Hung Up on Numbers?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Recently I had the opportunity to interact with another congregation other than my own.  This other church is unashamedly evangelical, which may or may not be relevant to my post.  Anyway, during my brief time among them (about 15 minutes), I chatted with three people, who all recognized me as a pastor from another church.  And it was eerie how my conversations went.

  • The first person mentioned their church’s worship attendance, which has grown modestly over the years.
  • The second person, in speaking of a sister church of theirs, boasted about how well that church was doing–how they had more than 300 people in worship!
  • The third person immediately started quizzing me about my church: the demographics, especially age, worship attendance, growth, etc.

Did you catch the not-so-subtle theme here?

Now, I know in business there needs to be a bottom line from which managers can measure success–net income, customers served, growth of market share, stock price, etc.  But when it comes to the church (which is not a business, just to set the record straight), what should we use as the bottom line?  How do we measure “success”?

The obvious answer for most Christians–at least in the United States–is numbers; it’s easy to count numbers, so that is usually our standard for measuring “success” in the church.  Based on the conversations I had with the three evangelical Christians, they all seemed to be watching the numbers as though they represented some invisible, spiritual stock that rises and falls with the market.  In fact, I would say that most Christians who care about their churches (evangelicals and others–Protestants and Catholics alike) are too hung up on numbers.  And I admit that I have often bought into the numbers game.

But is that fair?  Are numbers a good measure of “success” as a church?  (And, by the way, I’m not just defending my church; our numbers have grown modestly over the past couple of years, too.)  Is there more to a church than sheer numbers?

We all live in the shadow of megachurches and semi-megachurches that have become the standard by which all other churches are measured.  If you live in Chicago, you will constantly compare your church to Willow Creek; if you live in Orange County, it’s Saddleback; and so on.

And while numbers may offer us some information about a church’s health (obviously, if everyone is leaving, then something must be wrong), there are many other barometers that measure a church’s well-being.  Here are just a few questions to consider:

  1. What is the quality of fellowship among church participants?  Is there authentic community happening, or is it just a chance gathering of anonymous strangers?
  2. What is the impact the church is having on its community?  Is it fulfilling the great commission and the great commandment?  Is it serving people and sharing the good news?
  3. Is the church faithful to its Lord, as attested in Scripture, or to some other standard?
  4. Does the church’s worship draw people into an encounter with the triune God?  Does it facilitate the believer’s praise and worship?
  5. What are the intangibles?  Are the participants rejoicing in the Lord?  Is the Spirit of God present among them?

I challenge church members and leaders alike: Let’s not get hung up on just numbers, and let’s certainly not use numbers as a source of boasting!  As Paul said, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14 TNIV)  And that excludes numbers, too.


2 thoughts on “Hung Up on Numbers?

  1. Pingback: Happy Anniversary to Me « Sinaiticus

  2. Ray,
    hope all is well with you and your family! I agree with your comments on numbers, a focus on anything other than each of us’s earthly attempt to do Gods will is miss guided. But as for me, I find it a daily challenge to seek out what (if i can)it is that i must be doing!

    Praise the Lord for his son Jesus!

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