Every week I count the number of friends attending meeting for worship. I don’t record it, but I keep a rough mental note. Last year Watford had attendances of about 40 – 50 on a Sunday morning, and 3 – 5 Wednesday lunchtime. This year Sunday attendances are about 30 – 40, recently Wednesdays have seen 5 – 7 people present.
Nationally the tabular statement for 2009 showed an increase of in adults involved with Quaker meetings, as did 2010’s. There was some rejoicing among Friends. 2011 and 2012 saw decreases. There is some anxiety among Friends. These fluctuations are less than 1% per year. Some of the decreases are due to the efforts of area meetings to make the numbers a true picture, which may involve terminating the membership of some people who have had no contact with their local meeting for many years. Obviously, there is an ongoing reduction in numbers due to deaths and there are some resignations (though some members who resign continue to attend meetings for worship, and are, thus, included in the figures for attenders).
Do these numbers matter? Yes, to an extent. I think it is as well for us to be aware of the national numbers. I do not think we should feel the need to rush to act when the numbers show a fall, or a rush to celebrate when they rise. I think we should be cautious about seeing trends in short term changes.
A few years ago there was a prediction that Quakers would die out by (I think it was) 2034, based on extrapolations of the annual membership figures. Quite a few of us said that we still intended to be Quakers in 2034, so we’d make sure we didn’t die out. Of course, we ideally need to get a few others to join us, because there will be some natural losses over the years. Quaker Quest is doing an excellent job, but it may not be enough. We also need to give consideration to retention – our meetings have to live up to the image we create. In Watford we have been fortunate in seeing a steady stream of newcomers, a proportion of whom become regular attenders and even members, and also returners (people who had ceased attending for a considerable period of time, who then come back and become regular attenders again). I firmly believe that outreach needs to be focussed on the spiritual needs of people rather than any desire to put more bums on meeting house benches.
What about numbers attending meetings for worship, do they matter? I do not think the numbers matter, so long as those present are genuinely willing to be aware of the Presence, to respond to the movings of the Spirit, by whatever name we do or do not call ‘that of God’. I have felt that Love, heard that Light, in gatherings of 2 or 3, in meetings of 10 or 50, in Yearly meetings of over 1000, even when holding midweek meeting alone (but in the awareness of other Friends worshipping in other places and at other times, or prevented from being physically present with me).
At one time I was going to become a management accountant. I remain intrigued by numbers, and by the patterns they can create, but I am very aware that numbers only tell us a small part of the story and that people, relationships between people, and our relationship with the Divine are the truly important things – and those can not be captured by counting.