Does God do Algebra?
The very hairs of you head are all numbered
If you want to see a Churchwarden or a Parish Administrator squirm whisper the words ‘Statistics for Mission’ into their ear. This will cause them to fall into a dead faint, run a mile, tear their hair out, or find sustenance with a stiff Gin & Tonic!
‘Statistics for Mission’ is the annual number gathering exercise performed by the Church of England which measures the shape, size, reach and ultimately, health of our church.
Parishes gather information about the attendance at, and type of, church services they have held. This information is then passed on to the Church of England’s Statistics Unit who try to draw a picture of our common life using only numbers.
For some this is an onerous task which can be perceived to be pointless. However there are lessons to be learnt from them. For example in our own town of Felixstowe it is a fact that we have a higher proportion of Christians than the average suburban or country parish. This may be thought to be good news until it is matched with the truth that we have a lower than average church attendance! Does this mean the church is failing the people of Felixstowe? Or does it mean that, as we also have a higher age profile than average, the more elderly residents of Felixstowe don’t always manage to get to church? Sadly the numbers don’t give us reasons only facts. But we can use these facts to help serve Felixstovians better, either in their homes or in our churches.
Counting heads in church, if we are not careful, can lead to one of two sins. The sin of spiritual pride – ‘Look at our mega-church? Doesn’t God love us more than the others?’ And the sin of despair – ‘no one is coming anymore so will the last person to leave please turn off the lights.’
Also we may count with ill-intent in mind. (Making decisions about ‘viability’ on the basis of ‘bums-on-pews’ or deciding that a larger church can be asked to give more money). The lesson that King David was taught about taking a census of the children of Israel is a salutary warning for mercenary statisticians (1 Chronicles 21).
So, how should we use the statistics we gather and the numbers we ponder over?
We should aim to imitate our God who counts the tiniest pieces of creation, one or two sparrows, stray hairs that fall from our heads, not so that they can be controlled, marshalled or ordered about, but so that they can be cherished, nurtured, and protected.
Next time you are in church look at the congregation, count how many are present, cherish their names in prayer, and remind yourself of these Gospel words.
‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrow’. (Matthew 10v29-31)
Does God do Algebra: article in June 2018 edition of the magazine of the Parish of Felixstowe
© Andrew Dotchin 2018