and using statistical facts as information bases for mission is an admirable trait. At the same time, most human measures are fallible in that bias qualifies the information as it is gathered and then, in the same way, interpreted with certain goals and ends in mind. So, today, data retrieved by any number of reputable research institutions may provide competing and confusing results.
One question is significant: is the church in America experiencing declines of attendance and influence? Some have recently labeled the more negative findings as mere myth and have depicted church life in more positive ways. Others have assessed their material and substantiated the drooping trend lines. Leaders in the trenches are therefore faced with the task of researching the research and drawing conclusions that may cover a broad spectrum of thought.
Perhaps it's back to the Bible time again, trusting the church's role in God's historic redemptive plan while implementing those biblical strategies that he has promised to bless.
My passion is for the pastors, church staff members, and spiritual leaders entrusted with the work of guiding his church in these confusing times. It is work. it is hard work. Understanding the times involves deciphering the mixed bag of statistics about them and knowing what to do with them as a result. Even more, these times and the confusing layers of information that cover them must be secondary to his promises and provision for kingdom service. We must remember---
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:13, ESV
For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the
victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 1 John 5:4, ESV
That is faith. And, it's not on the bar charts.