In our diocese, there is an increasing emphasis on
numbers and attendance, and on counting what we achieve. The
process is logical, but disquieting: it seems to have little to do
with the gospel.
WHEN people start operating on the basis of numbers, there seems
often to be an agenda of cuts. Governments, boroughs, and all
sorts of agencies used this kind of yardstick 20 years ago. But,
like the Big Society, it is often a poorly disguised sticking
plaster over the prospect of swingeing cuts.
In the late 1990s, the voluntary sector began to recognise - led
by the Big Lottery - that quantity does not equal quality. In
depth, but fewer, may be just as valuable as many.
The language now used by charities is that of "outcomes" and
"beneficiaries": in outcomes, we measure the good that is happening
in people's lives; and in the beneficiaries, we measure the
variety of people, as well as numbers. In this scenario, there is a
leaning towards the poor, the left-out, the dependent, and the
disadvantaged: those in our culture who need support.
How would we measure the outcomes of our churches? Outcomes are
measured by regularly reporting the impact of our activity in
people's lives through anecdote, questionnaires, progress in
education or training, ability to cope, friendships made,
confidence, and so on. This could, of course, translate to church
settings, with a little work to find out what qualities we want to
measure, and the creation of the means to measure them.
And how do we evaluate the quality of people's Christianity? We
ask them. Spending 40 years with your life built around your faith
and your fellow Christians accrues experi-ence and wisdom, the
ability to cope with downs as well as ups, and with death as well
as life. A death in the family is understood as part of our
journey, just as much as a birth. There is a depth of faith and
faithfulness which can be recorded, but not easily counted.
Life commitment? A congregation of 15 may have members with 400
years of church commitment between them, and may have almost as
many years in engagement and volunteering. A congregation of 60, of
whom one third are children, may have far fewer years of commitment
It is great when new people become Christians and church
members, but we need the old lifetimers to model faith and
faithfulness, to share experience and coping, and to be stalwart
and supportive during adversity. They help to avoid a fair-weather
faith that is shallow and transient.
If tempted by the need to make financial sense, let us not just
use simple numbers. When I was a vicar, the average giving among my
impoverished congregation was just over two per cent, although with
an average income of £100 per week that was a great sum. The
diocese was aiming for five per cent.
The richest parishes in the outer-London commuter belt were
averaging something like £6 per member, but, with an average
weekly income that was nearer 0.02 per cent of income, who were the
most generous givers?
I could list the parables of mites, lost sheep, lost coins, and
all the rest. Yes, dioceses do need to make financial sense, but
they have to apply the principles of the Gospels, not just numbers,
even though we live in a different world from Jesus's. The present
methods tend to use a sledgehammer to crack the weakest, and give
to the noisiest. Let us push for a better wisdom.