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
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
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 Empirethough 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.