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Not By the Numbers

by Stephen Hebert on Tuesday - 17 July 2007

in Ministry

This post was inspired by a post by Skye Jethani that I drew attention to earlier: The Measure of a Ministry. Check it out!

It seems that ever since Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name…” (Matthew 18:20), we’ve been concerned about numbers. Churches go to crazy lengths to figure out the number of people attending their services. They invite marketing folks to come in and comment on how they could brand themselves better. Yes, I said “brand,” and I absolutely mean it! Churches brand…deal with it. They keep lists and roles and ask you to sign things. All in the name of numbers.

What’s in the Numbers?

When I say “numbers,” I’m not talking about an Old Testament book. I’m talking about data—hard, raw facts. Several of the churches that I have frequented over the years (I admit, I’ve never become a member of any church) have been a bit obsessive about numbers.

The assumption must be that numbers are a measure of a church’s health and vitality. Somehow, the sheer volume of people rolling in through the front door indicates how well this particular institution is doing.

The math is pretty simple:

  • More People in Pews = More People Hearing Message
  • More People in Pews = More Cash in Basket

Outside of this, I can’t imagine why numbers would be so important. Unless, of course, we consider the egomaniacal pastor who derives self-worth not from his identity in Christ, but from his identity as the dude who packs the pews. Perish the thought, but they do exist.

Skye Jethani sums up the situation this way:

Dallas Willard has said that most churches are designed to grow their ABCs (attendance, buildings, and cash) not disciples. The ABCs form an unholy trinity; a cycle that cannot be escaped easily. Sunday attendance is vital and meticulously measured because that is what funds the church—people give money on Sunday. The money is necessary to pay for institutional needs such as buildings, staff, and programs. And, of course, these tangibles are needed to attract more religious consumers to pay for more buildings, staff, and programs.

I think that’s pretty true. But, musings on the ABC’s themselves are for another post. In the end, I’m not sure what numbers really tell us.

What Matters More Than Numbers?

Okay, so if attendance on Sunday is not the best measure of a church’s worth, then what is? Well, that’s a very tricky question. As Jethani points out, “life transformation” (buzz word!) is typically stated as the goal of many churches. How does this life transformation take place? One word: relationship.

Throughout my posts on this blog I have attempted to stress the importance of relationship (I suppose that’s my buzz word). I very much believe that God is a relational God and that he made us to be relational beings. We long for relationships with friends, family, and lovers. We long for companionship. We long for touch. In spite of the fact that most people would agree with this statement: “People are so unreliable,” we seem to be generally interested in hanging out with people. Indeed, biblically-speaking, people are sinners…yet we long to be with them! [Perhaps it makes us feel better to be around our peers…]

In addition to these inter-human relationships, there is a greater relationship that God wants for us—a relationship with Him! The Incarnation is proof of this, in my mind. God very much wanted to get down on our level so that we could aspire to get up on His.

What does all of this have to do with the measuring of church health? Quite a lot. If relationships are so important (and I think that they are), then this is what a church should be stressing. Most Sundays I walk into my run-of-the-mill mini-megachurch. I see the slick band playing some very well-rehearsed tunes. I see two large projection screens on either side of the stage. Is this a service or a concert? What is relational about 1,000+ people in a room together. Most Sundays I have difficulty finding anyone that I know. Worse, I have difficulty finding anyone that really knows me.

Where does that work happen? On the small group level.

If you’re interested in attendance for attendance sake—measure it at the small group level, not at the corporate gathering level. Though, I still wouldn’t condone this. Our church tried it with its high school ministry. As a volunteer with only 4 or 5 regulars in my group, I feel like it only created a feeling of inadequacy. All of the sudden I was focusing more on how to get people to the small group than how to make the time more worthwhile.

The same happens to the whole-church. It seems so many churches have gotten so lost in the glitz and glamor of attracting huge numbers, that they’ve lost sight of the reason they are really there.

Rather than wondering what to measure, ask: “Why measure?” It seems to me that the most effective church will use its resources most efficiently to achieve its goal. If the goal is the ABC cycle of death, then, by all means, hire people to brand your church. If the goal is to affect lives and change the community and be a positive force in the world: then focus your resources on building relationships and community.

Update(s)

  • Alan Knox, citing this David Black post, posits a great little exercise: “…ask yourself, ‘Do I understand the church and the church meeting through studying Scripture, through tradition that I’ve been taught, through business models, or another method?'”

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