Why do we count?

By Ken Willard

It’s that time of year! No, I’m not talking about Epiphany. No, not New Year’s resolutions.

Statistical Reporting! Hear that? It’s the sound of no one clapping.

There just are not that many pastors, churches, or church leaders who enjoy completing the year-end statistical worksheets. So why do we do this each year? Glad you asked!

We count so that we can measure.

Let me explain.

Our mission as the West Virginia annual conference of the United Methodist Church is to discover, develop, and deploy passionate spiritual leaders who make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This mission has its roots in Matthew 28: 18-20.

While that is a wonderful mission, and chances are good your church has a very similar mission statement, the challenge becomes . . . “How are we doing?” Mission is what an organization does. The bottom line for any Christian church is—we make disciples. That’s what Jesus commanded us to do. Given that assignment, we should be very interested in our progress.

This is where it can get messy. Are we focused on making new disciples? (evangelism) Or are we talking about maturing those who are already here? (discipleship) I think the answer is “YES!” If we are just talking about new people, that is an easy thing to count. But when we get into the area of discipleship, that is not so easy.

In his wonderful book, Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness, and Metrics author Gil Rendle offers the following definitions:

Counting is giving attention to numbers. When counting, the question to be answered is “How many?” Conversations about “How many?” are most frequently conversations about resources.

Measuring is giving attention to change. When measuring, the question is not “How many?” but rather “How far?” Conversations about, “How far?” are frequently about change that can be measured over time, an in “How far have we come, over the past year, toward our goal?”

So we count things such as: average attendance, professions of faith, adults baptized this year, children baptized this year, professing members, adults in Christian formation, vacation Bible school attendance, etc. SO THAT we are able to measure how we are doing towards our mission.

Have you ever taken a newborn child to the doctor? What does the doctor or nurse do on that first visit? They will typically weigh and measure the child. (You can also see this on just about any announcement for a child being born.) Then every time the child comes back they do it again. Why do they do this? Because a healthy child will usually gain some in weight and length over time. Is that proof that the child is healthy? No, of course not, but it is a good indication. A child who is not growing over time will usually signal the health care provider to do more tests.

This is true for most churches. Smart church leaders will pay attention to counts like giving, attendance, baptisms, etc. not just for the numbers themselves. But for what they might be telling us. Can a church be growing and not be healthy? Of course. Can a healthy church not be growing? Yes. But what are the counts over time indicating? We count so that we can measure.

Which brings us back to our annual statistical reporting. While this may not be our favorite part of ministry, it is a very vital way for us to measure how we are doing on our mission AND where we need to focus our resources.

The worksheets each church submits are uploaded into the overall United Methodist Church data base (www.UMdata.org) and are used by District Superintendents and conference staff for many years as we make appointments, plant new churches, provide support for ministry challenges, and many other situations.

Please help us make the best possible decisions for you and your ministry by completing the statistical worksheets accurately and submitting them on time. Visit our conference webpage on this topic for more information and contact information if you need help.

Thanks for helping us count, so that we can better measure our faithfulness to Christ’s mission.