The Numbers Game (Part 2): Success or faithfulness

In part 1, we saw the dangers in terms of trying to measure how a church is doing in terms of numerical success. But does that mean that we can’t ever really know how things are going?

Tim Keller is very helpful on this. He starts his book “Center Church” by describing how people often try to measure how they are doing as a church by counting conversions, members etc. He says that:

“This view of ministry is on the rise because the expressive individualism of modern culture has deeply eroded loyalty to institutions and communities. Individuals are now ‘spiritual consumers’ who will go to a church only if (and as long as) its worship and public speaking are immediately riveting and attractive. Therefore, ministers who can create powerful religious experiences and draw large number of people on the power of their personal appeal are rewarded with large growing churches. That is one way to evaluate a ministry.”[1]

Put that way, it doesn’t really sound that attractive does it? This takes us back to the central thesis of our first article that the numbers game can become deeply, dangerously idolatrous. So, Keller notes that:

“In reaction to this over-emphasis on quantifiable success many have countered that the only true criterion for ministers in faithfulness. All that matters in this view is that a minister be sound in doctrine, godly in character and faithful in preaching and in pastoring people. But the ‘faithful – not successful –‘ backlash is an oversimplification that has dangers as well.”[2]

Keller notes that the “demand that ministers be not just sincere and faithful but competent as well is not a modern innovation” citing Charles Haddon Spurgeon as one who called for more than just zeal.[3]

Keller’s answer is to offer a third alternative to “either success or faithfulness.”[4] It’s called “fruitfulness”, something that Jesus himself calls his disciples to (John 15:8).[5]

I find Keller’s distinctions and suggestions helpful here.  You see, it is all too easy to be successful without being fruitful.  There’s the risk that by methods and techniques I can grow a ministry without the Gospel having any real impact. Indeed, this is central to Paul’s teaching and warnings in 1 Corinthians 3. Something may look good on the outside but will quickly burn away under the test of judgement fire.

However, whilst it is God who gives the increase, we do not say that in a fatalistic way.  As we’ve seen in previous faithroots studies, the Christian view of God’s Sovereignty and predestination does not take us to fatalism and does not exclude proper human responsibility.

God sovereignly works through us and there is a part for us to play in missions.  That’s why we bother to train and equip preachers. It’s why we seek feedback not just about doctrinal faithfulness but about things like how we came across, voice projection, variation in tone, mannerisms, use of helpful illustrations etc. It’s why we work hard at things like welcoming. It’s why we review what is and isn’t working.  For example, at one point in the 20th century, the 6pm time slot was a great time to hold a Gospel service. However, by the end of the 20th Century those who faithfully held an evening “Gospel Service” found that they were preaching to the dwindling converted. Some insisted that they must stick with the method. They thought that by doing so they were being faithful and if their halls were empty then it was primarily down to the hardness of hearts and God’s Sovereign decision not to add to their number. Yet elsewhere, people were inviting friends to meals and Christianity Explored Courses were the Gospel was faithfully proclaimed and people were putting their trust in Christ. I would suggest that the latter were being faithful and fruitful. Indeed there is a risk that we can even think we are being faithful when in fact we are making an idol out of a method or style.

So, by talking about “fruitfulness” we guard against a “results” approach where all that matter is “does it work in terms of numbers.” However, we are pushed to take responsibility for what we do and how we do it.  And, as we will see in part 3, I do believe that this includes some analysis of numbers.

[1] Tim Keller, Center Church, 13.

[2] Tim Keller, Center Church, 13.

[3] Tim Keller, Center Church, 13.

[4] Tim Keller, Center Church, 13.

[5] Tim Keller, Center Church, 13.