Who’s Afraid of Statistics?
Have you heard the news? The church is dying! At least, that’s what every ecclesiastical demographic study is telling us. You’ve read the fear-mongering headlines, right? They all read something like this: “Millennials Are Leaving the Institutional Church in Record Numbers,” “Denominations Are Spiraling into Irrelevancy,” “The Church’s Voice Is Not Welcome in the Public Square,” “Are You a Christian? America Hates You!,” and the list goes on (OK, the last one may have been a bit overstated). Everyone from the Barna Group to your favorite denominational headquarters is ready to champion some statistic that will create fear in the heart of every God-fearing, church-loving American. Trust me, I’ve read the statistics and consumed these stories. I’ve bought the books, which promise to turn the tide. It’s getting scary out there for the church! The church is dying!
Now, I’m not going to write a blog today saying that you shouldn’t be concerned with these statistics. We ought to take seriously the studies that reveal why the church is losing her prized position in society. These studies can expose some very disturbing truths about Christianity in America. However, I am growing more disturbed by how much time we in the church spend on such studies. It is bothersome to me that these studies seem to be the driving force behind most of the activity in American Christianity. I am becoming more and more convinced that these statistics and studies have become our idols!
See, Americans fear, love, and trust statistics above all else. Don’t believe me? You want to get people to stop smoking? Give a statistic on the correlation between cancer and tobacco usage. You want to get people to stop texting and driving? Stats on teenage death behind the wheel with the phone will do the trick. No one wants to be a statistic, at least not a scary one, so we work hard to make sure our actions don’t reflect those we hear about in this or that statistical study.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the church. The statistics about the decline of the church’s popularity are scary. We don’t want to contribute to the decline of the church, do we? So, we let the statisticians tell us what is causing people to leave and, in a fear-driven effort to save the church, we let the stat-pushing experts tell us what to do. From this place of fear, we create programs or even theologies that are more agreeable to the culture so that we don’t contribute to Christianity’s “demise.” So, theological liberalism grows out of an effort to make Christianity more palatable to her cultured despisers. But, this only serves to destroy the faith altogether. Or, in the remnants of the church growth movement, we see an effort to make the worship services and church language more appealing and relevant to those who find no point to church. Statistics show, after all, that peoples in America love it when institutions cater to their tastes. So, church, for fear of losing this culture, let’s give ‘em what they want!
Now, fearing, loving, and trusting statistics means that we believe stats don’t lie. Therefore, if you are finding statistical growth in your church by making such moves, you must be justified in your actions. Statistics now declare us righteous! But, of course, if you don’t see this sort of success, you are failing and contributing to the demise. Stats damn!
Now, there is certainly a fear on the other side that says, “We will not be driven by statistics! We will not cater to the society nor adjust our doctrine and practice! We will stick to our fundamentals! We will go down with the ship! Remember in John 6 when Jesus sent off all those thousands of people because they didn’t trust His word? Well, that is our inspiration for ministry! We faithful few will circle the wagons! We’ll revel in how correct we are and watch our enemies burn!” Now, this fundamentalist retreat does have an appeal. At least there is the recognition that truth is worth dying for.
However, such a response against the statistical idolatry is also born of fear. It fears any cultural engagement will result in corruption. Thus, it stereotypes any sort of growth as compromise with the enemy and stifles creativity. Fundamentalism believes the life of the church depends on their ability to remain pure. They fear, love, and trust their own ability to be right over and against the culture. Their faith is in their ability to remain faithful. They are driven by the fear of failure.
As I was hearing the Gospel reading from Matthew 16:13-20 this past week, it struck me that both sides are missing the point. (Or, better said, I struck me how I was missing the point as, in this conversation, I am Luther’s drunk peasant who falls of the horse on both sides). So much of what we do in church is driven by fear because we pay more attention to stats and cultural boogeymen than we do to the Word of God. We’re filling our ears with fear mongering words.
But then Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and Jesus says (better, promises) this, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Did you catch that? Jesus promised to build His Church! He promised that not even the gates of hell could stop Him! Despite what book-selling statisticians say, the loss of the Church’s popularity does not equal her demise—for Christ and will not allow His bride to be overcome! He’s spent far too much blood on her to leave her in our hands. He will sustain her into life everlasting by means of His Word; the rock that came forth from Peter’s mouth. That Word—that Christ is Lord; that our Lord is our Sacrifice and our Savior; that our Sacrifice and Savior is raised and reigns—that Word will sustain the church. Christ will build on that rock!
Which means, Jesus just took the church from a place of fear to one of courage. Church, do not fear bad statistics. Fear, love, and trust Jesus above all else. Let His Word, His promise inform the life of your congregation. You don’t have to be afraid if you are unappealing to the culture. Preach Christ, and sinners will repent and believe. Don’t hunker down in opposition to the culture for fear of its influence. Point to that bloodstained Lamb Who has come to die for the sins of the world. If hell can’t overcome you, then bad statistics sure can’t either. Statistics are important, but they aren’t Jesus. Don’t allow stats and numbers to frighten you into action. You are free from failure so long as Christ is on your lips and in our ears! Cling to Jesus who says to you, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)