01 February, 2009

Numerology, or, Are You Sure Wesley Done It This Way?

On Friday, I finished making up, err, I mean, carefully calculating facts and figures for our Year End Statistics Doodad for the United Methodist Church. 7 pages of 6-point font, all so that someone, somewhere, can compile the numbers that will give an accurate portrait-via-accounting of the death of the United Methodist Church.

I don't want the UMC* to die. Good Lord willing (and BOOM don't read my blog), I'm about 16 months away from standing (barefoot, probably) in an auditorium full of folks and God His Own Self to offer myself - unreservedly, wholeheartedly and until whatever the mandatory-retirement age is by then - for ordained ministry in this Church. I've got 30 or more years in front of me as a pastor in the UMC; I don't want to make that covenant to a dying Church.

But, still, it sometimes seems like the Emperor is a might bit short on proper attire.

I know that lots of folks - from the ones who write books and teach in seminaries, to the Bishops (including my own) and, yea, even all the way down unto most of my colleagues - don't want the church to die. And there are signs of hope, yes indeedy, yes indeedy.

But there are also signs of dire trouble right under our own noses and I think most of us are finally willing to acknowledge it. Mostly because the stench of death eventually becomes undeniable.

But while we lose members and vision and passion and a sense of being the Kingdom in the Here and Now, we keep counting and counting and counting some more. And it is important to know what's happening. I know lots of people (more important, more studied and longer served than I) would tell me, with great vehemence, how wrong and naive I am to discount the value of these statistics. ("Allow me to retort...")

But I don't remember reading any part of the Gospels where Jesus says, "Verily, I say unto thee, go and make disciples of every nation, and count them annually, measuring them in number and in depth. Categorize them and keep record of them in tiny little boxes on pieces of parchment, for in this way, you fulfill the law of my Father who sent me."**

Mayhaps this is my biggest beef with this process: it cannot possibly count what it is we really want to know - Are people growing into the Kingdom of God? Are they becoming disciples?

Here's my soapbox example of the problem, as I see it:

There's a family that comes to my church. I won't use their names because I haven't asked permission to talk publicly about them and my mentor Kristie would whup my butt for talking about people without asking first...

Anyway, this family is a Parent and three children, who range from junior high-ish to early elementary. This parent came to visit me early in my ministry here in "The Big"*** asking if it was OK to come to church even without believing in Jesus.

"You'll fit right in," says I.

When word got out on the home front, the children were none too amused at the prospect of going to church. They held a protest. With signs and everything, marching in a circle and chanting slogans. But to church they were drug.

I learned more about Parent's story. It turns out that Parent came from an actively anti-church home. And most of Parent's friends would count themselves athiest. Parent didn't tell those friends about going to church for a long time, for fear of what they would say. But Something was tugging, or poking or prodding.

Fast forward 2 years or so.

Parent and I have had lots of discussions about God, Jesus, faith and church. The family comes to worship almost every Sunday. After a couple of long discussions, the family receives Communion and Parent can discuss the Sacrament with more depth, passion and honesty than most folks in most pews.

A few months back this family was at church for our Sunday school thing, but Parent had to leave before worship. But before the family could leave, the youngest girl searched out my wife Jen, not to say goodbye, but to ask if Jen would "babysit" her so she could stay for worship. Same kid who was part of a protest (with signs, chanted slogans and everything) and was drug to church now can't hardly be drug out of church.

Statistically speaking, from the first day this family walked in our doors, they fell into the "Constituent Roll" category (Table I, line 7d). Two years and a thousand spiritual miles later? They fall into the "Constituent Roll" category (Table I, line 7d).

No journey, no story, no difference.

How many stories of faith are we missing while we count noses and nickels so scrupulously? How many journeys are happening that never appear on Table I, II or III?

Jesus told stories about the Kingdom of God; he didn't teach an actuarial table of grace. The feeding of the 5000, the sending out of the 70, the struggles of the 12 apostles, the healing of 10 lepers, being hung between 2 thieves... the point of these stories isn't the numbers involved, it's the stuff that can't be categorized and counted.

I have a fantasy. I'm a Bishop (hence, the fantastical nature of this vision) and the first thing I do is scrap the Statistical Table - I, II, and, verily, even III. Instead, pastors send in 3 stories about the work of God in their churches.

Might that change our focus a bit? Might people be more attracted to a church that tells good stories? Might it make a difference for the Kingdom?

Might not. But, then again, it might.

398.7 hectoliters of peace, 1953.22 kilograms love, etc.

*Maybe what we UM's need is a hipper name, a new slogan for a new generation. I thought about "UMeth" but that has unfortunate connotations.
**Yes, Bible-nerds, I know there is a book called "Numbers" but 1) that's not what Jesus called it and 2) no one reads the actual number parts of "Numbers."
***Funny how place names don't sound quite so cool when translated into English.


  1. Well at least you recognize the insanity of the process and the fact that many of the numbers are created.. I think 67.34% of statistics are made up as they are quoted..

  2. Somehow I got only the first paragraph yesterday. Now with the entire epistle,it even makes more sense. Yes, the stories of faith journeys are so much more vital than nose picking I mean counting. I would suggest that maybe a bit of both , some statistical figures ..only minimal number, and more real journeys of faith even some ... albeit almost sacrilegious, written by the laity. and they could even be about their faith journey or about the clergy effectiveness in leading their faith community.. but then that would or could be a bit of conflict in how to select those.. Oh well always enjoy the blogs and do believe.. and I am biased, your views of the Kingdom are really more Biblical than many..

  3. Did you attend Pastor's school last year with Jill Rowland? Well, same point for a different denomination.
    Maybe a both and would be a moderating place?

    While doing the numbers that same week I worked with a family crisis, stroke and then of a member who couldn't be welcomed by the community at large. Wish I could tell that story which filled much of the news and coffee shop talk for years and years before he died, and how some "respectable members" (Line x) church didn't want his service held in the building.
    Looking forward to being present at your ordination, followed shortly thereafter by the installation as bishop.
    grace and peace