A wise man once said those who live by statistics will die by statistics. In our information age, we are inundated by statistics. We are drowning in statistics. We are chocked by statistics. And most of them are largely ignored. Could it be that we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information or is it that we don't like what those statistics say? I don't know. I am not sure I want to know.
Statistics can often be a wake up call for people who cannot see the forest for the trees but they can also be so dense that they prevent us from seeing the very light that gives life. In our election for Synod President, statistics have been bantered about on all sides. On one hand, the sobering state of the good ship Missouri is revealed in unflattering and even alarming statistics. On the other hand, there are those who are as good at manipulating numbers as they are ignoring them. None of the other candidates have much to boast about (things are not much better in Michigan or a certain California congregation than they are in Missouri in general). But I fear that is the only way we know how to speak to one another or parse the problems before us. We are killing ourselves with statistics.
I am sure that there is a place for them but the reality is that statistics can neither accurately describe what is wrong or point us to what will fix what is wrong. Statistics can tell us that things are not good but it will take more than some numbers on a spreadsheet to figure out what these actually mean. Even when we figure out what they mean, statistics cannot tell us what to do in order to turn the ship around.
The reality is that we know what is wrong and we also know what to do in response. The problem is that we either have lost confidence in the answer or we simply don't what to do it anymore. That is the issue that statistics cannot explain or teach. The Church does not grow because of our great programs. The Church does not grow because we have great locations. The Church does not grow because we make people happy. The Church does not grow because we have great social media skills or communication skills. The Church does not grow because of us. God grows His Church. He grows it through the Word of God preached faithfully in season and out, accurately with careful distinction of Law and Gospel, and consistently applying the whole counsel of that Word. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. That Word will not fail to return to the Lord having accomplished His purpose in sending it. The Holy Spirit works through that Word to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify His Church.
I am not forgetting the Sacraments. God acts through water which is not simply sign or symbol but the very means through which the sinner dead in trespasses and sin is joined to Christ's death and resurrection, created anew in Christ Jesus for good works, and transformed from no people into the people of God. God acts through the Blessed Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood to feed and nourish this faith in the people of God and in this Holy Communion they are forgiven and nurtured and kept in this faith and fear. Absolution is God's voice that speaks to the penitent sinner and the chains of his sins fall away and his clear conscience is restored. Through it all it is God at work, through means, to be sure, but God working to grow His people and grow His Church.
If Missouri is to be rescued from the dismal statistics, it will be through faithful preaching and teaching and faithful administration of the Sacraments. That is what is so sorely needed among us. We have all the information we need. We know our congregations are filled with aging people (just like the neighborhoods around us). We know that our culture is even more unfriendly to the cause of Christ than ever before (you would have to live in a cave not to know this). What we seem to forget too easily is that the key lies in the Word and the people gathered around that Word, believing the Word and acting because that Word is efficacious and true.
We have tried ditching the liturgy, taking off vestments, ignoring the sturdy hymns of old, telling jokes to make people laugh, being relevant to the moment, turning into a self-help center, and mimicking the music on people's playlists. So what has happened? Are we stronger? Have we stemmed the tide of loss? Are we better equipped to be the Lutherans we say we are? Statistics tell us that none of these is the answer to our problem. But that is because we keep treating a spiritual problem with a programmatic solution. If we die because we are faithful to our confession, passionate in our proclamation of Christ crucified and risen, reverent in our worship life, singing with the church that went before us the sturdy hymns of old, and praying expecting God to hear and answer us, then we have done all that we can do. But if we die because we have confused people with the dichotomy between what we believe and how we practice the faith or because we treat God and His House and the things of worship as if they were merely an entertainment venue or because we no longer expect God to be where He has promised and to do what He has said He will do, then we have much to fear from the Judge who will hold us accountable.
Statistics cannot make alive what is dead nor can they defend us against the assaults of the enemy. Those who live by statistics will die by them. When we begin to learn this and when we remember what the Lord has promised, then maybe things will turn around. Until then, we are destined to hear more bad news from those who chart those pesky stats.