Numbers are an interesting entity. They, in a very real sense, make the world go round. They allow us to measure and assess. They allow us to comprehend the reality we see before us. They are important and necessary to function and relate to our surroundings.
Think about it. We have telephone numbers so people can reach us. We have numbered addresses so that people can find our home or business. Don’t you like having an actual address rather than having to find the yellow house with the black front door about half-way down Main Street? The amount we have in checking and savings lets us know how we’re doing financially. And the numbers most important and essential are those found on the clock on your wall or on your wrist, letting us know when it’s time to get up, to go to a meeting, to take a break, to go home, to go to bed.
Numbers are everywhere and a part of everything we do. They are essential.
The tragedy for the Church is that numbers have come to dominate our process of assessment. They define our churches. They measure how well (or how poorly) we are doing. Numbers alone become the yardstick of success or failure. And, to me, that’s tragic and regrettable.
Think about it. What are the questions most frequently asked about your church or my church or any church? Well, certainly there are many that could be and are asked on occasion. What time do you meet? Are there a couple services to choose from? What type of worship do you have? Do you have Sunday School or small groups or both? These are typical and common. But the questions that are most common are those pertaining to numbers. How many did you have this week? How many people attend your church on average? Are you growing or shrinking?
The “health” of a church (or lack thereof) reduced to numbers. Tragic, but true. Regrettable, yet commonplace.
When did this happen? When did the amount of people who showed up at a building week in and week out become equated with successful ministry? What if there are thousands upon thousands who attend your weekly activities but they don’t grasp that the Christian life is learning what it means to follow Jesus and then seeking every day—often with much stumbling and blundering—to follow him? What if you have to add multiple services and construct a new building to accommodate all your attendees but they are only coming because they like the music or you have AWANA or any other reason that you’ve heard?
Yet this is precisely what happens when numbers are the yardstick of success. You plan and innovate and strategize to boost numbers rather than seeking to help one another along in the effort to better grasp the good news taught by Jesus. You reduce the Christian life to “lights, camera, action” at the shows (I mean, the services) and fail to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
What would happen if you quit taking attendance? What would have if you simply did not take role in your church? You had a list of attendees so that you could keep in touch, certainly, but no total number of members, no weekly attendance sheets, no numbers that would define your church? What would happen?
Maybe, just maybe it would change the mindset of staff and members alike for the better. Maybe we would all wake up and realize that numbers don’t matter. How many you have in attendance is ultimately irrelevant. If you quit caring how well you match up with the churches around you—which, I suspect is what all the numbers are about anyway—and instead started focusing all your energy and effort on seeking to follow Christ as best you can and help those around you to do the same.
I bet your numbers would increase. But you wouldn’t care. You may not even notice. You wouldn’t be thrilled simply because of the fact that your church doubled in size over the last year.
Why? Because you’d be excited that God was working in your midst and that you and others were learning day by day what it means to follow Christ. You’d be excited about seeing your church, your neighborhood, your city, your nation, and your world being transformed through ordinary people who set aside their concern over numbers and turned their focus and attention and energy to a world in need of the world-encompassing, world-transforming good news of great joy. You’d be excited to see grace and mercy and hope offered in Jesus’ name. You’d be hopeful as you see the world become a better place. You’d be overjoyed to see God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done—little by little—on earth as it is in heaven.
So, how many attended your church last week? Don’t know. Don’t care.
The better question is this: How many who attended understand the life-encompassing gospel of Jesus and what it means to follow him?