Two Congregations

While watching my Penguins blow a 3 goal lead (argh!?!), I was reflecting on the congregation at Easter service, the congregation on a “normal” Sunday, and the differences in preaching.

I’m going to use statistics just from Jan 1 through April 1 and then look at Easter. I could expand that basis, but that gives me 14 Sundays for a population baseline which does not include any major holiday. Also I am looking primarily at people on the “membership” list. There are visitors, but they get a special category.

So, the first thing I did was take a look for each member how often they attend. Simply # of Sundays attended divided by 14. If you understand baseball think of that as the batting average, or better yet the on base percentage. There is variance; a young player gets better and the older player gets worse. But, a player’s batting average during the heart of his career could probably be taken as a set number. There are .300 hitters, .250 hitters and hitters who struggle to stay above the Mendoza line.

Using those individual batting averages and assuming that they don’t change much, I looked at each Sunday and calculated the “average batting average”. If you were present your batting average became part of the formula. Simple example, 3 members, all attend one Sunday: 1 – 25% of Sundays, 2 – 50%, 3 – 75%. The average attendance average would be 50%. For St.Mark, when I look at each Sunday for that congregational average, it is amazingly consistent. For the first 14 Sundays of the year the the highest average was 82% and the lowest 71%. Interpreting that, the average person in the congregation for those first 14 Sundays attends service 3 out of 4 Sundays. In fact that is what I did next. I calculated the “average batting average” for all of those first 14 Sundays – 77.2%. The standard deviation of that was 23%. So, looking at the typical Sunday service I could expect that the typical person has attended 3 out of 4 Sundays. I can expect that 95% of the congregation has attended 2 out of 3 Sundays. So, what all those numbers mean is that preaching to the typical Sunday crowd means you have the opportunity to teach and build on a base. If I’m thinking of Heb 5:12-14, that should be a congregation that gets meat or weighty words about the Christian life.

Now what about the Easter congregation? The average of its attendance averages was 56% with a standard deviation of 36%. That is a different congregation. The typical person attended 1 less Sunday and the variance is much greater. A substantial portion of that congregation is attending less that once a month. If you experience something once a month or less, how much does it sink in? That is probably a group that you are retelling the basics of the faith and challenging them to commit to living it. Not that you don’t do that the other weeks, but that Easter congregation is going to hear the list in Heb 6:1-2. Since it is Easter focusing on what the resurrection of the dead means. Deny the resurrection and you are still a slave to death. Believe and you are a slave to Christ.

So, paradoxically attending on the High Holy Days of the Christian faith mean you will probably hear “that old, old story” told very simply with what might sound very close to an altar call for a Lutheran. If you are to be challenged in your faith the best Sunday to attend is probably, oh lets say, the 3rd or 4th Sunday of Easter which looks to be the post holiday low spot. That is probably the day to ponder say the doctrine of election or a teaching of the church that is being broken by everyone.

I love the smell of Data in the morning

This is a link to a WSJ article about the population of NY based on the 2010 census. (The data is starting to roll out and the reports are being updated.) Now I’m a pure geek when it comes to numbers. I love this type of info. There is one big temptation/problem with that as a pastor: looking at specific flesh and blood people not in themselves but as parts of a statistical grouping. That data in itself rarely tells you anything. What it can do is lead to insight. The insight is the narrative or story you put on the data; how you read it. When interacting with an individual you have to be able to set aside that statistical story because individuals have quirks.

But back to the article. It states, “Not since the 1970s have so many people left New York. Only three other states—Illinois, Louisiana and Michigan—saw such steep total losses, the study found.” If you exclude Louisiana which can be explained by Katrina displacing much of the city of New Orleans, the common tie is high taxes and cold weather. People vote with their feet. Getting more local the article also includes, “Larger upstate counties, like Monroe, Erie and Onondaga, also lost thousands of residents.”

How does this have any impact on a church, especially a local one? Aren’t you falling into the temptation you described? This article isn’t detailed enough (or local enough data) to really tell a story, but if you dig deeper in the census data (and other sources) you can tell a better story. That story can help you think about missions and direction. Is your direction going the opposite of prevailing winds? (i.e. are you predicting 25% growth rates in an environment that is shrinking or stable). Is your mission and message addressing concerns that might be felt? (i.e. NY families that are spread out and at a distance). What is a mission that a local church could do to help those who do not have family real local because of movement? How is the church a family? The balancing force not making the numbers worse is immigration. Those immigrating in are not the same as those immigrating out. Is that effecting your area? Are you able to see it if it is? The missions a congregation chooses to do are still their choice (although not being in mission is not a choice). The individuals you meet are still individuals. But it is time the church started being as wise as serpents (Matt 10:16) in some things.