Attending a conference, denominational synod, or church planting seminar, you do not have to wait long before you are discussing numbers and attendance. It’s not even that people specifically ask how big your church is. It is more that the question: “How’s it going?” either has the implied meaning of ‘how many people are attending your church?’ or we instinctively answer with statistics. I do not yet know what to make of this instinct in myself or that when I ask about your ministry all I am really interested in is how many people are coming. But I know it is not healthy, and I am fairly certain it is not biblical. Paul does not mention the size of a church once in his epistles, apart from celebrating their growth. And in Christ’s seven letters to the churches in Revelation it is the unimpressive and beleaguered churches that are commended (Smyrna and Philadelphia), while the influential and powerful churches are rebuked (Sardis and Laodicea).
Discussing the place of numbers in evaluating our churches and ministries, Marshall and Payne write, “Numbers can be a blunt instrument for evaluation. On their own, they don’t tell the whole story. Good numbers can be a sign of spiritual health, or they can indicate that you are running a non-demanding, people-pleasing ministry that lots of people like” (The Vine Project). Numbers do not tell the whole story, yet the way we speak and evaluate each other’s ministries I wonder if we actually believe that. After all, it is far more impressive to say your average Sunday attendance is closing in on 1000 than to admit that you are seeing little maturity in your church. Read that quote from The Vine Project again: numbers alone indicate nothing. Let’s not forget that Joel Osteen pastors the biggest church in America. So in this short post I hope to outline a few of my thoughts on and concerns regarding numbers.
They can be misleading
I wrote a post a couple of years ago asking if Satan can grow the church. I was not referring to pastors selling their souls or children to the devil in order to have bigger churches—though I reckon some might be willing to do that. In the post I looked at Jesus’ parable about the wheats and the weeds in Matthew 13. The conclusion I drew was that Satan is able to mislead God’s people by giving them what they desire most, so long as it draws them away from finding satisfaction and significance in Christ. I concluded that post by writing, “[Satan] revels in a church where attendance is the mark of faith and its leaders worship growth.” We must remember that we may grow a large ministry only to have most of it ripped up and burnt. The warning for everyone here is to pursue genuine gospel growth, and if you read the other ‘kingdom parables’ in Matthew 13 you will learn that that is often slow.
They make a cruel master
When the first question regarding an event or service is, “How many people came?” you are setting yourself up for discouragement, or perhaps false confidence. On paper alone attendance is powerful, both to puff up and to pull down. Forgetting for a second the trap mentioned in my first point, let us consider a second trap, one that Satan I am sure also sets: discouragement. Consider the statement, “Only 20 people attended the prayer meeting.” Sure, that might be disappointing when you consider what percentage of your church 20 people represents, but 20 Christians did gather to pray. They surrendered their time and submitted their requests to our Father in heaven, and surely that cannot be an absolute discouragement. But when numbers are the primary measure of our ministries we will be crushed by disappointment and grow discouraged, often in spite of the work of God before our eyes.
They indicate trends not transformation
This is an important point that brings us back to Marshall and Payne’s above. Numbers can indicate if the church is growing, on a plateau, or in decline, but little more. When attendance is dropping we must ask some hard questions about that ministry or event. If the numbers have stayed exactly the same we need consider change and innovation. And if there is a growing trend we should ask if we are merely filling seats. However, in all three cases the numbers reveal trends and not conversions or Christian maturity. Therefore, in closing, I agree that numbers can play a useful role in helping us evaluate our ministries, through the force of undeniable statistics. But we cannot let numbers deceive us with false growth, nor can we allow numbers to rule over and discourage us.