Some time ago during a conference I sat at a table with another minister. He didn’t know that I was a pastor, and I chose not to tell him right away. We started talking about his church, how long he’d been there, how things were going for his congregation. His answers were illuminating: he talked about the size of his church; how big they were when he joined the staff; how big they had become in the intervening time. His words were all about numbers, and the more he talked, the less I wanted to tell him I too was a pastor. I didn’t want to talk about the size of my church. I didn’t want to explain the goings on in our fellowship. I didn’t want to have a deeper conversation with him about church because I strongly felt, and still feel, that the criteria I use to determine the health of my church is fundamentally, incompatibly different from his.
I don’t think that this minister is the only pastor who defaults to a discussion of numbers when talking about his church. Numbers are easy to talk about. Numbers appear to show, quickly, whether or not a ministry is successful. Numbers provide a nice and abstract way to compare one church with another. But in these criteria lay a problem, because really describing the health of a church should never be easy, quick, or abstract.
Allow me to propose the following thought to you: numbers are the easiest, but most unreliable, indicator of a church’s health. And it is precisely in their quickness, ease, and abstraction that they skirt the real ingredients which represent a healthy church.
First, numbers are a better indicator of popularity than health. As an example, consider many of the VERY large churches in North America (and around the world, I might add), whose size seems entirely out of proportion with their goofy theology (read: Health and Wealth). In these situations 2 Timothy 4:3 comes to mind, where Paul proclaims that “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear”(NIV). Numbers, in this case, are an indication not of genuine growth but of popular heresy.
As an alternative, consider the fact that sometimes the hiring of a minister who is faithful to the gospel results in the loss of members. On at least one recorded occasion Jesus’ teaching had the effect that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). Christ’s preaching was hard, at times, to swallow, and I suspect that if no one is ever uncomfortable when hearing a sermon, then the Gospel has been misplaced in the process. Is it right in such circumstances to measure the success or health of a ministry by the number of people attending? I think not, because success in such circumstances is not a matter of increase, but of faithfulness (in this case, to preaching the gospel). The subversive gospel of Christ is guaranteed to be unpopular with the world.
Second, the focus on numbers compromises the minister’s call to faithfulness; it corrupts the minister’s heart for the gospel. Rather than focusing on the health and care of the flock, the minister is focused on increasing the size of the flock. As a result of this pressure toward numerical growth ministers will feel a conflict in their hearts between their faithfulness to God and the need to appear successful. The minister will be tempted to preach what people ‘want to hear’ so that the pews will be filled, the tithe increase, and that building project can get underway. This is an unmitigated evil.
Third, a focus on numbers distracts the church from her call to obedience. In exactly the same way as her ministers, the church is also called to faithfulness and not growth. In the parable that captions all of Jesus’ ministry, he describes his preaching as an indiscriminate sowing of seeds—many of them are fruitless while some are abundant (cf. Matt 13). The message of the parable is two-part: first, we are called to obedience. God sows seed in our lives, and our job is to be receptive soil to God’s word. Then, it is the seed that bears fruit in our lives through our obedience. We are not required to ‘create’ the fruit. The second message is this: as co-sowers with Christ, we too sow the gospel; but, as Christ, we also sow indiscriminately (without concern for the effect of our ministry), and we are not responsible for the fruit. Our only job is obedience to God’s command. The growth, or fruitfulness, is God’s job. Therefore a focus on numbers as a congregation ultimately distracts the church from what it ought to be doing as a church. Faithful obedience is the call for both individual ministers and corporate churches, and to pursue numbers for the sake of numbers is to confuse our work with God’s.
Fourth, a focus on numbers creates false confidence in the members of a church. People look at the many faces in the pews on Sundays and think, “Oh, things are going well!” But this is misleading, because if people take numerical representation as the chief measure of success then they are not evaluating their church based on its faithfulness to the gospel. While it is true that things may actually be going well, they also might be merely popular. There is a further effect of this false confidence: if the goal of the church is numerical growth, what happens when the church grows numerically? Do we stop being church at that point? Do we just keep getting bigger? Do we relax and announce, “We’ve made it!”? No, because the purpose of the church is not numerical growth, and we are evaluated not by our size but by our faithfulness.
