Vital Signs

A couple of my recent ecclesiastical posts have attracted a lot of attention, thanks (on one hand) to the convergence of digital activity around the time of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA and related areas (which I’ve dubbed, for shorthand purposes, ‘ECUS&’ — not out of disrespect for the non-USA portions of that body, but because ‘ECUSA’ is inaccurate, as is the grandiose self-designation ‘The Episcopal Church’ [Scotland, then, must not be ‘episcopal’, eh?] — hence, ‘ECUS&’, whose ampersand even looks like an ‘A’), and on the other hand from Kendall Harmon, who is a web traffic titan*, and on yet a third hand (where’s Zaphod Beeblebrox when you need him?) from Twitter. There’s a shared point in both my GenCon and my ‘excellence’ posts that I’ll try to state briefly.
 
That point is that attendance is not a direct index of anything vital to the church. Sometimes high attendance correlates to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a blessed community’s faithful prayers and praises, but sometimes it’s a sign of cultural habit, sometimes of crass demagogic pandering, sometimes of fortuitous location or pleasant appearance. I’ve known congregations with pretty hollow high attendance figures, and deeply holy congregations where only a few hardy saints worshiped. And just as I wouldn’t want my detractors to gloat if I were responsible for a declining congregation, so I would hope not to snicker and jape at the stumbling of institutions where I’d be unwelcome.
 
And attendance numbers are fiddly things anyway; anyone who’s been in a sacristy after services may have noticed that clergy sometimes share with fishermen a capacity to see larger than the rest of us. (Put it this brutal way: Does having a liar for a rector make the congregation spiritually healthier? ’Cos it’ll for darn sure improve your attendance numbers.) While attendance statistics are not insignificant, neither are they an immediate cue for ominous staccato violins in the background, nor for raucously exultant fanfares. It’s more complicated than that.
 
Numbers are not an unambiguous index of spiritual decline, nor of spiritual vitality. The discussion amounts mostly to spin-doctoring, cheerleading, rather than praying, serving, studying, or any other Christian responsibility. Instead of arguing about how reliable the numbers are, and about what they mean, I strongly advise everybody concerned to redouble their commitment to seeking the well-being of their cities; to proclaiming the Word more soundly, persuasively, beautifully; to bearing humble, patient witness to the good news we profess; to costly service to hungry, wounded, outcast strangers and friends. If you spend hours polemicising against your enemies (who nonetheless don’t change their minds), what good have you done?
 
Pro, con, liberal, conservative, reasserter, reassesser, Episcopalian, Anglican, whoever you are, you have much more important — and more godly — things to do than over-investing in numbers. As Titus 3:9 reminds us, ‘Avoid stupid debates, genealogies, conflicts, and legal squabbles, which are useless and pointless.’
 


 

* I just noticed, and I’m impressed, that Kendall serves only one banner ad per page; that’s real restraint, when he could fill wider margins with smaller ads. He’s voluntarily forgoing a decent sum of money, which warrants respect.
 

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2 Responses to Vital Signs

  1. Jane Ellen+ says:

    You will not be surprised to learn that I strive to ensure accuracy in our parish records, because I believe they are an indicator of parish health. Our ushers tally attendance, and I do not apply any creative mathematics before entering the numbers in the book.

    You will also not be surprised that I wholly agree with your cautionary words. *An* indicator is not *the* indicator, by any stretch; factors such as involvement outside Sunday attendance, commitment to study & service, awareness of community neighbors and needs, or opportunities for spiritual growth and development are also indicators at least as important as head count.

    That said, I’ve come to believe that a primary sign of a healthy congregation is something that doesn’t show on the usual lists: the ability to fight fair. Every congregation will have to deal with misunderstandings, disagreement and conflict at some point. The effort and commitment to do in godly, faithful, loving ways, and a willingness to correct course when it doesn’t happen, is as clear an indicator as I know of thriving Christian community. Titus 3:9 indeed.

  2. Melissa says:

    I live in rural northern Maine, and while I attend an Episcopal congregation in a nearby town, often our attendance during Eucharist is four. Yet it’s the congregation where I’ve found the largest sense of community in all of the churches I’ve attended in the States, where I feel I can be most thoroughly and beautifully myself. Now do I want to boost attendance? Yes, but mainly because I want to share the experience I’ve had.

    Thanks for the compassionate reminder. This sentence I want printed in every bulletin nationwide this week:

    “Instead of arguing about how reliable the numbers are, and about what they mean, I strongly advise everybody concerned to redouble their commitment to seeking the well-being of their cities; to proclaiming the Word more soundly, persuasively, beautifully; to bearing humble, patient witness to the good news we profess; to costly service to hungry, wounded, outcast strangers and friends. “

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