Christian Spitting Contest: churches and numbers
I’m starting to believe the American church will never give up using church service attendance numbers as their primary measure of success (though how cool or hip your church is seems to be growing as a second factor). For all the books that have been written on finding new ways to “score” the performance of a church, the size of a church still invariably comes up in the first five minutes of any conversation between pastors.
And before I come off as “holier-than-thou”, I admit I’m often no different. When our attendance number goes up a few weeks in a row I feel good and when it goes down I feel like a failure. I find myself making excuses for the size of our church and talking about how we’re growing. As much as I want to avoid it I get sucked into the scorecard mentality so quickly.
I used to be anti-megachurch, or even large church (how much of that was because I wasn’t leading one, I don’t know). With God’s help I’m trying to give up caring about Sunday attendance figures–for myself or anyone else. Here are three things that are driving that.
We have a mandate, not a scorecard.
Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to teach them to obey everything he had commanded. He did not command us to count attendance. There are churches of every size making disciples and there are churches of every size who are not. The question we should be asking is not “how many people are at your church” but “are you making disciples in and through your church?” What does that mean? Well, if we as pastors can’t answer that question we have a huge problem. Church leaders are called to lead the way in making disciples, so we better know what that entails. If we can’t tell stories of disciple-making from our churches than we are being disobedient to our Lord–whether we have 50 or 50,000.
Growth is not our responsibility.
There are some awesome stories of numerical growth in Scripture. Numerical growth is not bad! When we’re making disciples and being a faithful church it is very likely we will see numerical growth. But the growth is not our responsibility, nor should we take the credit when it happens. Jesus said he’d build his church. We can work to create environments that God can use to grow us spiritually and numerically, but we don’t make the growth happen–at least not if we’re a faithful church. Let’s create environments where real discipleship can happen and then give the glory to God when growth happens.
We are all on the same team.
Underneath the focus on numbers are two drivers–insecurity and importance. As pastors we’re often insecure about the work we’re giving our lives to. Maybe we don’t want to say it, but when we can gloat over numbers it makes us feel like we’re worth something. Second, for churches using attendance numbers gives us a way of ranking the importance of our church in relation to others. Many of us pastors work hard against those attitudes in our hearts but they can be stubborn. These underlying drivers of the focus on numbers are really problematic. On a personal level, we should be seeking to please God and finding our significance there. But on a church level, those attitudes work directly against the truth that we are all in this together. Our focus on numbers sets us up as competitors rather than teammates. This is something many (at least in the Denver metro area) are working to get past through action, but we need to keep working on our hearts too. We are brothers and sisters and we need to pray the Holy Spirit helps us to live like that’s true.
Numbers in church life aren’t going to go away. But it’s time that we focus our attention on our mandate, leave the growth to God, and learn to cheer each other on. I’ll start by working on myself.