Numbers & The Church

Pastors are an interesting breed. I can say that because I am a pastor. Most of us have been to enough pastor meetings to know how the conversation goes. It usually begins with a question like, “Hey, how is it going?” and is often followed by, “How many people are you running on Sunday?”

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I have always struggled with the two basic approaches to numbers in the local church. The first approach basically says numbers do not mean anything. Spiritual depth cannot be measured so counting numbers does not tell the story of what God is doing. The other approach is that numbers mean everything. More people and more money means God is moving. After all God wrote a whole book called Numbers, right?

Alan Nelson, in his co-written book The Five Star Church, gives a glimpse into why pastors are so fixated on numbers:

As a pastor, I think one reason so many of us are into the basic attendance and membership numbers is because so much of what we do is intangible. Spiritual and character growth tend to be incremental, arduous processes. To validate our work, we often rely heavily on the weekly attendance counts.

I think Nelson hits the nail on the head with this observation. Pastoring is difficult work. Often we feel like the prophet Isaiah must have felt during his interchange with God in Isaiah 6. Here is the text:

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Emphasis Mine)

“How long, O Lord?” is a question many pastors ask. How long before our church grows? How long before this person’s life is transformed? How long before we see God move in a powerful way?

Many of us focus, almost exclusively, on certain numbers: weekly attendance, annual budget, weekly giving, new members, etc. I do not believe it is bad to look at these numbers but I want to encourage pastors, myself included, to focus on some other numbers, numbers that may be more telling. I have separated these into personal numbers and corporate numbers. The intent in these questions is not for you or me to walk away feeling guilty but to contemplate what we see as success in ministry. God is doing a work on my heart in the areas outlined below and I can assure you these questions have challenged me to get out of my comfort zone.

Personal Numbers

How many hours do you spend praying and studying God’s Word? I know this may sound a bit legalistic at first but Acts 6 makes it clear that this is our primary responsibility as pastors. Not spending time focused on prayer and God’s Word says, in a sense, that I can do this pastoring thing on my own. We need to be reminded that it is God who grows the church, not us.

How many non-believers do you know? One of the biggest struggles pastors face is that we are around believers all of the time. I know that I have to be intentional if I am going to meet unbelievers and build relationships with them. Are we too busy doing “church” work that we fail to actually be the church? If we expect our people to reach lost people for Christ we better make sure we are doing the same.

How many people are you personally dicipling? I believe the primary place pastors should seek to make disciples is within their own home. God has called you and me to pastor our homes before we pastor the local church. I also believe we should follow Paul’s admonition to Timothy, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Who are you personally investing your life into?

Corporate Numbers

How many people are being discipled in your church? Not how many people are coming but how many are being truly discipled in their walk with Christ. This does not happen by accident and it usually does not happen with a program. Discipleship is dirty work. It is life on life. It is time consuming (Jesus discipled 12 men for 3 years). It can be frustrating but it is what we are commanded to do.

How many of your people live as missionaries every day? The idea of missional living is the rave in church circles these days and I think this is great. For far too long church has merely been an isolated compartment in most people’s minds. This is perpetuated by the idea that, “We go to church.” In fact, we are called to be the church wherever we go and our people need to view each day as a missionary journey regardless of where they go.

How many people in your community would notice if your church shut its doors? This very well could be one of the greatest measures of our effectiveness in ministry. Are we entertaining church members or impacting our community with the message of the gospel? Our primary calling as the church is to be salt and light which inevitably makes an impact in a lost and dark world. Are we truly making an impact in the community that is noticeable and transformational?

**I recognize that measuring these numbers is quite a bit more difficult than measuring attendance and giving. However, I believe it is essential to look beyond the numbers staring us in the face and focus on the numbers that give us a better glimpse into the health of our churches and our ministries.

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