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.