My eight-year-old granddaughter loves number games. She enjoys math at school, and frequently wants me to be with her while she practices her addition, subtraction, and multiplication on an ingenious computer web site.
On most Sunday nights, she and I play some games which involve numbers. A game of Tensie, Phase 10, Yahtzee, 500, or Uno is usually one of the games of choice. Her mind works quickly in these games, and she often wins—especially in the card games. She can plan ahead and strategize with amazing skill. My undergraduate degree was in mathematics, but I am often no match for this third grader.
Each judicatory and local church requests leaders play (at least annual) number games: How many new members? How many of these by “profession of faith”? What was the average attendance? How many in this year’s Confirmation class? Number of Church school teachers/leaders? How many in the women’s’/men’s group? Youth group? I suppose we in the United Methodist Church in America inherited this emphasis from Francis Asbury. He kept awesome statistics and insisted his circuit riders do the same. And it is no accident that we still know what “fourth quarterly conference” meant in an earlier time. Or that until the late 19th century Methodists needed to have a card punched to authenticate participation in communion! (And a responsible constituent kept the card in a safe place in case the Circuit Rider stopped by the home and asked!)
Some faithful record keeping is important. But I suggest we try different kinds of numbers games: How many grew toward tithing in the past year? How many newpeople participated in missional work teams? Any volunteers in the jail ministry? How many new small group leaders were trained and deployed? Are we using lay persons (lay pastors) to provide better congregational care?
Yes, I still did my best to complete the requested statistical reports in my ministry. (And yes, my granddaughter wants to be sure we always add up the points at the end ofevery game.) But the essence of Christianity is discipleship. As Richard Rohr points out so succinctly “….Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: ’Worship me.’ Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.”
Are we following the numbers or forming disciples? Are we counting the bodies or counting the cost of being His follower? Are we raising dollars or faithfully encouraging extraordinary generosity? Are we counting sheep or calling forth participation in mercy and justice issues?
Quantifying such data may not be easy. And statisticians may know a few headaches over such details. But God will be honored and the church will grow deeper and more obedient toward our Master.