Counting Sheep

By Steve Carr

“Of course God cares about numbers. There’s a book in the Bible called Numbers!”

“Each number represents a soul, and God desires every one of them.”

These statements are simplistic but serve as an apologetic for both tracking congregational size and aiming for larger attendance numbers. They affirm what we seem to know innately—that bigger is obviously better when it comes to the church. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The more people in the pews, the more ministry being accomplished, and the better off the kingdom of God.

As a student of the church growth movement, I accepted this model. Since the beginning of my vocational ministry, attendance figures were the primary rubric of my ministerial success. When I served as an associate minister on the staff of a fast-growing suburban megachurch, every event I oversaw was numerically monitored to ensure I was facilitating growth. This obsession over numbers was inescapable: view the pages of this very magazine, which spends multiple issues tracking our movement’s largest congregations; and listen to conversations between fellow ministers, where the commencing moments of dialogue always include the question, “So how many people do you have now?”

But for the past five years, I have ministered with an urban church plant of a few dozen people. I find myself working harder than ever yet reaping a much smaller harvest. As a result, attendance figures have begun to rub me the wrong way—existing as a defeating reminder of my pastoral inadequacy.

But some of my greatest ministry triumphs have occurred in this church, and so I live in tension: in order to affirm God’s work in our congregation, I feel obligated to produce an increasing head count to justify his moving. I’m left with three choices: (1) produce “preacher’s counts,” generously overselling our numbers by rounding up to the nearest 10 or 20 (or 100, if the Spirit so moves); (2) reject my reliance on attendance as a measure of success; or (3) get some more people.

Let’s assume that fudging statistics is not a desirable option. Is there an acceptable position within the spectrum of those second and third options? How passionately should we pursue numerical growth?

 

Biblically Speaking

As people of the Book, we feel obligated to proof text our beliefs, and we do so even when it comes to numbers. Yet while the Scriptures are filled with references to counting, there are times when we misinterpret the significance of these texts to justify our actions.

The most common example of this is found in Acts 2. Here we find not only the clearest explanation of the plan of salvation (Acts 2:38, 39) but a numerical response to the plea. Luke records the 3,000 individuals who responded to Peter’s sermon. Thus, some of us reason, God is interested in a precise accounting of who responds to the gospel. While “angels rejoice when a soul is saved,” we need to clarify some of our misconceptions.

First, some deem these 3,000 as “the first megachurch.” While the church universal started on this day, these converts did not automatically form the first congregation. Pentecost was a Jewish festival where tens of thousands of worshippers descended upon Jerusalem to worship at the temple. The context of Acts 2 implies that these first converts to Christ lived all over the Roman world, likely dispersing to their towns after the experience. True, the church in Jerusalem rises after Pentecost, but that phenomenon also tilled the fields for the spread of the gospel around the world.

Second, some readers neglect to view the 3,000 number in light of the whole of Scripture. Luke is showcasing the miraculous moving of God over 14 centuries. In Exodus 32:28, after the sin surrounding the golden calf, Moses ordered the Levites to execute the idolaters. On the very day the Lord gave his people the Law, 3,000 Israelites lost their lives. The response at Pentecost is a biblical lesson on redemption: when the Law was delivered, 3,000 people died; when God released his Spirit on the church, 3,000 people experienced life. When our Western minds are fixated on the tabulation of Acts 2:41, we overlook this second lesson of salvation.

We must be cautious of using Scripture to justify our fixation on attendance numbers because there is always another biblical perspective. For example, where does Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep from Luke 15 fit into this conversation? And what about 2 Samuel 24? We may remember this passage because David boldly declared to Araunah that he would not sacrifice offerings that cost him nothing. But we may overlook the fact that when David took a census of his army (conducted to affirm his kingdom’s earthly power), it brought a curse that cost the lives of 70,000 people.

 

Tracking the Growth

Beyond hermeneutical issues, my concern is that if numbers remain our dominant measure of success, we will cease to examine the means by which growth occurs. It is critical that we explore how our churches are growing.

While Restoration Movement churches are still committed to seeking and saving the lost, I would contend much of the congregational growth in past decades is derived from a reallocation of believers from other churches. This has come from two sources, the first being denominational transplants. A Pew Forum study showed that more than 40 percent of American worshippers have switched church loyalty in their lifetime. The ideals of our movement are foundational to those of broader Evangelicalism, and our simplistic approach to biblical Christianity is attractive to church consumers.

But the second source of transfer growth appears to be coming from other Restoration Movement churches. I do not believe this is “sheep stealing.” It’s simply a result of the American cultural trend toward suburban sprawl. As Christians moved farther from cities, those churches within the urban core and first suburbs (communities which developed soon after the World War II) struggled to retain members. The result yielded larger Christian churches in the exurbs that are an amalgamation of attendees from other smaller congregations.

While this trend is not necessarily bad, it has the potential to distract us from a truly evangelistic focus. My fear is this: if numerical growth is continually lauded and perceived as the ultimate goal, we will program our efforts solely to produce those results. We will be inclined to claim victory when we actually are less successful in the work of the gospel than those before us.

 

Numbers Plus

So how can we avoid this stumbling block?

I do not advocate dismissing attendance figures altogether. We are still a movement, which implies we are advancing, so we must measure progress. But we cannot rely on these numbers alone to determine how well our congregations are performing. Perhaps we should begin to gauge success not only numerically but with an equation that factors in the surrounding population. If we did so, the Croton Church of Christ in rural Ohio, whose average worship attendance is roughly half the size of its small town, would be deemed more successful than a large congregation in a burgeoning suburban community.

Our mathematics must also include the receptivity of the gospel where the church ministers. The soil of the Bible Belt is much more fertile than that of the East Coast. Therefore, Christian churches like Forefront on Manhattan Island or The Verve on the Las Vegas Strip, despite being in the midst of large population centers, could be viewed as more extraordinary because they are thriving in locations where the gospel rarely does.

There are still other figures that we could include in our equation, including giving, real estate holdings, number of Timothys produced, etc. It could take years to perfect an objective system, but with the technology at our disposal we should be able to manage it.

If this sounds silly, let’s ask if it is any more ridiculous than judging a church’s proficiency by a digit or by immediately following a church’s name with the statement, “a 20,000-member church”?

If we must count, we ought to deal with those numbers shrewdly, recognizing there are always multiple factors at work. We should simply expect that our congregations remain faithful to the Lord and to ministry in their community so that numbers don’t become an idol in our movement.

 

Steve Carr serves as teaching minister with Echo Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. His website is www.houseofcarr.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Jim Tune
    January 13, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    Thanks, Steve. I believe we must count — but count right things! It’s definitely about more than noses and nickels. Appreciate your thoughts!

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