Looking Beyond Statistics: The Souls Behind the Numbers

In an age when so many aspects of life are measured by statistical formulas and metrics, the incalculable value of the human dimension — devotion, dedication, compassion — is often overlooked and underappreciated. How does this relate to statistics gathered by churches? It is impossible to fully measure the faith and commitment of any person of faith by statistics. Likewise, a complex set of beliefs can never translate into a number. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes its statistics seriously but does not treat them as an end in themselves. Rather, keeping a record of Church members is a spiritual injunction enshrined in scripture, the main purpose of which is to make sure that they are “remembered and nourished by the good word of God” (Moroni 6:4). Thus, the main purpose of statistics is to help the Church help its members.

It is the people behind the numbers that really count. For example, while it is easy and necessary to gauge the effectiveness of humanitarian work by focusing on the amount of aid given, the amount of hours put in, the amount of volunteers who participated and the number of countries distributed to, it is very difficult to measure the most important factor: how many lives were changed, how many hearts were touched and how many human bonds were forged. Accordingly, while one can measure how many members a church has, one cannot measure their spiritual devotion. Statistics don’t qualitatively measure the most important thing — the inner life. They merely assist in improving its quality.

Commenting on the Church’s statistical growth and methodology, The Christian Century recently published an article that attempts to discount its steady membership growth. Though growth may be captured by statistics, success cannot be. The Church does not claim to be the fastest-growing religion and does not measure its success by that standard. Because the Church does not remove from its records those members who have lost contact with the Church or who have become inactive, the publication casts doubt on the accuracy of the membership totals, claiming that they are intentionally inflated.

But since there is no universal standard for compiling statistics among the various churches in the United States, the Church remains as inclusive as possible in its membership rolls so as not to preclude any potential return or change of heart of a member who has become inactive. Taking such individuals off the records does no one any good. No particular statistical methodology should serve as a means for the spiritual write-off and disfellowship of any member. Statistics do not operate in that realm, nor do they aim to.

The particular statistical methodologies of the Church should not be interpreted as having ultimate bearing on the spiritual lives of individuals.

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