Everybody wants to know how many people attend your congregation, don’t they?
- “So, what are you running these days?”
- “How has Covid affected your attendance?”
- “What does your year-to-year look like?”
We love answering those questions when the church is doing well numerically. But when it’s not . . . ?
The constant expectations can become so demoralizing that many pastors simply avoid occasions when those questions are likely to be asked.
Unfortunately, those events are also where we go for help. So a lot of us have become experts at waving the questions off, or changing the subject. But there’s one time we can’t ignore it.
If you’re in a denomination, you probably have to file an annual (or quarterly, or monthly) report that includes attendance figures. This is a constant source of stress for most of the pastors who have to do this. So what’s the answer?
The Law Of Large Numbers
It’s about The Law of Large Numbers, which is a huge subject that I have addressed in many conferences and in articles like Church Attendance And The Law Of Large Numbers, and in my book, Small Church Essentials.
Basically, it comes down to this: the larger the group (like an entire denomination) the more helpful statistics are, since even small percentage shifts can give us important information. But in smaller groups (like small churches), numerical statistics are less helpful.
So, give your denomination the best, most accurate report you can, then let it go.
How To Approach The Stats
I used to resent denominational requests for numbers. But I’m fine with it now because The Law Of Large Numbers has helped me appreciate how valuable statistics are for denominations as they attempt to understand trends, track growth, and make plans for the future.
But we must take into account that the helpfulness of statistics keeps dropping as the group gets smaller. This is a fundamental rule of statistical analysis.
With that in mind, I want to address two groups of people:
First, if you’re in denominational leadership, I understand your need for accurate numbers. But I ask that you recognize the stress this places on many, maybe most of the pastors under your care. Please find ways to help them through this without making demands on people who are already feeling an extreme amount of pressure.
Second, if you’re a small church leader, make sure to send those numbers in as accurately as possible. Yes, it’s frustrating when things are static or in decline, but if our denominations don’t hear from us they won’t have an accurate picture of what’s really going on, and that makes it much harder for them to be there for us.
Many denominational leaders have a skewed idea of the size of the churches in their care. I can’t tell you how many times they’ve told me they thought their average church size was one thing, only to discover it was something else (always smaller) after crunching the data.
Some of this is because of the Halo Effect on the part of the churches doing self-reporting (the tendency to think we have higher attendance because we love the church so much). Some of it is because they’re not hearing from many of their smaller congregations at all.
They can’t help us if they don’t hear from us – accurately.
Use Numbers To Inform Us, Not Define Us
They inform us.
And the bigger the group, the more helpful the information is.
But they never define us.
So, let’s the use the numbers when and where they matter. Then let them go.
Meanwhile, stay faithful, worship Jesus, and minister to our congregations, no matter how many – or how few – they may be.
(For a follow-up, check out Can We Celebrate Church Success Stories Without Using Numbers? Please?)
(Photo by Ryoji Iwata | Unsplash)