Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

Beware the Numbers Game

A radio talk by David Gill, delivered as the "Thought for the Week" programme on Hong Kong's RTHK on 12 October 2003.

My dentist was looking at me accusingly. “You’ve been grinding your teeth again,” he said.

I started to point out that if he’d spent a lifetime working for the church he’d probably grind his too. “Aaarrgh,” I said, through a mouthful of dental hardware.

“Yes, these must be difficult days in your line of business,” went on the man in white. “Maybe the church needs a new product”.

That really did provoke choking noises from the chair. But I could follow his thinking. Whether your specialty is teeth or religion, offer people what they want and the world will beat a path to your door.

OK, let’s admit it. These are difficult days for the churches, in Europe and North America at any rate.

For example, in the Netherlands, a century ago, 99% of the people belonged to a Christian church. By 1991 that had dropped to 42% and, in the 21 to 30 age bracket, to 28%. Since then, membership continues to dwindle.

Church statistics in many traditionally Christian countries point the same way: down.

But falling numbers is not the main problem. After all, history is full of such fluctuations. Through the centuries the strength of religious institutions has waxed and waned for all kinds of reasons, most of them having little to do with religion. Church people who know their own history will avoid getting too excited about numbers and trends, whether the direction be up or down.

No, the danger is not in the numbers as such. The danger lies with how the North Atlantic churches might respond to their current shrinkage.

By all means ask, as did one of the bishops during the Second Vatican Council, “What have we done to Christ’s Church that makes people not want to belong to it?” Certainly look for ways of embodying the gospel more clearly, more compellingly, in the context of the contemporary world’s search for meaning.

Beyond that, take care. The great temptation is to become more concerned about institutional well-being than the integrity of the gospel. That is a trap into which the church has fallen again and again in times past.

It would be so perilously easy to trim the faith we’ve received to make it a more saleable product, to modify the message we’ve been given in order to get the customers in.

Easy, too, to play up our socially acceptable welfare role and sidestep that awkward stuff about transcendence, those embarrassing truth claims about a God who so loved the world that he gave his only son.

Guard especially against being demoralized by the graphs, distracted by the numbers, mesmerized by the budget projections.

As Britain’s United Reformed Church reminded its people recently, “For a church to be anxious about its size is like our being anxious about food and drink to keep you alive and clothes to cover your body”. Jesus’ response to that one, you remember, was to say: set your mind on God’s kingdom and his righteousness; the rest will look after itself.

For slightly nervous Christians pondering their statistics two thousand years later, that’s still sound advice.


# posted by Kwok Nai Wang : Tuesday, July 27, 2004

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