What statistics really count in the church? Baptisms? Attendance? Or something much more vital?
By Jim Putman
I have been in many meetings over the years with so-called “big dogs” in the American Christian world . . . and I have left these gatherings feeling very dissatisfied. These meetings often sound spiritual and may even come from good hearts, but they often leave me feeling like something big was missed.
The purpose of meeting usually is good: How do we win people to Jesus? Most everyone acknowledges our culture is falling apart, that many Americans are leaving the faith and are becoming dechurched as a lifestyle or are outright saying they have absolutely no interest in Christianity.
Meetings typically discuss ways of reaching large numbers of people in big settings (such as using great speakers, high-quality music, etc.). I sometimes question whether it’s my place to remind these leaders that most of America was already “converted” in this way and to look at where that has gotten us.
Disciples, Not Just Converts
Trying to convert people was never Jesus’ goal, if by that you mean creating an environment where people are drawn emotionally to make a one-time decision based on promises to provide “Hell insurance” and a relationship with a God who will give them everything they always wanted (i.e., health and wealth). This kind of evangelism has served to create a group of people who look much the same as unbelievers—that is, a group that is just as addicted, depressed, divorced, etc. These kinds of Christians don’t live satisfying lives; they don’t live lives that are attractive to the lost.
Our church (Real Life Ministries, Post Falls, Idaho) and network (The Relational Discipleship Network) does a Discipleshift miniconference with leaders from across America and around the world. We start by teaching the true mission of the church: to make disciples, not converts, of Jesus. We define what it is to be a mature disciple of Jesus. We ask these church leaders what percentage of people in their church are mature by this definition. The rather consistent answer is maybe 10 percent. We then observe that this means only 10 percent are experiencing the abundant life as Jesus would define it and sharing it with others. We have them determine the percentages of those who would be less mature, but growing, by the definitions we give them (and so on). These leaders typically say most of their adult attendees are spiritually immature . . . like infants or children. We typically conclude that about 70 percent of Christians are extremely immature, which means the world’s interactions with Christians are usually not very positive.
The non-Christian sees the average “Christian” as self-centered, legalistic, or outright ignorant or rebellious to the Lord’s authority in their lives. Is it any wonder most unbelievers are disinterested in the One these people say they represent—Jesus? At the same time, is it any wonder those who are a part of the church are often hurt by those within it and decide to leave it (since most churchgoers are immature people who are defined by the world and shaped accordingly)?
Some say they love Jesus but don’t like the church because “those people” do this or that (just fill in the blank). Not only does it say something about the church of which they are a part—that it’s filled with immature spiritual brats—but the statement also exposes the speaker’s own spiritual immaturity and lack of understanding. It means they were not taught or do not believe that the church is God’s idea, for part of being in the church is to grow to love those who hurt you, just as Jesus modeled. The world often rejects the “wrong” Jesus because they haven’t seen the “real” Jesus through his body, the church.
I was talking with a church leader not long ago about a heartbreaking statistic. According to one study, more than 85 percent of children brought up in the church leave between the ages 18 and 24, most never to return. My counterpart quoted a new study that indicated many people actually return to the church later in life. I said it really doesn’t matter if the current study is true or not. A biblical worldview study by the same organization revealed that only a small percentage of believers answer basic essential doctrinal questions accurately. Only a very small percentage of those who say they go to church believe what the Bible says about tithing, sexuality, that Jesus is the only way to salvation, that the Bible contains absolute truth, that Hell is real, etc.
Connected, Not Just Consuming
Very few believers “do life” with other believers or share their faith. Thom S. Rainer has pointed out that only a small percentage of Christians will ever see someone come to Christ through their direct participation. Most Christians don’t share their faith, and at best, they simply invite someone to church so that their pastor can share his faith.
Only a small percentage of Christians serve the church body; most are looking for a church that best fits their needs—they are consumers! The most recent studies show that if they do start attending a church, it’s only about once a month. So does it matter if they attend a church if they look no different than the world? Does it matter whether they are part of the 90 percent of Christians who lack any real maturity, or part of the 85 percent of kids who leave after high school, probably never to return? Either way, what does it really matter?
My point is this: Trying to create what has already been done—and which didn’t work—isn’t the answer. In our church and our Discipleshift conferences, we stress that if we correctly understand that we are called to make mature disciples, but we choose not to use the model for making disciples found in Scripture, we will fail. We cannot divorce the teachings of Jesus from the methods of Jesus and get the results of Jesus.
Most people want to go to church rather than be a part of one. We claim we are too busy, so we try to figure out a shortcut, but it won’t work. It takes time to have relationships where people not only hear the message but see it lived out. It takes humility, vulnerability, transparency, accountability, and support to become mature. A newborn isn’t placed in his or her room and told where the fridge and the toilet are, etc., and then left alone to mature. Neither can we make a disciple by merely having a class; there is no way a weekly class that is 60 to 90 minutes in length can counter what our culture is doing every day.
Measuring Maturity, Not Just Baptisms and Attendance
So here is the bottom line: Merely counting how many people are baptized doesn’t tell you much. Merely counting the number of people sitting in chairs over a weekend doesn’t show you the whole picture. We need to change our scorecard because what we’ve been doing hasn’t gotten us very far.
What if we properly defined maturity and created systems and relationships that helped combine what happens on a weekend, possibly by coupling church newbies and Christian neophytes with mature leaders and helping to build relationships for the purpose of making mature believers? What if we measured how many mature disciple makers were emerging instead of how many people attended a service on a weekend?
If you start increasing the number of disciples who can make disciples, I think it would grow your numbers in weekend services and in small groups exponentially. It would mean you are releasing an army of spiritually mature believers on a community, rather than merely gathering a crowd of spectators.
We could still measure baptisms and attendance, but it would be done differently. This approach would be better than someone accepting Christ because of a sermon. We would still rejoice and celebrate when a Christian shared their faith and a person is baptized. But we would also celebrate that a person accepted Christ in a relational way through a disciple rather than at a weekend service. We would celebrate people being invited by their friends who also shared their faith, and then invited them to their small group. We would celebrate the numbers of leaders emerging more heavily than just how many came.
Again, I am not saying we wouldn’t count baptisms and attendance, but that we would also count other things. Yes, it’s great when 100 people come forward, but it would be much better if those 100 were met by mature, regular, everyday people who were ready to do life with them. That approach would lead to more believers, and more mature believers.
Jim Putman serves as the founder and senior pastor of Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho. He is the author of Church Is a Team Sport, Real-Life Discipleship, and The Power of Together, and co-author of DiscipleShift.