Thursday, October 20, 2011

We count people because people count

I used to be a paid youth minister in a church.  While much of it was delightful and I still have strong relationships with many of my former youth (who have grown into mature and lovely adults), the downside was having to do certain activities you would not normally choose to do.  One of these, for me, was big youth evangelistic rallies and conferences (the other being lock-ins, but that's another post entirely).  These events had a prescribed order: "big name" speaker with a tragic yet redeemed testimony, a worship band playing rock-like worship anthems leading up to a somber and drawn out "come to Jesus" altar call song, and lots of tears.  After each conference, the sponsoring group would always boast of how many youth were saved at the event.  I knew of some youth that were "saved" at each of these events, year after year.  When the evangelistic tide started to turn a little bit and people began questioning the appropriateness of basing your success on the numbers of decisions (as opposed to the discipleship that actually came out of these supposed conversions), the group retorted,
"We count people because people count." 

To me, it's one of those phrases that aims to sound good, but in actuality expresses nothing of value.

Yet working in ministry, it's hard to avoid the numbers game.  How can you measure if your ministry programs are a success and if your church is growing without counting the number of new and active members?  It is certainly apparent when the mortality rate is higher than the number of baptisms.  It's also an easy question to ask when you meet another person in ministry: "How large is your church?"  (and we're not talking square footage).  We all know that it's not the only (or the most important) indicator of spiritual growth, but it is the most quantitative one.

In my new position, numbers have been on my mind.  We have 850 undergraduates at Hollins.  How many have I met?  With how many am I potentially forming significant relationships?  I know I'm just a month and a half into the job, but the semester is half over, and I've completed almost a fifth of my guaranteed contract.  Time is limited.  Even if I become the permanent chaplain, I have four years (or less) with each class of students to make a connection and hopefully guide them towards spiritual growth.

When I started, chapel attendance was negligible.  It is a diverse and secular school in a time when less value is put on religious practice.  College students in general often put their faith on a shelf for a while (if not abandon it totally).  And yet the administration's goal for me as chaplain is to start a regular chapel serve that draws a significant group of students.  I started out with six, which was a grave disappointment to me.  It was my average chapel attendance at my previous ministry setting, although there, it was 50% of the population (and I was discouraged at that).  At Hollins, the number of attendees increased steadily for a couple of weeks, but made a sharp decline in the past two weeks.  For the work I (and others) put into planning and promoting, it could seem like a waste....except...

-for the significant conversation I had with a student while preparing for the last chapel
-for the one student who came this week, participated well, and then sent me a "thank you" message
-for the many students I recognize now as I walk across campus, who stop to chat with me
-for the student chaplains whom I mentor...who also teach and encourage me
-for the creativity that continues to grow within me
-for those who seek me out, not for chapel services, but for counseling and support
-for the student who found me to ask if I needed PR help for the chapel and volunteered her time and gifts to inspire me
-for the good ideas that others share with me, regardless of where they are in their faith journeys
-for the love I have for the students, the campus, and the Hollins community
-for the calling that is reaffirmed day after day
-for new chances and opportunities, and a hope that endures

-for reminders that it is not about numbers, but about hearts and lives and presence; that it's about the Spirit showing up in unexpected places and continually giving me sacred access into private places in the students' stories

Thanks be to God.

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