By the Numbers


September 07, 2017

Church attendance numbers can get tricky. I’ve been dealing with them long enough now to notice what one might call abnormalities. I know of one church which, on three different occasions, three different sequential pastors reported to me that under their short tenure they quadrupled the attendance. So, cumulatively, that church should be running several hundred per Sunday. In reality, it averages in the 20s.
    
What each of these pastors independently told me was some version of “When I got to this church, there were only 10 people here. By the time I left, we were up to about 40.” The curious thing is, each pastor told me that.
    
Upon receiving a new pastor, does the congregation secretly plan to start off small and then slowly build, in order to bolster the pastor’s feeling of success? It would be nice to think that churches are so well organized and concerned about their pastor’s emotional well-being that they could pull of such a secret conspiracy. But it seems unlikely. 
    
The cynic might say “Ah ha! Pastors are liars!” Again, not the case. In the case of this church, as well as many other similar conversations, I do not believe the pastors had any intention of misleading or deceiving. So how is it that they were all growing a church that didn’t really get any bigger? I think it realistically comes down to a couple of factors: seasonal fluctuations and rounding errors.  

Seasonal fluctuations: Most pastors start July 1, which is typically the low point in average attendance, but since it’s their first day, they assume they are looking out at everyone they’ve got when they nervously get behind the podium. In the specific example I’m thinking of, each of these pastors were novices, taking the church as their first appointment. I think they were all scared on that first Sunday in July when they looked out and saw 10 people. They were thinking, “This church has been here 100 years, and now it’s going to close on my watch. It will die, and it will be my fault. I’ll have killed it.” When more people start attending in the fall, they’ll think, “I must be doing something right,” and when the sanctuary is nearly full at Christmas (when the congregants’ children and grandchildren are visiting), they will marvel at how far the church has come.

Rounding errors: I think people tend to round up when self-reporting numbers, so anything in the teens is about 20; anything in the 20s is about 30. 
    
Which leaves me with the question of how to go about my job. On bigger churches, I tend to rely on numbers from the Journal since they are official. But if I’m writing about a small, growing church, the numbers in the Journal (which are a yearly average and may be about two-years old, depending on the time of year that I’m writing the story) might not accurately reflect where the congregation is today. I just have to use my best judgement. 
    
When it comes to camps, though, there isn’t much guess-work. We have registrations and official ways to count numbers with a good degree of accuracy. And you’ll see some impressive numbers at the beginning of our cover story this month on page five.
    
As summer draws to a close and those 4,000-plus children who enjoyed United Methodist camps go back to school, may we all be in prayer for our churches to find ways to keep them connected.