A few weeks ago, the 2014 data report for The United Methodist Church's Vital Congregations metrics was released. The report, which summarizes data on five "markers of vitality" for UMC congregations in the US only, contained mixed results. There was an increase in participation in small groups, mission, and mission giving by church members, but declines in new faith professions and membership growth. In other words, American United Methodists were fewer but more faithful.
Numbers, however, do not speak for themselves, contrary to the popular saying. Thus, there have been a variety of attempts to interpret the numbers and discern what they say about where the denomination is, where it is going, and how those realities compares to organizational and theological ideals. The 2014 Vitality Report begins with such an interpretive statement: "Highly vital congregations are focused on growing their vitality by making and maturing disciples, not achieving numbers." This statement is both descriptive and normative, encouraging churches to focus on faithfulness and not worry as much about the numbers.
Other have worried about the numbers, at least on the aggregate level for the American branch of denomination as a whole. Dr. Don House, a lay United Methodist economist, has extrapolated from recent numerical trends to predict "collapse" for the denomination by 2050, as reported in this Good News article. This statement, too, is meant to be not only descriptive but prescriptive. According to House, such collapse is not inevitable if appropriate steps are taken. The implication, then, is that the church must take such steps to avoid an unthinkable fate.
On the other hand, Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, executive secretary of the Connectional Table, in a recent commentary, seeks to de-emphasize the trend of American numerical decline by placing it in the context of varying world-wide membership trends in the UMC. This involves bringing in additional data beyond what is available through the US-centric Vital Congregations metrics. By taking this global perspective and by focusing on mission and ministry, Rev. Valdez Barker provides an implicit answer to a question she raises in the piece, "How do we inspire hope and possibility, rather than allow and contribute to the narrative of fear, crisis and despair?"
In the end, the numbers can be used to describe narratives of hope and narratives of crisis both. Neither is necessarily truer than the other. Numbers are useful, but they cannot, in themselves, answer questions about values and meaning, which can only be answers by people interpreting the numbers.
Moreover, we would do well to remember that there is a danger in relying too much on numbers in our plans. 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 both tell the story of King David arousing God's anger for taking a census of Israel. The prevailing interpretation is that by counting his people, David was placing trust in human rather than divine strength. Whatever we make of United Methodist numerical trends, let us avoid David's mistake and be sure that we are trusting God and not human plans to lead us forward into the future to which God calls us.