December 10, 2007
— Martin E. Marty
WORLD magazine represents political-religious conservatism, and is rarely self-critical about its commitments, but much of its reporting is a scrutinizing of the religious right and churchly movements that go with it. So one should pay attention to Warren Cole Smith's "Numbers Racket: Survey Results on Megachurch Growth Do Not Add Up" (December 1). Smith gives instances of wildly disparate reports on membership, attendance, and financial statistics turned in by many of the congregations covered in a recent Outreach magazine article, "100 Fastest-Growing U.S. Churches." Typically, one church boasted 18,000 weekly attendees in 2006 but only 13,000 in 2007—a 30 percent decline? No: "A mistake," explained one analyst.
Smith reports that so many such "mistakes" were reported that Outreach is going to try to revisit the numbers and be more watchful and accurate in the future. Dan Gilgoff of U.S. News & World Report said that in his experience, megachurch pastors "notoriously inflate membership" numbers. Why? "Media attention, political influence, and money. . . Journalists have long been guilty of taking these numbers at face value." Another expert says such lists are "seriously flawed…you don't get information that very closely resembles the truth. Using numbers to measure the effectiveness of a church seems a questionable measure…" A theology professor says if "growth alone is a sign of what God is doing, then AIDS and Islam could share a claim for God's blessing." Outreach begs off: "We have accurately reported the numbers as we have received them."
Megachurches are not alone in the policy of lying-by-statistics; minichurches might also stretch, but for other reasons. We noted long ago that when some denominations started trying to assess congregations on a per capita basis, the capita-numbers instantly dwindled. On a personal note, when fifty years ago I was a pastor of a new minimission church and we had to turn in quarterly reports to impress a supervising and subsidizing board, we did not lie-by-statistics, but we were zealous counters. I have no doubt that the organist got counted in all three services, as might an on-duty custodian and every infant in the nursery. All of which is to illustrate the contention that megachurches and media which report on them are not the only problem-makers.
The "mega-" instances draw attention in our analyses of religion in public for the reasons Gilgoff said: They are most tempted to work for "media attention, political influence, and money." If WORLD and the experts it quotes keep watchdogging, we may get a more fair picture of power relations in American churches.
The magazine includes a side-bar reporting on a celebrated self-examination that is big in the blog world: Pioneer megachurch founder and pastor Bill Hybels of famed Willow Creek Church in Chicago has gone public with soul-searching of his church and its kin, creatively questioning whether such fast-growing churches have done their task of disciple-building. "We made a mistake." He is likely to put energy into correcting it, if it's not too late for the movement.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
P.S. Be it noticed that Sightings passed up the chance to comment on a recent speech by a Latter-Day Saint presidential candidate on religion. There is plenty to say, and I have opinions, but in general I don't "do" presidents or candidates, however relevant they are to our "public religion" mission. Of course, I am partisan and have candidate preferences and distaste for others, but this is not the forum for expressing such views. The campaigns in any case are over-covered by media, and subscribers can learn enough about them elsewhere. No doubt I'll break down and forget my self-discipline by November, but doing so will not, I hope, portend a new direction in my Monday mission in Sightings. M.E.M.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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