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Lord of nickels, noses and numbers

DALLAS (BP)–Southern Baptists have a love/hate relationship with statistics.

On one hand, it is one imperfect way we have of evaluating ourselves. How are we doing as churches, individually and in cooperation? Part of that story is expressed in the measure of people and money. On the other hand, it is an imperfect measure. There is also the real danger that we’ll consider numerical success more thorough than it is. And then there is the real struggle with reporting and interpreting our numbers honestly. We need our numbers even as they vex us.

I think the guy who considers good numbers to be the whole story is a bit like Bigfoot — he’s probably out there but most of us will hear more of him than we see. A contrary, and also mostly legendary, beast is the sophisticate who “doesn’t do numbers” in order to give the illusion that he cares about people instead. Everyone “does numbers” in at least some informal way. Yet those two legends are invoked quite often when we begin to talk about the need to measure our resources. Each side cites the extreme view to justify their own convictions for or against the reporting of our stats.

God seems to be a pretty committed counter. He tells us the days of creation and assigned special meaning to one of them. He told Noah how many clean and unclean animals to save from the great worldwide flood. He even gave Noah the dimensions for the ship he was to build. Even the number of days for the flood were specified, as was the span of time before they left the ark.

On we go through genealogies, the counting of tribes, the years of bondage, the number of great kingdoms on the earth (with their horns, heads and wings all counted), the portion we should return to the storehouse, the Lord’s knowledge of the hairs of our head, the number of the disciples, the days Jesus spent in the grave, the thousands saved on Pentecost, the number of the first deacons, the churches in John’s revelation, and hundreds of other examples. There is also a “fullness” of numbers after which God will again send Jesus — a number known only to God but a number nonetheless.

Some of the numbers were given to provide specificity to instructions and to nail down that these things actually occurred (or were/are to occur) in space and time. Other numbers were made up of individual souls, genealogies and tribal censuses. Don’t do numbers? God does.

At the same time, the Bible tells of individual heroes and heroines who were notable for their faith. The Father, the prophets, Jesus, and the disciples paid attention to individuals who needed a personal touch. Jesus seemed to be engaged in mass evangelism and yet took time for specific people who were changed by His touch or attention. The apostles preached in the synagogues and streets and yet also to beggars, centurions, kings, sellers of purple, jailers, and demon-possessed girls. Ministry to the numbered masses is not contrary to the idea of touching lives.

And why this foray into number-ology? Because, each year, many churches within the Southern Baptist Convention fail to fill out their Annual Church Profile, from which the denomination derives its numbers of members, baptisms, and so on. Here’s why we, as a fellowship of churches working together, need to hear from your church on this.

1) We strive to be strategic in our cooperative work. We don’t know how that’s working unless we hear from our partners in the field. It’s harder to see the holes in our strategy unless we have detailed reports to examine.

2) It allows us to evaluate how individual churches are doing. State conventions and the national convention try to do those things affiliated churches find helpful or needful. We can’t know that if we only have word-of-mouth information.

3) Part of knowing the raw truth about a joint effort is seeing which way the graph is tracking. We might not know that our evangelistic efforts are less effective if we never count up the numbers. We’re baptizing people regularly in my church, but I don’t know how this compares with other years unless we add it up. That process often suggests a need for change or redoubling of effort.

4) An Annual Church Profile report gives churches an occasion to see their own numbers. It encourages them to evaluate accurately their own effectiveness. Usually, some of the report comes as a surprise to most church leaders.

5) Churches are individuals, so we can’t know a church until we spend time within it. On the other hand, we can know some things about the church from looking at its trends, changes in direction, times of apparent growth, and participation in various ministries.

The point is this: Please fill out your ACP this year. I’ve tried to show that it is useful for your sister churches, even if you have no need for the information. Demonstrably, there is nothing ignoble about looking at our numbers. If things seem to be great, statistically, it needn’t lead you to pride since it is the Lord who brings the increase. Declining or plateaued numbers should be no reason for shame; many churches are in that same state. The first step to looking at answers is to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

It’s worth a few hours of your time. The hardest part is pulling together the numbers to put in the report. Compiling that information is a good idea in the first place. We just ask that you share it with us.
Gary Ledbetter is the editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newspaper of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, online at www.texanonline.net

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  • Gary Ledbetter