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Why Counting Counts – Praying the Census

Last week, my husband and I sat down and completed the census together. As someone who loves filling in forms, this was incredibly fun for me. For my husband, who fears admin like Labradors fear you forgetting to feed them, it was significantly less so.

Censuses have been conducted since ancient times, and this one will be used to provide a snapshot of life in the UK and help form policy in the years to come.

2021’s census is being conducted primarily online – a step up from 2011, where my enduring memory is my Dad wrestling with reams of paper strewn across the kitchen table. And, of course, it’s a vast improvement from the census known by Christians globally – the one where Mary and Joseph had to travel back to Joseph’s birthplace to be counted.

This year’s census, however, has reminded me of the book of Numbers. In Numbers 1, God tells Moses to take something like a census, a recording of the names and numbers of the people. And then we have that as the fourth book of the Bible. Weird, huh?

But counting things, counting individuals, listing their names – as we see in the book of Numbers – is a really good way to begin to focus on the people behind the stats we often throw around.

In my job for an anti-slavery charity, for example, I regularly tell people about the estimated 40 million people trapped in slavery today. That’s a big number, and it’s hard to get your head around it… and it only really starts to hit home when we hear the story of one such person.

It’s hard to pray when faced with big numbers. And yet when we know someone’s name, understand their story, it gets that bit easier. As we read big numbers from the census data, it will be easier to remember that behind each number is a person – because we are each one such person.

So when we hear big numbers moving forward – whether from the census or stats about injustice and inequality – what would it mean not to be detached, not to let these things just go over our heads, but to remember that every single person behind the big numbers is just that – a person. An individual. Known by God, beloved by him. Someone we can pray for, someone to whom we can minister.

Alianore Smith
Alianore (previously Nell Goddard) works at International Justice Mission, and tweets as @alianoree



  1. Great! Thanks, Alianore. This year, we had a refugee (recently granted leave to remain) living with us whose stay coincided with the weekend of the census, and who clearly took great delight from being ‘counted’.

    By Antony Billington  -  26 Mar 2021
  2. I’m already getting your emails, I just wanted to update my details.

    By Jonathan Clark  -  26 Mar 2021

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