It is always tempting to form a view about yourself that is relative to others. When a child tries out for a sporting team, and they think they are better than someone else, they think they are good. Right? What else matters?
The nature of confronting reality
The same is true when it comes to evaluating the progress of a church, or even a denomination. One goes to a conference, experiences first hand the theological wanderings of others, hears of their decline, etc … and they are tempted to think that they are doing well. Right?
Well, not necessarily. Many lessons of leadership and strategy must begin with an evaluation of the facts.
The confronting Sydney Anglican reality
And, an evaluation of the Sydney Anglican denominational attendance statistics is more than a little confronting.
Figure 1 was shown to the Sydney Anglican Synod in 2016. Despite an average annual offertory increase of 6.3% (largely funding increases of staff), church attendances have been flat for a period of almost 15 years (which is as far back as this data set allows).
A few comments should be made about the data itself. First, it has been derived from what is lodged annually to the Diocesan Registry. Second, as the lodged data for children is so inconsistent, the attendance data is for adults only. It would be wonderful to update the data collection methods so that the youth and children’s data was more reliable – for they are valuable too. Third, and interestingly, as so many parishes have not lodged 2016 data, more up to date data is not currently available.
Reflecting on the confronting data
Now, let’s turn to some initial reflection on the numbers. It is not right to say that good work is not happening (it most certainly is); nor is it right to say that people are not coming to Jesus (people are, and it is great to hear about). The data does, however, provide a basis for some reflection about what we have been doing, internal processes, priorities, and / or our ability to implement our theoretical plans.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to distinguish between inputs and outputs. Jim Collins, in Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer, makes the point that those in the social sector (like churches) are notorious for confusing inputs and outputs. There are certainly some important parameters that are inputs, but the problem is the temptation to think that because the inputs are right, then everything is. Don’t get me wrong. God is sovereign, and he is ultimately responsible for the fruit of any work. Nonetheless, human evaluation and work still operates. And even though it can be challenging to define outputs (how does one measure spiritual maturity, for example), it is important to make evaluations with the outputs in mind.
Furthermore, the Sydney Diocesan Mission 2020 update provides some further sobering reflection. The slides from the update can be downloaded here. Key measures and “levers” were chosen to track our combined missional progress in the areas of reaching the lost, spiritual maturity, equipping people to use gifts and responding to our changing society. There are some brightspots – such as the use of gifts and our progress among those of non English speaking backgrounds. However, most key measures have flatlined or are in slow decline.
The importance of learning from confronting reality
I have heard it said that challenging data should not be shared widely, for it demoralises people. I would argue that it is critical that such data be shared. Yes, like with all challenging news, one’s initial reaction may be despair. But the next step in the process is to then reflect, learn and work out what to do differently. The reaching of people with the Gospel of Jesus is just too important to do anything else.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Albert Einstein (reportedly)
Einstein is said to have defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Wherever the quote may actually have originated, there is perhaps something we can all learn from it.
Whether one is evaluating a local church, or a collection of churches such as a Diocese, honest and perhaps confronting evaluation that precedes strategy is critical. Numbers may not be everything, but neither are numbers nothing.