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July 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 3 · pp. 31–35 

The Use of Statistics in an Annual Church Check-Up

Karen Neufeld

Every year I submit to a series of medical tests which help my doctor evaluate my physical condition. These evaluations lead to prescriptions for improving present health or lessening future health problems.

How does the church evaluate its condition? In the Mennonite Brethren Conference the most visible attempt to measure the churches is the annual statistical report. Unlike my medical tests, the conference statistics seldom lead to prescriptions for improving the health of the church. Even if not totally ignored, the statistical reports are not an important part of any widely published conference planning or self-criticism.

I have found a charting method developed by Ogden R. Lindsley and his students at the University of Kansas to be scientifically valid for evaluating children’s learning and school trends. The method also suggested a way of using conference statistics to evaluate the church.


Evaluation starts with knowing “how often.” One characteristic of the method is the use of frequencies to measure any behavior or occurrence. A frequency is simply a count in time: number per minute, number per week, number per year, number per century. Thoughts, words, deeds, and happenings have a frequency.

Frequency counts were part of the early Christian church. One hundred and twenty persons prayed together in the upper room after Christ’s ascension. Three thousand received the Good News on the day of Pentecost. Their number swelled to five thousand as a result of Peter and John’s teaching ministry in the temple.

Frequency counts are not new to the Mennonite Brethren Conference. The current statistical reports contain the count per year for {32} such things as dollars, members, attendance, baptisms, missionaries, conversions, deaths, marriages and divorces. The method’s way of knowing “how often,” matches what the conference is already doing.

Evaluation looks at change, not status. A second characteristic of the method is that it looks at change in frequencies over time rather than the frequencies at a point in time.

A focus on change was a part of the early church: “The word of God increased;” “The churches increased in number;” “Faith was increased.” The early church was dynamic, growing, and changing. The important statistics for the early church were those that answered the question, “How many more?”

The focus on change in the Mennonite Brethren conference is not as common as frequency counts. Each year the conference reports changes in frequencies from one year to the next without giving the churches a sense of longer trends or rates of change. For example, the annual report for 1977-78 shows the membership for the Norman, Oklahoma church as 101 members in 1977 and 116 in 1978. The report misses the significance of the fact that the Norman church has tripled its membership in the last five years. The method’s second way of looking at change goes beyond current conference practices.

Evaluation looks at proportional change, not absolute change. A third characteristic of the method is that it focuses on how much is, in proportion to how much was. Absolute change is like uniform deposits to a savings box. Absolute change occurs by some constant addend. But proportional change is like the compounding interest of a savings account. Proportional change occurs by some constant multiple.

The early church focused on proportional change when it reported that the number of disciples in the church multiplied. Jesus spoke of proportional change when he told of faithful servants doubling their talents. The servant with two talents made two more; the servant with five talents made five more. In another parable, Jesus did not praise the widow who gave her last coins for the size of her gift, but for the gift’s proportion to what she had. Later Jesus taught that from everyone to whom much is given much shall be required.

The Mennonite Brethren Conference does not report proportional change. The annual report shows a change of 15 in the membership of a small congregation the same as a change of 15 in the membership of a large congregation. The method’s third way of looking at proportional change runs counter to current conference practices. {33}


The three characteristics of the method are combined by picturing changing frequencies on a proportional chart. Figure 1 shows the type of chart used by the method. The vertical lines on the chart represent years and the horizontal lines represent frequencies. The dark vertical lines divide the chart into five year intervals.

A dot pinpointed on the chart represents the frequency of some occurrence for one year. The steepness of a line formed by joining more than one dot shows how fast the occurrence is multiplying or dividing. The steeper the line the faster is the change.

Figure 1

The gradual decrease of distance between horizontal lines shows {34} proportional change. The chart shows that hypothetical frequencies doubling from 20 to 40 in five years form a line parallel to hypothetical frequencies doubling from 300 to 600 in five years. The lines have the same steepness.

In Figure 1, each dot on the chart represents yearly membership at the Belleview Acres Church in Littleton, Colorado. The chart shows that for 1972-73 the Belleview Acres Church had about 55 members, in 1974-75 about 57 members, in 1975-76 about 85 members, and so on. The line formed by joining these dots is roughly parallel to the doubling hypothetical lines and indicates a rate of growth which would allow it to nearly double every five years.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows proportional changes in church membership and {35} Sunday School attendance over the past 10 years in six churches of the Southern District Conference. Simply charting these two factors for only the six churches showed all of the following:

1. All of the six churches experienced substantial proportional drops in Sunday School attendance between 1970 and 1975.

2. The Newton Church is the only church of the six to make up its Sunday School losses.

3. The greatest proportional membership growth occurred in the smaller three churches.

4. The Denver church dropped in membership between 1973 and 1974 when the Belleview Acres church opened. The growth rate for the Denver church has been about the same after Belleview Acres opened as before.

5. The only substantial charted change in the two largest churches was the drop in Sunday School attendance.

6. The Garden City and Newton Churches have the greatest growth rate of the six churches.

This charting method seems to have the same advantage over columns of numbers that a picture has over words. It shows trends, allows comparison, and raises questions without complicated statistical analysis.


Each year the Mennonite Brethren Conference collects statistics for its annual report. These statistics result in very little evaluation or prescription for change. I would like to see the annual conference statistical reports become for the conference what my annual physical examination is for me.

The proportional charting of statistics to study and compare changes in the churches of the Mennonite Brethren Conference could give us an exciting sense of direction. The charting would suggest the optimum size for congregations, predict the need for future change, mirror the effect of certain programs, or picture changes in leadership. The charting could lead to prescriptions for improving the health of the church or lessening future health problems.

Karen Neufeld is Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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