How Are Statistics Helpful to the Church (and How Are They Not)?


The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod reports that an unusually high number of people have downloaded the December 2016 issue of the Journal of Lutheran Mission, which included three special articles concerning the demographic trends of that church body. Clearly, many people wish to understand the factors that have contributed to the decline of church membership—2.8 million to 2.2 million over the past 40 years, a trend in “post-Christian America” that has become all too common across denominations. Many people also are wondering whether there are steps that congregations could take to fulfill the Great Commission more faithfully.

The March 2017 issue includes a letter to the editor that raises important questions about the use of statistics when evaluating past mission programs or planning for future programs. That issue also published responses from the two authors of the original articles. I was one of those authors.

In December 2016, I wrote:

Before examining synodical statistics, it is important to consider what we might do with such information. When Jesus sent out the seventy, the location and duration of their mission work was contingent upon people’s responses to the Word, but their message was constant regardless (Luke 10:2, 5–11,16). Rather than conducting “market research,” the Apostles preached Christ’s resurrection even in the face of persecution; when released from prison, they did not pray that the persecution would be lifted, nor did they choose to soften their message, but rather they prayed that the Holy Spirit would increase their boldness to continue the work Christ had called them to do (Acts 4:29–31; Acts 5:20–21, 29, 40–42).

Particularly when engaging in statistical analysis, confessional Lutherans also should remain mindful of the distinction between a theology of glory and the theology of the cross:

  • Theology of Glory: expecting a successful congregation to look successful by human standards
  • Theology of the Cross: recognizing that God triumphs through suffering, humility, weakness, and foolishness (e.g., 1 Cor 1:18–31)

This study does not, therefore, seek a strategic plan for rebuilding the synod to the 2.8 million members it once had, but rather for understanding how and when and why membership has risen and fallen and for providing encouragement and guidance to serve the Lord regardless of future membership trends. One plants, another waters, but God gives the increase (1 Cor 3:7). When that increase comes, let us remain mindful that every prospect, every baptized member, every confirmand, every communicant member, is a gift from God. The synod currently has 2.2 million more baptized members than it deserves, for every soul entrusted to its care has come to the synod by God’s grace alone. In humility and thanksgiving, this report is intended to foster discussion about God’s blessings in order to foster better stewardship of those blessings.

In March 2017, I added:

Personally, I find the greatest value of the research that Hawley and I conducted not to be in any new answers we have produced but in the way our work has challenged old assumptions and invited new questions. Above all, however, I desire that any changes in attitude or practice would result from a renewed attention to Holy Scripture. … The Word is efficacious, and that’s how the Holy Spirit builds the church. …

The alterations in “policy” that I recommend merely consist in renewing our appreciation for the vocation of parents and bridging the congregation and its families Titus 2-style, while also reconsidering a congregation’s stewardship of their called workers’ financial needs (e.g., aiming for full-time, rather than bi-vocational, salaries). My article imposes no new burdens upon the community, for the actions I suggest are what any sanctified Christian would delight in doing, whether 2,000 years ago or today.

I encourage people to read the my article and the two articles by Dr. George Hawley, the letter by Mrs. Rebecca Cook, and the responses by Dr. Hawley and myself to Mrs. Cook’s concerns:

Many people have been asking me whether I have anything to recommend to congregations moving forward. In reply, I encourage rebuilding the church from the family up by rebuilding the family from the father down. Everyone in the congregation (young or old, married or single, pastor or layperson) has a vocation that contributes to this process, as discussed in my article, “Where Are You in Titus Chapter Two?”

May God so bless us.

 

Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of Into Your Hands LLC and the author of several books, including Rediscovering the American Republic (2 vols.) and Debating Evolution before Darwinism. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschooled children in Mankato, Minnesota, where he teaches American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College. He also serves as President of the Hausvater Project, which mentors Christian parents. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.

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TAGS: Organizational Management, Christianity, U.S. History

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