The Numbers Game (Part 1)

“How’s your church doing?” They ask you. “In what particular way?” you respond.  Usually, somewhere in the conversation the question will come down to “How many are attending” and whether or not the church is growing.

Actually, there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve had to say honestly that I don’t know.  You see, even the “numbers” and “growth” question is complex.  I’ve noticed that it is normal for blurbs about speakers and websites to describe churches as “growing” and I can’t remember the last time I saw someone advertise their church as “shrinking” or even “plateauing.”

It’s complex

  1. We can have lots of new people coming in and even see some of them making a profession of faith but what if they don’t follow through with baptism and commit as members?
  2. A growing church will have periods of time when it plateaus or even loses people. There may even be times when people leave the church because of the challenges they experience that come with that growth.
  3. Vice-versa a church a declining church may have periods of time when its attendance increases a little and that may mask the real story.
  4. Size is relative isn’t it? There are a lot of other factors.  A church in a small village that draws its congregation entirely from the locality because that’s its mission has constraints that will affect size which a church in a large city does not. A local village church with 40 members may be having a proportionately greater gospel impact than a city church drawing its 400 members from across the whole city.

So far I’ve assumed that asking about size and numbers is a reasonable and right question. Yet even my introduction may suggest a little unease.  Stephen Kneale helpfully exposes us to the danger of looking at numbers in his post here.

The Danger with measuring by numbers

If we become focused on success in terms of numbers then:

  1. If things seem to be going well then we become proud. It becomes a source of idolatry
  2. We are rarely satisfied -we are only ever looking forward to the next hurdle, the next big number barrier to break through. We are likely to lose joy in ministry as it just becomes an exercise.
  3. We may begin to think about the congregation as just “numbers” losing sense of who each individual is and their pastoral needs. This will be especially true when attendance breaks the 200 barrier and we cannot remember everyone’s name and biography anymore.
  4. If we stop growing or never grow, then we will be crushed.
  5. We can end up creating our own legalistic burden as we set goals for ourselves which are in any case outside of our control.
  6. We may be tempted to appease people thinking purely in terms of what will please them and keep them coming sacrificing real discipleship for attendance. My wife over the years has developed an instinctive response which is something along the lines of “What’s the point of them coming if they aren’t actually hearing and responding to God?”

So, getting into the numbers game is dangerous. However, as we will see in the next two parts, there are good reasons for talking about numbers as well.