Monday, 31 October 2011

Count People Because People Count

I sort of know this post is going to get me into trouble! In the church, we put so much emphasis on the importance of each individual that we are sometimes very suspicious of research that asks 'how many?' We perhaps fear the consequence of discovering 'not many'. Yet there is plenty of evidence that large numbers of people use open churches during the day for prayer, peace and quiet and as places to visit as pilgrims and tourists. At the last tourism group, we were discussing the importance of churches being open and ways of knowing just how many people come into them during the day. In larger or very historic churches with several focal points of interest, it would also be important to know which parts of the church inspire people and why they come. Now don't get me wrong, I am not into counting heads for the sake of it or so we can boast about how many people we see. But it does seem sensible to know how many people use a church. When I was a parish priest we used to count the number of people who attended all services, not just Holy Communion services, and these figures were often the basis for suprising 
conclusions about which services were actually growing and, therefore, for decisions about how to develop the worshipping life of the church. Our church warden used to say 'Count people because people count!'

Of course, when it comes to pilgrimage and tourism it is vital to know how many people are attracted to your church and what they come to see - this influences all sorts of decisions such as what to put in the guide book and on the website, where to put places for prayer, what hours of the day and seasons of the year to open. Apparently, Exeter Cathedral has recently installed a 'people counter'. Andy Rylands, our rural officer, did some research and discovered that you can obtain a small, smart digital counter for as little as £150. It would need an archdeacon's license to install and, over a period of time, it could be moved around to different parts of the church if you want to find out what people go to see while they are in the building. I suppose it could also record your Sunday attendance more accurately, or at least more easily, than a sidesperson can. You can find details of one version of counter on

Spirituality, pilgrimage and worship are not primarily about numbers, but it sure does help to know when people come and where they linger, especially if you are making decisions about encouraging more and about how to prepare the best welcome when they do come.  

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