BY THE NUMBERS: HOW THE CHURCH IS MISSING THE MARK AND WHY REFOCUSING IS CRUCIAL



I like numbers.

Okay, not in the mathematical sense. I was lucky to pass college algebra (after taking it three times).

But give me stats and data that I can analyze, and I'm happy. Throw that shit in an infographic and you're an angel on earth.

Numbers in this sense speak to me, especially when they serve to illustrate current issues of humanity, but they also have a way of making the information they represent seem impersonal.

795 million people in the world don't have enough food to eat. That's staggering, but so overwhelming a number that it's easy to not completely absorb what it means. Consider tucking your child into bed at night, singing them their favorite song, and watching their face (that you've memorized) as they fall asleep, knowing their stomach isn't close to being full and you don't know the last time it was or the next time it will be. When looked at from an individual perspective, it's not as incomprehensible as it is devastating.

Ten to fifteen percent of teenagers suffer from depression, and depression increases a teen's risk of attempting suicide by twelve times. Again, it's scary, but it might not mean much until you think of each and every one of those teenagers individually. Each of them has a favorite meal, favorite color, and can probably tell you their earliest childhood memory if you happen to ask. Each of them has already made an impact on the word, has people that love them, and has dreams and opportunities they've yet to realize.

My point is, there are people behind the stats we read. Individuals with likes and dislikes, aspirations, to-do lists, and stories they love to tell over and over again.

Numbers and data are important factors in that they present facts and information in a clear and concise way, but they are just a piece of the bigger picture. To dismiss what and who they represent because it seems overwhelming or impersonal, thus failing to grasp the reality of the stories behind the figures, is problematic.

On the flip side, it is equally problematic and, dare I say, detrimental, to reduce an individual to a number, simply because you refuse to see them as more than data.

Holding tight to a limited capacity that leaves little room to see the humanity in, well, humans is tragic, and it happens all the time.

It happens in stories of world hunger, of teen depression, of suicide rates in LGBT youth.

It happens in church.

We know there are numbers there: leaving the 99 to seek after the one, feeding the 5,000, forgiving seventy times seven. But these are examples of Christ, and there's no questioning his ability to see the individual.

Let's look to the numbers we see and use today.

Like, the number of baptisms a missionary has.

Home teaching and visiting teaching numbers.

Percentage of adult members who hold a current temple recommend.

The number of meetings attended monthly so as to not be labeled "inactive."

I'm currently on the radar of someone hard-pressed to get their home teaching numbers in. We have stated, repeatedly, that we are not interested in having home teachers, and yet he shows up, again and again, always unannounced, and always dismissive of our requests to stop.

Sure, he's getting his numbers in so he stays 100% for the month. Does he intend to be disrespectful and pushy? I don't know, and it really doesn't matter. I believe that intent does not matter nearly as much as the impact that his actions have.

Experience has led me to believe that he might feel he's following the counsel given from the pulpit, the urban legends of home teachers who were turned away, but kept coming back, month after month, until they were let in, eventually ending with the family returning to full activity.

I've heard a dozen variations on this, with the emphasis always on the noble, faithful actions of the home or visiting teachers. When will we hear from the other side? When will we ask for their story?

Perhaps we should ask why we would want to.  

Why would we want to know why they don't want to be contacted? Why should we care to know why they don't attend church anymore? Why would we care to know if there is something we can change or improve upon?

Why should we care to ask why an investigator might want more time before committing to baptism? Why should we listen and address each and every one of their concerns before thinking of asking about a commitment?

Why should we consider why some adults might actually choose to not hold a temple recommend? Why should we respect viewpoints and experiences different from our own?

Well, for one, because we profess to be a church that cares about people. But are we?

Do we really care about someone if we don't respect their boundaries?

Do we really care about someone if we don't listen to their perspective?

Do we really care about someone if we dismiss their concerns and sound logic?

No, we don't. It's as simple as that.


Until we start asking-- and listening-- we don't care about individual members. We just care about the numbers we're taught to see them as.

