An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

Photo by John Pierce. I only counted one of these in my backyard recently. By John Pierce

A story in the local newspaper this morning was titled “Volunteers count when coming up with flock figures in Macon.”

The article was about the annual Macon Christmas Bird Count “in which groups count the number of different species and individual birds they spot throughout the area, … (and) then report their findings to the National Audubon Society.”

However, the term “flock figures” in the headline made me think of churches. Perhaps that’s because it’s Sunday morning. Or perhaps because that’s sort of the beat I cover all week, every week.

Whichever the case, my mind “flew” to the wild reputation that churches and denominations have for counting funny.

The late W.A. Criswell of Dallas, late into his long tenure as pastor, was known to take the actual attendance figures handed to him and multiply the statistics like loaves and fishes.

Some Baptist conventions and other denominational groups have been known to do the same. Astute historian Albert Wardin, author of Baptists Around the World, compiled actual records to give more accurate membership numbers of various groups than those that are self-reported.

I could always expect to hear from him if we printed a story with some group’s inflated statistics. Now we just go to Dr. Wardin’s numbers first.

For consistency, the term “megachurch” is generally defined as a congregation that draws 2,000 or more to weekend worship. And there are several churches with actual numbers that top that benchmark.

For others, attendance goals don’t approach the thousands. And some churches are finally discovering that ministry should be counted at times throughout the week and in ways other than the number of behinds resting in pews.

There are long-running jokes about “ministerial estimates” and a sanctuary being “comfortably full.” The latter means there is room for everyone to lie down on a pew.

Today there will be the counting of many flocks, both accurately and inflated. And the good news for headcounters is that attendance during Advent and Christmas rises. However, many churches expect to see more in attendance on Christmas Eve than on Christmas morn.

And as is true in the avian world, churchgoers tend to flock together like birds of a feather. So large and small, and in every imaginable style and tradition, the faithful will gather in all sorts of places on this day and the holy days ahead. You can count on that.

 

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