Fifth and finally, a focus on numerical growth fails to distinguish between absolute growth and Kingdom growth. Consider this scenario: a new minister comes to a congregation. Through inspired preaching, the new energy that new ministry brings, and some innovative programs, the church grows in numbers. Problem: is the numerical growth of the church merely drawing Christians from other churches, or are these new Christians? That’s the fundamental difference between absolute and Kingdom growth. Granted, as one wiser and older minister once said to me, “A church with a vision draws people,” and it is to be assumed that some Christians will drift to a different church because of the faithful obedience of that fellowship. There must be some allowance for people to move from church to church. However, while in the best case this is momentum, in the worst it is theft, and in no way is it growth—at least not the kind of growth we should be pursuing.
Earlier I spoke about the false confidence that numbers create in a congregation, and this language of confidence is instructive. In Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, he is at pains to contrast the false Corinthian confidence (i.e., boasting) in worldly and fleshly criteria with the criteria of God. The Corinthians want to look and appear good, and Paul employs the evidence of his own life against them to show that worldly confidence is baseless. His argument peaks in 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul speaks about the mysterious thorn in his flesh that Christ refuses to heal or remove. Into this situation Christ speaks this word: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response is this: “Therefore I will boast [i.e., take confidence] all the more in my weaknesses!” And it is there that Paul places his unprecedented confidence—in his broken and battered body, his ‘thorny’ weakness, his suffering ministry. Of course, it is not truly unprecedented, because precedent was established in Christ who changed our world not through what appeared strong but through the weakness of the cross.
So I ask again: Where have we placed confidence in our churches? Is it in the size of the churches? Do we consider the easiest criteria, or the deeper ones? Boasting—confidence—in numbers is Corinthian boasting; it is worldly, false, and misleading. Does this mean we should never speak of numbers? Of course not—while misleading, in their proper context numbers are still an important part of a church’s composition. Properly contextualized, they can be helpful in explaining a minister’s situation and goals and (sometimes) successes. But we must never place confidence in the numbers of people in the pews.
It remains for me to explain what I believe are the proper criteria for a conversation about church, and I think there are three questions which should guide our conversations about church. First: Do your people pray? Second: Do they give? Third: Are there new believers in your midst? Allow me, briefly, to discuss these three questions and speak a bit about my own church in the process.
Do your people pray? I am convinced that the single most important indicator of the health of a church is the church’s prayer life. A church that prays is a spiritual force in the universe. Contrast a thousand people in a Sunday service who do not pray with three aged and blind praying women in a church basement, and the blind, aging, powerless women will prevail every time. Praying, I firmly believe, reflects the fundamental neediness of a congregation toward God, because the church that prays is relying on God’s power and not their own. How is my church doing? I am pleased to say that we are learning to pray together. They are becoming passionate about seeking God. We are small, but we are learning to be faithful in prayer, and I am glad to tell people that I am part of a praying church.
Do your people give? Giving reflects the ownership that your community feels for the ministry of the church. Paul, again in his second letter to the Corinthians, speaks about their giving—he challenges them to give because it tests “the sincerity of your love” (2 Cor 8:8). In the same vein, at 1 John 3:16 John claims that the truth and action of our Christian love is displayed in our compassionate use of possessions. What I believe this means is that the giving of a congregation is the visible expression of our faithfulness. How is the giving of my church? Well, when I first came to my church (some two years ago) there were three or four people who were responsible for the majority of the giving. Their tithes supported our fellowship. But now, as we’ve matured, the giving is spread across the congregation. No one person is solely responsible for the support of our fellowship, and in giving my church is learning to be a community—a sharing group of people who together bear the responsibility for supporting their church. I am a member of a giving church, and while of course we have room to grow, I take their present, faithful giving as a sign that they are learning what it means to be church together.
Lastly, are there new believers in your midst? Is your church doing Kingdom work? Is it moving to advance the gospel, making disciples, baptizing and teaching the nations (Matt 28)? Such things are the mandate of the church. And how do we accomplish this? According to Jesus, it is through the faithful sowing of his word. So, are there new believers in my church? This final question is, for us, a challenge to action; here my church must grow. And as I have encouraged (and will continue to encourage) my congregation in their prayers and giving, I must also now challenge them to grow for the Kingdom; not because we want more numbers, but because if we really believe that we are messengers of news which changes our world, then we desperately need to share it with others.
And that’s the kind of conversation I want to have about church.