Monday, March 12, 2007

Statistical Interpretation

Statistics are very interesting. It seems as if statistics prove facts. But actually statistics can be used selectively in different ways in support of many different kinds of conclusions. Statistics in some form or another can be brought to bear on whatever conviction we would like to argue. So what do we do with our denomination’s statistics? We are a church that keeps very precise statistics. These are published annually, or more easily are available online at the Office of Research Services of the General Assembly. I have studied and pondered the most recent statistical report, from the year 2005, which has recently been published. To confess my ignorance in this matter, I am not at all sure what all these numbers tell us. I see two very important statistical measurements that truly support opposite conclusions. So what do all these numbers mean? This question is a wonderful discussion starter.

Statistic 1, Total Membership: For the past forty consecutive years the total membership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has decreased. Statistically, the year 2005 saw one of the largest membership decreases. In 2005 our total active membership decreased by 2.1%. Thus in 2005, we lost 48,474 active members bringing our total active membership as of December 31, 2005 down to 2,313,662. This means that in the ten year period from 1995 to 2005 the Presbyterian Church’s total active membership decreased from 2,665,276 to 2,313,662.
As is very common throughout our church, particularly in the Presbyterian Layman, this statistic is often used to argue that our Church is in wholesale decline. Moreover, this statistic is cited as evidence that there is something wrong with our church, that we headed in the wrong direction. This statistic is regularly cited as evidence for the conclusion that there is something theologically wrong with the church.

Statistic 2, Per Member Giving: For every one of the last forty consecutive years there has been an adjusted-for-inflation increase in per member giving. This is a remarkable statistic; giving per member has increased every year for the past forty years, even when the rate of inflation is factored in. In the year 2005 our statistics report giving per member of $900.37. This is a noteworthy 5.59% increase from 2004 when the giving per member was $852.72.
It seems to me that, particularly in America where money has enormous cultural power, this statistic may be used to argue for the health and vitality of our church. Certainly there are sweeping changes in the way this money is being used in the church. Much more of it is kept at home for work within the local congregation; and less of it is forwarded to the higher governing bodies of the church. This changing pattern of allocation is also evidenced in the statistics. But, it seems to me, the changing patterns allocating our money and the continuing increase in total giving are different issues all together. The annual increase in per member giving is remarkable good news which may indeed support an argument about the continuing health and vitality of our church, even as we get smaller. In our consumer, money dominated society is there not a significant theological interpretation possible here which is exactly the opposite of that which is often associated with our membership numbers? Increased per member giving indicates a deeper and growing commitment to the work of the church and, thus, a theological conviction that the church is healthy. If our members are moving into deeper levels of stewardship commitment, does it not follow that we must be doing something right for the Kingdom?

Finally, which statistic and which conclusion do you want to hold on to? I am not sure what the numbers tell us.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Two Different Conversations

