Monday, February 26, 2007

The Trouble with Statistics

First, a quick apology for my absence for the past four weeks. There are times when a person has four jobs when there just isn't much time. And at my house, there isn't a whole lot of spare computer time either, so that has complicated the past month or so. Hopefully, I'm through that avalanche -- at least for the time being.

As most of you know, I pastor a small church. We'll usually have 50-60 people on Sunday mornings. Sometimes more, every once in a while, less. That's been the size of that church for over 100 years, with the given ups and downs over the years.

As a pastor, I feel a bit of pressure to see those attendance numbers go up a bit. And I think those numbers should go up, but it seems the rate of new people becoming more and more active in the church is only enough to replace the rate of older people who can't be there as much or the sick among us. We're not the same old 50 people sitting there every week. That would be waaaayyyy too easy. But I do keep an eye on attendance statistics. I don't live or die by them, but I keep hoping to see a nice jump, reflecting some of the spiritual changes I see in many of the people attending.

January showed a nice uptick. February was looking very good too. Instead of a 52 February average as we've had for the past two years, we were averaging 57 through the first three weeks and carrying a good bit of momentum.

On Saturday, the area was being bombarded by weather warnings. We were told to expect 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch of ice, knocking down trees and power lines Saturday night and making Sunday morning traveling impossible. The storm was supposed to start around 9 p.m. Saturday night and last through noon the next day. Now I'm not from Missouri, but when it comes to weather predictions I tend to be a "show me first, then I'll believe it" kind of guy. I have seen far too many warnings for storms that have never showed up. So I told a few of the congregation that I was out with early on Saturday that I would wait to see if this supposed ice storm was as advertised before I called off Sunday services.

The storm began Saturday evening, but after an hour or two of light freezing rain, the temperature started to rise. Soon, freezing rain had turned to rain and ice had turned to watery slush on the roads and sidewalks. No real driving hazard.

When I awoke early Sunday morning to survey the situation, I found no situation. It was chilly. It was wet. It wasn't icy at all. A quick drive down my road confirmed that there was no reason to cancel services.

Now, at that point I realized that many from the congregation were not going to go out to the car and drive to church because they had gone to bed expecting an icy wonderland and a day away from traveling. There would be few in the pews, I was certain. And for a brief instant, I thought to myself, "Oh well, there goes the Tuesday average!"

The day played out as I expected. We had only a few families brave the country roads to come to services. As a result, instead of having a February attendance average of 57 (if I had called off services), we finished the month averaging 51 per Sunday... just a bit below normal... again.

Let me say upfront that I'm not the kind of guy who will let church statistics determine whether or not the congregation will gather for worship on Sunday morning. That's tacky and worldly all at the same time. Yet I also understand the temptation to do just that by a pastor who has been told to get the attendance figures up to par.

I've always felt that statistical trends in a small church have been vastly overrated. Most months, if a family of four can't get the car started and has to miss a Sunday, the church's monthly average attendance drops by one. At my church, that would be a two percent drop because somebody forgot to turn off the headlights on the Buick. Conversely, that same family coming three times a month instead of once a month shows up as a four percent increase. Among many church statisticians, that means proper attendance growth.

Perhaps Mark Twain was right when he classified statistics as the worst of three classifications of lies. Put me down for favoring "proper use and context of statistics" and not "live and die by the numbers," please.


Tom said...

When I saw your title I thought you were talking about this.

It was in Books & Culture magazine recently.

Callmeteem said...

I'm not a pastor but I am involved in the leadership of a small church and I identify. As much as you try not to focus on numbers--and I don't really believe we do--you notice every absence and every new person.

Anonymous said...

If something closed the doors to the building and you were forced out--would your church be missed by neighbors, community at large, people driving by? or has it not made an impact, so wouldn't make a difference? That's the real question. My husband and I are worship pastor's in MD at a small church, so this is a topic close to our hearts.

Anonymous said...

Interestly I was looking up data on statistics and found your blog. I used to travel extensively and would find myself in strange cities. Now a recent statistic myself "reduced in force" commonly known as laid off employee.

I find the church a great place of networking. And to close a church - unthinkable to me. You might find a stranger who would of attended left standing at the door.

I think a church should always be open no matter what denomination.
Thank you and May God bless you in your ministry in these very trying times.