ERICA, Part I: A New Way of Looking at Church Attendance Numbers

“A statistician is someone who is good with numbers, but lacks the personality to be an accountant.”

The church growth industry is awash with numbers.  From denominational totals and growth/decline trends (most of which are dubious at best) to congregational demographic patterns to opinion and interest surveys, the focus is on posting bigger, better numbers.  The primary number most folks in the industry focus on is Sunday Morning attendance, or its equivalent.  To preachers with an ego (like, for instance, me), the idea is to find ways to put more and more people in front of them when they speak each week.  A second, and not to be overlooked, consideration is that more people in the seats means more money in the collection plate.  Investment, then, is usually in those programs and efforts that will pay off with more bodies in the pews.  “Church growth” is measured in stark terms, often on scoreboards prominently placed near the front of the church building.

The problem is, ministry leaders who are sincerely interested in the advancement of the kingdom of God know that getting the body in the seat is not the true objective.  It’s not even enough to mass-produce baby Christians; we want people to mature, develop, grow closer to God.  Likewise, as Christian communities we want to know more than who we can count.  We want to know who we can count on when times get tough.  How prepared are we, as a congregation, to deal with a crisis?  How enthusiastic are we, collectively, about advancing the cause of the Kingdom of God?

Anecdotes are abundant demonstrating the lack of correlation between congregation size and effectiveness.  Similarly, a dramatic change in congregation size — up or down — is no real indicator of what that group is now capable of or not.  The phenomena of “addition by subtraction,” “congregation surfing,” and “conversions to the preacher” among others render the question of “bigger or smaller” pretty much invalid.  Bigger is neither better or worse; it’s just more.

But that said, there is something to be learned from observing patterns of behavior.  The choices people make do, in fact tell you something about them.  Even in group settings, the size and composition of the group is a valuable piece of data regarding the group’s nature.  When that size and composition changes, very often there are clues in the data as to why the change took place.  You just have to know where to look, and what you’re really seeing.

That’s where ERICA comes in.

Named for my oldest daughter (her younger sister Katie was born 45 seconds later), ERICA is a way to measure not just how many people are coming, but when and, to some extent, why.  It evaluates not only the mass of the congregation, but also the direction.  In certain cases, it can even be “retrodictive,” allowing church leaders to pinpoint the moment in time when the warning signs of impending change began to be visible.

How does it work?  Stay tuned.

Next:  ERICA, Part II:  Investors vs. Consumers

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