Within our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) there are two different conversations happening simultaneously. But these conversations are not talking with each other. The reality of these two different conversations popped up in my mind as I read through the March 5, 2007 Presbyterian Outlook.
One may be called the orthodox conversation. This has a lot to do with the institutional disease of our Church. In the Presbyterian Outlook, this conversation was highlighted in the article, A time to act: NW vote begins movement toward EPC. The New Wineskins is a consortium of about 150 congregations working together for the renewal of the Church with a specific ideal of theological orthodoxy in view. Several of the New Wineskins congregations are negotiating with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The E.P.C. is a small Presbyterian denomination – about 200 congregations and 70,000 members - which was formed in 1981 when a number of our congregations broke with the northern stream of our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The New Wineskins folks are so disgruntled with our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they are either (1) advocating for comprehensive reform within our church or (2) expecting to leave our denomination and possibly join the E.P.C. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church is recruiting our congregations for this potential switch by creating a non-geographic presbytery into which our congregations may transfer.
This orthodox conversation is part of a long history of theological controversy in American Presbyterianism and, indeed, in American Protestantism generally. The New Wineskins Initiative is a new expression of an old concern. This concern was expressed in the Confessing Church Movement in the 1990s, goes back to the Fundamentalist and Modernist controversy in the 1920s, and before that to the Old School and New School debates.
The orthodox conversation is about the authority of the Bible, the unique power of Jesus Christ, and the correct polity of the institutional Church, including, of course, the question of qualifications for ordination. There are wild differences of opinion on all of these vital theological issues.
I suggest that the heart of the matter for the orthodox conversation is the question of the central tenets of the Reformed Tradition. As mandated in our Book of Order, all officers ordained in our church must affirm this ordination question: Do you affirm the central tenets of the Reformed Tradition? This ordination vow, of course, begs the question: What are the central tenets of the Reformed Tradition? In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) there is not a definitive answer. I believe that if anyone is going to find a home in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one must understand why we do not, and will not, have a precise, defined answer listing our central tenets. Compare the long history of conversation around the question of central tenets in the P.C.(U.S.A.) with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. On the E.P.C. homepage you will find a precise list of their central tenets. To understand the difference between the P.C.(U.S.A.) and the E.P.C. on this point is to begin to grasp all the complexity of the orthodox conversation.
I believe most of the work in our church is part of the orthodox conversation. For example, this includes all of the work and discussion around the Peace, Unity and Purity report. Most of my work as an Executive Presbyter, most of the work of our Presbytery, and particularly the work of our Committee on Ministry, happens within the orthodox conversation. It is a rich, noble and continuing conversation that is filled with complexity and nuance.
But, alas, there is a very different conversation happening. I call this the emerging conversation. This was reflected in the Outlook article, Emergent church conference explores what movement is, isn’t. The emerging conversation blurs across all the stark battlelines of liberal versus conservative. The emerging conversation dismisses the orthodox conversation as irrelevant. There is a deep irony at work in the emerging conversation. On one hand this conversation is inspired by a deep anti-institutional, anti-structure, anti-bureaucracy ethos. But many of the conversation partners are immersed in established institutional positions. For example, I have been blessed by the emerging conversation which flows naturally when our Synod wide group of Executive Presbyters gathers.
I have also participated in this conversation through my involvement in the Gospel and Our Culture Network. The emerging conversation talks about missional theology which is pushing a new worldview for the church, a new way of thinking about the role of the church in our society. But this new way of talking is in reality a very old, biblical way of thinking. The church and the culture are now completely separated. Thus the church is called to bring the Good News of the Gospel into the strange and foreign culture that surrounds us. The church is missional. This means, in the emerging conversation, that mission is much more than a program, an emphasis or an activity. The missional church means that the church is God’s mission into the world. The church is the means by which God reaches out and into our world. Thinking and talking this was is part of the emerging conversation today.
Our Presbytery’s New Church Development committee is talking within the emerging conversation. We are creating a new position as Evangelist who will be responsible for planting a new faith community among the unchurched and dechurched. We must talk about a new faith community, not a new church, because the concept of church carries so much baggage for so many people; baggage that keeps them far away from ever sitting in our pews. A new faith community is about creating authentic spiritual relationships among and between people who are discerning a call to respond to Jesus Christ. It is a very different conversation, an emerging conversation. I have a nagging suspicion that the people we may attract into our new faith community are not interested in our orthodox conversation.
With which conversation are you involved? In which are you most interested? Which is more important for our Church? How may we possibly bring these two conversations together in service to Jesus Christ?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Large Churches Pay Per Capita in 2006

I have been carefully studying our Presbytery’s financial data for 2006. I discovered a remarkable bit of financial good news which I would like to share. Our Presbytery has twelve churches with a Per Capita assessment greater that $10,000. These are, of course, the largest churches in our Presbytery. All of these congregations have contributed 100% of their Per Capita assessment in 2006. This is remarkable good news and a sure indication of the vitality of the Presbytery of Carlisle. May all glory and praise be to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.