These numbers matter because they are a measure of people and ministry. Jesus himself told the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which indicates the shepherd had to count to discover he was missing one sheep who needed care and rescue. The Book of Acts is full of numbers and counting people as a way of measuring the presence of the Spirit to lead the Christian community in their mission. I remember in my early ministry when Bishop Hodapp required regular reports from pastors under the theme "We Count People Because People Count."
So these numbers matter to me. They are not a perfect measure of our faithfulness, and we can only use the numbers that our pastors report to the conference, but these numbers help us to discern how well we are doing in our ministry. So we asked SLI (which was founded by business leaders who are experts in studying statistics of organizations) to help us look at the first five years of our Indiana Conference (from our 2009 to 2013 statistics).
The numbers include some good news:
- 26% of our churches are on a 5-year growth trajectory in worship attendance
- This growth is across the board in terms of church size, and in fact 25 percent of our small churches are on a 5-year growth trend.
- Our rate of "Professions of Faith" (new persons professing faith in Christ) is out-pacing our death rate (and we are the only Conference so far where SLI has found that to be true).
- Our congregations involved in our Fruitful Congregation Journey process have a higher tendency to be growing, which means that when a pastor and congregation enter into a process like FCJ to measure and plan their ministry, they tend to get results.
- There is virtually no correlation between population growth and church growth – which means that a church's growth in ministry is not limited to being in a growing area. Growth has more to do with the "heart" and outward-focus of the congregation than with the presence of population changes. That is really good news if your congregation does not happen to be in a growing suburban area.
- We have 651 churches in what SLI calls "Slow Decline" – that is good news, they say, because it would only take a small amount of change in focus and direction for those churches to turn around and become growing churches.
Within those numbers there is also troubling news:
- Overall our Conference decreased at a 3% rate, with 17 of our churches accounting for 1/3 of that loss and 46 churches accounting for 1/2 of that loss (those are obviously churches where we need to intervene and help).
- 15% of our churches had no Professions of Faith over these 5 years, and 17% of our churches had no baptisms over these 5 years. SLI calls those "stagnant churches" and we obviously need to ask those congregations if they want to discontinue since they are apparently not doing anything to reach new disciples.
- 12 of our 23 largest churches are in decline (that is a new development because in past years our largest churches provided most of our growth).
- the largest decline in terms of total numbers and percentages is in our small churches (in spite of the fact that 25% of our small churches are growing).
- the greatest potential, according to SLI, is in our large number of medium-sized churches because they account for such a large percentage of our conference membership and attendance.
Several of our leadership groups will be looking at these numbers (the whole SLI report is quite lengthy) to try to understand our current reality, to discover ways to be helpful and supportive, to hold everyone accountable to our mission, and to be more strategic in our planning. There is quite a variance among the districts, which is why I am asking each DS to form a "District Operational Team" to help the DS develop strategies for their congregations and populations (the new 2012 Book of Discipline lists the DS as the "chief mission strategist" for their district, and we need to free our superintendents to serve in that role with the help of a good team).
For all of us these numbers raise an important spiritual question: How are we "measuring up" to the demands and the hope of the Gospel?