Beyond the Numbers of the PEW Survey: is the Church Dying?

May 20, 2015

What is one of the first things new parents announce when their baby is born? 8 pounds 11 ounces. Proud parents share the birthweight of their bundle of joy, reveling in the amount of precious space junior has carved out in this world.

It seems from the moment we are born, our lives are constrained by the tyranny of numbers. For as long as I can remember, I let numbers rule my life, allowing it to dictate the state of my being. As a student, I paid zealous attention to my test scores, the metric for the amount of learning held more sway over me than the actual learning. And then there’s that wretched bathroom scale, whose numbers are always higher than desired, held the power to determine my self esteem. These days, with social media as the staple of my brain diet, I battle obsession over the number of notifications, likes, blog views and shares. The quality of my creativity has been so easily cheapened into a quantifiable statistic.

I don’t think I’m a lone captive to numbers. If my twitter stream is any indication, the latest PEW research survey released on America’s Changing Religious Landscape, was enough to throw the American Church into a collective frenzy, arguing over how to interpret and analyze the stats, strategizing to combat this increasing decline of the American religious.

I’m grateful for organizations like PEW. I believe in due diligence and social science research. But I think we have to be careful to not give too much power to what is merely a tool, a metric, and some data. Especially when what we are quantifying are human beings and the state of our faith. It is far too reductionistic to claim we are no more than plotted numbers on a chart.

Let’s take our focus off of the numbers,

Many of my Chinese friends prefer Chinese medicine over Western medicine. Western doctors diagnose patients by running tests and analyzing results, following precise formulas which have been proven through rigorous research to be effective. On the contrary, Chinese doctors diagnose patients by picking up their hand and feeling their pulse. Treatment isn’t based on hard data, but through human touch and allowing each unique rhythm to speak for itself.

I’m not a doctor, and I will leave the validity of various diagnostic tools to medical professionals. But I see the merit in honoring the wild diversity of humanity beyond the confining data they are categorized in any sort of survey. The tools are helpful in that they help us see large trends which when dissected help us shape and impact human stories. But let’s always remember the human stories are what matters most in the end. So I am not criticizing the validity of the PEW research survey, but that it should be viewed as a tool, a conduit through which we listen to the stories of the people.

It’s important to listen to the stories told through the numbers as well as the untold stories. As a non American, it is surprising to hear my brothers and sisters throw out phrases like, “the church is in decline,” when what you are referring to is the church in America. The global church is alive and well and thriving in many areas of the world, and what joy it would be to allow their voices to speak into the congregations of the North. Many of the polarizing, divisive issues in the American church, such as gay marriage, abortion, and the death penalty, are being discussed by the global church outside the context of the binary lenses of the American Left and Right. These outside voices can serve to soften the rhetoric hurled by each side, and also give perspective to the priority placed on them in light of the problems faced by the global south.

It is incumbent upon the church to touch real life human beings and feel the pulse of their heartbeats. Look into the eyes of our churched and non churched neighbors hear the nuances of their church entry/exit stories. Listen to the cry of their hearts and the longings of their soul. Say, “I hear you” without an agenda,  a clipboard, or a recruitment plan. They are not boxes that have been checked, but human stories with desires, pains, dreams, sufferings, and hope.

Let’s take our focus off of the numbers, because we do not serve the Lord of Numbers, we serve a God of God’s Beloved. And the people of God have always been in the process of telling and retelling their story in light of present realities with an ever-present God.

The people of God told and retold their story when they were exiled into Babylon.

They told and retold their story when their Messiah shockingly hung on a cross.

They told and retold their story when Gentiles were surprisingly incorporated into their family.

The American church is changing, slowly losing majority status. The Church worldwide is shifting, with the Global South gaining robust growth. We are at the brink of change, and the people of God must be ready to tell and retell the story of God as we have been tasked to do. So we speak, quietly, faithfully, gracefully with our one wild and precious life: in our homes, at our workplaces, and wherever our adventures take us.

The numbers matter; but the human stories behind them matter more.


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