Numbers aren’t everything but they are something

Recently I saw an interview with the controversial educator Michelle Rhee. She is the former chancellor of public schools for Washington, DC. She put in place a rigorous program of educational accountability, including serious testing. There were accusations–not against her but against some teachers–of manipulating test results to meet the higher expectations of the chancellor. And even apart from such cheating, standardized tests are limited in the extent to which they can measure all the pertinent dimensions of learning. 

Limited, yes, but numbers do tell us some important things, even if numbers aren’t everything. Two cheers for statistics.

The same idea applies to quantitative assessments of church membership. They don’t tell us everything but they can tell us something. Which brings me to my point.

First Things recently ran a piece about relative Catholic decline in solidly committed Catholics compared to committed Protestants. The Catholic decline can be read in different ways. However it is read, it isn’t good news.

To be sure, if the issue were simply about numbers, we could give away big-screen TVs and various bits of SWAG to drive up the church rolls, at least temporarily. Every Sunday a bingo night and every parishioner a winner. But it isn’t just about the numbers. It is, however, about the extent to which Catholics have been evangelized and are evangelizing. If the decline in committed Catholics were a matter of pew-sitting Catholics or even Christmas and Easter Catholics deciding, after counting the cost, that the Gospel demands too much of them, then I would say that it’s unfortunate they’re leaving but at least they have been invited (and challenged) by the Gospel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that this is what’s driving things.

It’s paradoxical. On the one hand, we should be willing to be “the creative minority”, if it comes down to choosing between going for numbers and being faithful. As I said recently in CWR, we mustn’t present a “watered-down” Jesus in order to avoid offending people or in order to attract attention. Otherwise we may wind up winning people to a Jesus not worthy of being proclaimed in the first place. Paul had some pretty harsh words for people who preached “another Jesus”.

The fact is, sometimes we’ll present the Gospel and we’ll end up having to shake the dust from our feet and the numbers will be against us. After three years of preaching and miracles Jesus wound up crucified. On Pentecost, there were only 120 disciples in the upper room.

And yet, on the other hand, as we know, the 120 Pentecostal disciples, full of the Holy Spirit, went on to convert the Roman Empire—though not without martyrdom and other kinds of great suffering. They remained faithful and eventually, after three centuries, they also came out ahead on the numbers.  Perhaps we can, too. But in any case we must be evangelized and we must evangelize others.

About Mark Brumley 56 Articles
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.