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The Numbers Trap

Hope you had a great Easter celebration yesterday! And with it, many welcomed their largest crowd of the calendar year–perhaps seeing many come to faith. Praying it was that kind of day for your church…

Throughout my nearly thirty years of ministry life, I have observed the on-again-off-again romance pastors engage with numbers. Perhaps because gauging real success in the ministry is so difficult, pastors and church leaders look to numbers to tell them how their doing. Unfortunately, those numbers don’t always feel like friends.

I’ve heard pastors speak of attendance numbers as evidence of their success in one breath, while immediately discounting them if they’re not good in the next. After all, ministry is about more than numbers, right? But then again, God cares about numbers because every individual matters to Him. So what do we do with numbers?

A cynic might observe that numbers seem to matter most to pastors of growing churches, while those who are struggling are more likely to insist on a different system of measure. And are churches growing because they care about numbers or do they care about numbers because they’re growing? Which is the chicken and which is the egg?

It’s a difficult question for several reasons. First, numbers aren’t exactly as clear an indicator of ministry success as we would like. Unlike the dollar bottom-line of business, chasing numbers in ministry isn’t an exact science. Bigger doesn’t always mean better. Large churches can be just as unhealthy as smaller ones, and their crash can spread devastation for miles.

Jesus didn’t always play the numbers game, either. It seems He brought out His most difficult teaching when the crowds were largest, and that usually caused the numbers to diminish. He also seemed untrusting of the crowd, asking if they were simply there for free bread or to see a sign or some other side event to His real purpose in the center ring.

Yet, His death was for the whole world, and the Bible speaks of multitudes around His future throne that are too numerous to count. So we can’t put Jesus in the anti-numbers crowd either. We just can’t get a clear read on where we should stand on numbers, but here’s a few thoughts…

1. Numbers MATTER! No fair reading of Scripture can leave you thinking they don’t. Everything is counted in Scripture, from the altar response at Pentecost to the number of barrels of water Elijah poured on the evening sacrifice.

Numbers matter because people matter. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. The shepherd analogy is clear. He leaves the 99 and goes searching for the 1 because every last lamb is important.

2. Numbers aren’t the only goal. When a church begins to focus too intently on numbers, other vital efforts are damaged. When numbers is our goal, relationships struggle to grow more deeply. Individual focus can give way to crowd efforts, and people begin slipping though the cracks. God’s shepherds can begin turning into ranchers, a neat church growth analogy, but one that never shows up in Scripture.

Numbers have a way of changing the leader too. Jesus told us that our leadership wasn’t to be “Gentile-like.” We were called to be servants, not CEOs. While large numbers don’t guarantee such a loss of focus, it seems that the larger the group, the harder it is to keep out of this numbers trap.

 

So where do we land? I don’t think there’s a comfortable middle here, but there are some places to avoid. First, don’t land on the idea that numbers don’t matter because you’re church isn’t growing. If your church isn’t focused outward and doing everything in its power to reach lost people, insisting that numbers don’t matter isn’t fooling anyone–at least not anyone with a kingdom mind.

Second, don’t let drawing a crowd be your greatest measure of success. Large numbers in the building don’t make for a successful church, but evidence of people choosing and living in life-changing paths do. Counting raised hands is great, but there’s a difference between signing up for a trip and actually reaching the destination.

Finally, be pleasing in God’s sight. Let your Bible and the examples it provides help you discover God’s idea of success. Chase that! If you do, I’m convinced you’ll plant many seeds, water many more, and play the part in the harvesting your Master designed you for.

Numbers are GREAT…but chasing them can get you off track too.

 

 

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