Just as we would do well to see past numbers in order to increase understanding on a more personal level, we would do well to get rid of the focus on the numbers-driven system as it currently stands in the church.

HOME AND VISITING TEACHING

If we shift the emphasis from getting into homes and sharing a message with 100% of members every single month, we are left better able to forge genuine, authentic relationships with our fellow church goers that are not based on assignment or a less than Christlike sense of obligation.

The purpose of home teaching and visiting teaching is not lost on me. In theory, it's a fair to decent idea to see that the needs and well-being of every family and woman in the ward are noted, and to see that everyone has a chance to hear the same message they are supposed to share.

When meeting numbers is pushed, when monthly texts and Sunday reminders of "get your numbers in so Sister X or Brother Z can get their reports made up," take the place of asking if anyone met with someone who has a need to be filled, we realize that it's more about checking off a box than it is about actual people.

I've had a few friendships come of it, so I know it's not entirely futile, but I've more often been assigned to visiting and home teachers that reach out at the very end of the month, with little to no regard for my existing schedule and plans, so that they can answer yes, they saw me that month.

I've had visiting teachers sit in my home during times that friendship and support would have been welcomed, but instead of asking me how I was-- or even talking to me at all-- they sat on my sofa and talked to each other, belittling mothers that stay at home and plan their days around their children's naps. I just so happened to stay at home with my children, scheduling my days around their naps, which they knew, seeing as how the appointment had been carefully timed so my then two children could get their much needed naps in (and, okay, my very pregnant self).

It's little surprise that those women are hard-pressed to say hello to me in passing, and it's zero surprise that I wouldn't have dreamed of calling on either of them had I needed something.

So in theory, sure, the programs might work if by some--I hesitate to say inspiration--let's call it luck; if by some luck, the teachers are not overbearing and those they're assigned to welcome their presence, it might be just fine.

In reality, it is more likely to result in one of the following: 1) create awkward, seemingly forced connections in which one or both parties feel unnecessary pressure to oblige; 2) turn the individual assigned to the home or visiting teacher into a project (of this you can be certain they are completely aware); 3) cause stress, tension, and feelings of resentment when home or visiting teachers continually impose in the spirit of persistence despite requests not to.

If our main goal isn't to get numbers, people wouldn't be made to feel like numbers. No one wants to feel like a number. Novel idea.

BAPTISMS

I have not served a mission. I cannot speak from experience on this. I can say that, in all the talks and lessons involving missionary work, and in hearing those who have returned speak of their time in the mission field, there is a great emphasis on baptisms.

So much so, that it is a cause of stress, of feeling like a failure if baptism numbers were low, or a false sense of superiority if numbers were high.

I'm just throwing this out there, but how much greater an impact could be had if missionaries were to not try so hard to convert and instead focus on spreading the gospel through example, service, and sure, the occasional Q&A session or church invite.

Joining a religion is a huge decision and not one that should be pressured on anyone.

Positive side effect: happier, healthier missionaries.

TEMPLE RECOMMENDS

The last temple recommend interview I had went a little something like this. I entered the room, might have caught the name of the member of the stake presidency interviewing me, and immediately upon sitting down was told that over 80% of adults in the stake hold temple recommends.

It was stated with pride and a strange sense of expectation, like the stake held the title and they weren't about to lose it. No pressure.

I walked out of the interview with a recommend, but what I really wanted was more insight. Why did he think that 20% of adults didn't hold a temple recommend. Did he assume they weren't worthy? Had he considered maybe it was by choice?

What has been done to address their concerns? What could be done? Are they written off as a lost cause?

I've been in multiple stakes where adults holding a current temple recommend at all times has been made a primary focus (in their words).

What is the harm in losing that focus? Or in changing it to state that all adults interested in holding a recommend, do so.

Those who aren't interested don't lower percentages. They aren't a project. They aren't made to feel less than.

We can claim to be a church that cares, that loves, that serves. Until we stop reducing people to numbers, those claims are made in vain.



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