Word from Winkler — Lies and statistics

As a boy, I played baseball, basketball and football constantly with my friends. I avidly followed Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Assn. and the National Football League. I loved all kinds of sports statistics: batting averages, rebounds, rushing yardage, etc.

This was a new field of statistics for me to study!

When my father was appointed in the summer of 1973 to be senior pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Naperville, Ill., I was fascinated to learn thatthe ushers counted the house each Sunday. As I left the sanctuary, I would pass by the table on which the ushers had written the worship and Sunday school attendance.

This was a new field of statistics for me to study!

Dad told me that the church’s office had these records going back decades. I looked them over with great interest. I then learned that this information was available from all of the churches in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference Journals. I eagerly studied the membership and attendance stats of Northern Illinois going back 20 or more years.

Esoteric knowledge

Eventually, to my heart’s delight, I discovered the General Minutes of the denomination existed. These contained statistics of all the local churches in the United States. I borrowed 25 years of the General Minutes from the conference office. By the time I was 16, I could give a thorough briefing on the membership and attendance patterns of all the U.S. annual conferences and a great many of the local churches.

I’ve been a bit amused by all the recent talk of ‘dashboard indicators’ and other weekly reporting mechanisms

I knew even then that only a handful of people were interested in this esoteric knowledge. As an aficionado of the TV game show “Jeopardy,” I can assure you that never has a question been asked related to local-church statistics.

Many years later, I realized that my knowledge of the basic lay of the land of local churches and annual conferences in the United States was extremely helpful, especially since I became employed by the general church as an adult. I’ve been a bit amused by all the recent talk of “dashboard indicators” and other weekly reporting mechanisms. This information has long been freely and widely available.

Nothing new is being invented. We United Methodists faithfully collect and report statistics.

I’m well aware, too, of the propensity for “preacher counts” that sometimes result in improbable statistical anomalies such as a local church reporting exactly the same worship attendance figures year after year. I’ve heard of pastors being demoted, if you will, for accurately reporting the statistics from their congregations.

3 kinds of lies

Mark Twain was right when he said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Still, statistics can be useful.

Some years ago I was asked to attend presentations about the “decile project,” which was being touted by another United Methodist general agency.

Apparently, it was obvious to most people present that importance is accorded to larger congregations over smaller ones.

This project determined how many local churches were required to raise each decile, or 10%, of the general church apportionments. In the smallest number, 212 churches were listed as the “first” decile; in the largest number, some 17,500 were listed as being in the “last” decile.

It was explained that in no uncertain terms the 212 churches, the largest United Methodist congregations in the United States, were our key target audience. We were told it was essential to keep them happy.

Foolishly, I asked why the 17,500 were accorded “last” decile status. I may as well have been speaking Martian. Apparently, it was obvious to most people present that importance is accorded to larger congregations over smaller ones.

During a break I spoke to the director of the decile project. I pointed out that except for a very small number of churches, nearly all of the 212 largest congregations were white suburban congregations. I suggested that focusing on white suburban churches is a membership-growth suicide strategy for our denomination.

50 years from now

We can celebrate that back in the 1950s and 1960s this denomination started congregations in the suburbs: That’s where the people were moving. Of course, in doing so, we tragically abandoned the urban areas of the nation.

What would United Methodists 50 years from now say was a prophetic, strategic decision in the early 21st century regarding new church starts?

I submit they would say in 2062 that if The United Methodist Church focused on racial/ethnic minority communities today it was the smartest thing they could do. Why? White suburbanites don’t have kids. The fastest growing segment of the U.S. population is among racial/ethnic minorities.

If you want your denomination to grow numerically — and that is the obsession of many of our leaders today — you have to go where the people are and will be.

Indeed, there is a greater focus on reaching out to racial/ethnic communities now. I hope these efforts will come to fruition.

Oh, that we would be as passionate about transforming the world in the name of Jesus Christ as we are for counting the number of rear ends sitting in our pews each Sunday!


Letter to the Editor