The jazzy presentation bombarded my senses with numbers: numbers of people who’d come to Alpha and numbers of ‘lives changed’; numbers of children in Sunday school and numbers of ‘lives changed’; numbers of people at the Christmas services (with the big name speaker) and numbers of ‘lives changed’. And so on.
The local context was church and the national context was Budget Week. Both the presentation and the sermon within which it was embedded were celebrating the achievements of the past year, inspiring us to make the most of the opportunities around us, and paving the way for next Sunday’s gift day. Why, then, were they having the opposite effect on me?
I suppose, first of all, I’m not really a numbers person. While I understood the rationale for celebrating the extent of our reach, those breadth statistics washed over me. My fear-of-maths default is set to depth and story and I wanted to explore what it really means for a life to be changed.
Yet the subsequent illustrations of how two individuals were using their opportunities to make a difference just seemed to compound my frustration. The first one showcased a church-connected celebrity who had used her wide and popular appeal to increase a charity’s twitter followers simply by re-tweeting one of their tweets to her networks. The second one told of someone with a vision for fostering community and cultivating generosity who had translated local practice into a national initiative which now reaches thousands of people and been recognised as successful through Big Society funding.
Now, there is nothing wrong with these per se, and I am a particular fan of the national sharing initiative and massively respectful of the friend who is pioneering it with imagination, commitment and sacrifice. The challenge for me was that those examples seemed to unhesitatingly buy into the prevailing culture’s celebration of numerical and ‘strategic’ impact, desire for mainstream recognition, and logic that the first are, well, first.
Perhaps these are just my own insecurities surfacing in an affluent, privately-educated church with a right-of-centre leaning which, for example, gives generously to food banks but never really critiques the normalisation of poverty underpinning their proliferation, and where private sector terminology (“let’s do business/transaction with God”) is common currency. Or perhaps, as this convictingly good article just got me thinking, there’s an unhealthy dose of envy creeping into my desire for fairness.
But, anyway, my own issues aside, I wonder if those illustrations will inspire the masses to action or push them to despair. Do they set the bar too high for those without fame and 1000s of followers; those who don’t have an entrepreneurial spirit or the start-up resources needed to capitalise on it anyway; those who may feel that their smaller opportunities and spheres of influence somehow matter less.
I actually do get ridiculously excited by big-picture thinking and changing the world, but suppose I’d like the high impact stories to be balanced with others which start with the lowest common denominator. Stories which illustrate the kingdom seeping in through small acts of kindness on days when it’s hard, perseverance through failure, faith-filled pursuit of a vision even when the government funding runs out, joyful hope through adversity even if unseen by huge numbers. Stories which remind us of the back-to-front logic of the kingdom which draws on different resources, perceives success in a different way, and is within the grasp of those who are not. Stories of the yeast working its way throughout the dough, not just snapshots of the prize-winning loaf it produces.
It’s subtle but pervasive. And my other concern was the way that this impacts our understanding of giving to the church. By showcasing numbers and success, it’s easy to slip from a motivational exhortation into a funding pitch. Put your money, time and resources here and you’ll get a good bang for your buck.
I want transparency and accountability, of course, but a results-driven approach to gift day seems a risky path to walk down. Does it give us licence to withdraw our investment if we stop feeling like we’re getting a good return on it? Does it limit space for trial and possible error, or tempt us to only count as success those things which tick particular boxes? And does it curtail our willingness and ability to challenge the status quo?
Going back to that presentation: it’s great to hear that things are happening and, as a kingdom shareholder, I rejoice in growth. But let’s remember too that giving is also a biblical imperative and a spiritual discipline, even when it’d appear more savvy to put our treasure elsewhere.
In the same way, please help us to remember to rejoice, hope and seek first the kingdom, even though and even if. Even though the queue to the carol service doesn’t stretch round the block or the number of Alpha attendees goes down. Even though people stop favouriting our tweets. Even if we keep spending ourselves but don’t always see the light rise.
In faith, this crazy investment that is my life will pay off someday. Through the dips and fluctuations, that’s what I have to bank on.