How do we count? Do people count or do they need to be counted?
The Diocese of Ely has a strategic plan for market towns. In many ways this is good; many (but not all) places in the north of this diocese are places of rural deprivation and poverty and the market towns are not exempt from this. The parish of St Augustine’s, Wisbech has 30% of its children living in poverty.
But in order to receive money from the Church of England’s Strategic Development Fund the application has had to list anticipated outcomes. These include:
- 25% of the population across market towns committed to involvement in the life of the church by 2025, involving both inherited-mode church and Fresh Expressions of church as part of a blended economy
- 5% increase in attendance at inherited-mode churches across the towns
- 780 new church attenders across the towns involved over the three-year period from 2018-2021. (310 in inherited mode church, including church plants, and 470 across a range of Fresh Expressions, representing 73% growth from current levels of church involvement)
(Strategic Development Funding Application Process – Second stage Diocese of Ely – Changing Market Towns, Diocese of Ely website)
This concept of measuring success by counting numbers makes me uneasy on many levels.
It seems to buy into the idea that once a church grows it will stabilise and even continue to grow. But Jesus’ own ministry was not like this. Five thousand men, plus women and children, sat on a hillside listening to him talk while picnicking off bread and fish. Only a short time later he was left with the remnant, his friend John and some of the women, the only ones prepared to stand at the foot of the cross. Which of these points would church leaders choose in order to measure the success of the Jesus Project?
The same is true for the early church. Do you count the numbers baptised at Pentecost or the small group of people praying together in hiding? Paul’s letters to the churches are focused on theology, Christian community and spiritual well-being. Nowhere does he ask them about the number of new church attenders in the last three years as a percentage of their population.
In some churches it can become difficult to shake off this numbers’ neurosis. Last month’s All Age Worship had 15 children and 20 adults, and the leaders left feeling they had arrived. This month it’s down to three children and 10 adults. It doesn’t matter that they know everyone else is throwing up/visiting Grandad/going to the circus and may well be back next time. Because of this fixation with numbers, the leaders are despondent and wonder where they are going wrong. This is particularly true for smaller churches and can put leaders on an emotional roller coaster as the numbers fluctuate wildly.
What happens if these anticipated outcomes aren’t achieved? Despite the evidence of changed lives, deepening faith and visionary excitement will the project be considered a failure?
But suppose the Project achieves its anticipated outcomes and 780 new people start attending these churches. What then? Each of these people is real. Like the rest of us, they will have messy, often fragmented, lives. What they need from the church is love, care, time and attention. Giving this is essential but costly. Most churches will try. Without it, people may be leaving as quickly as they arrived.
Is it really impossible to be given money for strategic development without delineating in figures the anticipated outcomes? How do we get away from a mindset that reduces people to numbers? Who requires the diocese to jump through these hoops?
“780 new church attenders? I hope someone’s told the Holy Spirit,” says my friend Su, going straight to the point as usual.