all about the numbers — can somebody get a head count?

I’m not entirely comfortable with numbers as a means to gauge effectiveness in ministry, evangelism, and “church growth.” I think I originally reacted against this approach when I experienced a shift from a “justification-only” and “single-point-in-time” view of salvation to a more holistic view of salvation as a process, in which sanctification is crucial and direction as important as single events.  As spiritual maturation became more important to me, I began to reject numbers.  After all, what good is counting the bottoms in our pews if their owners are not becoming more like Christ?

But lately, I’ve come back a bit toward the numbers.  I won’t go into great detail here, but the book of Acts seems to place some importance on numbers.  I figure there’s a sort of precedent in Acts 2, where we’re told 3000 were added to the church on Pentecost.  And the book, as a whole, seems to concern itself with numbers of people being added to the body of Christ; several times we’re given statements about churches being strengthened in faith and daily the number of believers growing.  I believe this is one of the keys to understanding both the structure of Acts and its purpose, the Holy Spirit’s inolvement in the spread of the kingdom.  But, I also happily concede that Luke seems to be more concerned with the steady and continual growth of numbers than he does with the actual integers themselves.  He also seems to be especially concerned with the growth of the church across cultural boundaries.

Anyway, to the point of this post… I think it’s important that we measure kingdom growth, and off the top of my head I am aware of three Biblical ways to do so:

  1. Spiritual maturity in believers themselves (fruits of the Spirit in their lives, fruits of repentance present, obedience to God).
  2. Growth in the number of individual believers.
  3. Growth in the number of people groups reached or cultural barriers crossed.

So I see value in counting those who are saved — or even those who are in the habit of meeting with saints (I would argue many of them are somewhere in the “process” of salvation).  Personally, I would argue that criterion number one — Spiritual maturity in believers — is the most important of these three.  Namely because obedient lives full of joy and peace serve as a catalyst for numbers two and three.

I should also be clear on this point: I do not believe it is my job to save people, or to add them to the church. Nor do I find any language in scripture of us “growing” the kingdom — instead, we are told to enter it, seek it, treasure it, and the like.  However, an assessment of kingdom growth is able to reveal what God is doing through us, how open we are to his working, and how in tune we are with his Spirit.

What are your thoughts?  Are there other criteria for assessing kingdom growth?  Is it even our job to do so?  Why is it important to do so?  What do you think about numbers as a gauge for churches assessing their effectiveness?



Filed under goals and objectives, just thinking, mission

9 responses to “all about the numbers — can somebody get a head count?

  1. Zee

    like in everything else, there should be a balance.

    lately i have been hearing more and more attention paid to the quantity: “10 people have accepted Christ as their savior” or “24 people joined the small groups” whatever…

    and the pressure is to add numbers… yet sometimes (often) quality suffers because we’re so concentrated on numbers.

    *shrug* and when someone says “we had 12 kids accept Jesus as their savior in the summer camp…” or something like that – only God and that person knows whether s/he became a follower of Christ or not. i have “accepted Christ” 6-8 times in my life, just ‘cuz i felt the pressure that if i won’t, my friends won’t come out either… and because i was a PK so i needed to show a good example…

    sorry for random thoughts…

  2. James: I honestly struggle with this, I think in part because of the era I was brought up in. My gen counted and it was seen as “success” if the numbers went up and “disaster/failure” if the numbers went down. I swung the pendulum the other way and said I don’t care at all. That wasn’t entirely true either. I did care; i just didn’t make it public. 🙂 After a brutal 2009 at the church I saw our attendance fall from close to 190-200 down to about 130. I suffered big time but at other times I was okay with seeing God weed out malcontents and complainers. So, in answer to your questions: 1) I would say you covered it pretty well in your 3-spot; 2) I don’t think it hurts to assess where we are but perhaps we need to implement more “trustworthy” scales; 3) because numbers are not the whole story; and 4) I think it is not healthy for a church to rely on their numbers, i.e. Willow’s recent study of itself.

  3. zee, don’t apologize for random thoughts. that’s all my blog is, really. and i’m with you on balance. i also am not so naive to think everyone included in a count is a Christian. that’s probably an upcoming post — how do we know whom to count, if we indeed plan to count?

    bill, sounds like you and i were in the same boat as far as running from numbers at one time. and what about this study from willow creek? fill me in; i’ve not heard anything…

  4. Growing up as an independent baptist in the south, I struggled greatly with the issue of numbers.

    Beginning in junior high, we were “forced” (a requirement for being on a basketball team at a christian school) to go “soul-winning” once a week.

    We were bused to whatever “projects” happened to be on the list that day and dropped off to ask, door-by-door, if the occupant knew if he/she were saved. Of course, this usually led to either a “no, thanks” or a “sure, tell me more because I don’t want to be rude to a little 7th grader with his cute little clip-on tie” – in which, we’d lead them through a card with the Roman’s Road and end with the sinner’s prayer.

    Upon returning to the bus, we’d shout out how many we “saved” that day – with nary a followup in site. Even then, I knew something was wrong.

    While I’m not against being pro-active for Christ, be it soul-winning, small group ministries, sunday school, visitation, etc, it’s all meaningless if we’re not gauging the spiritual effectiveness or purpose of said “ministries” and their ultimate impact on the personal lives of those involved.

    If, however, we are multiplying and growing true believers in Christ, then I’d be shouting that number from the rooftops! 🙂

  5. Great post Brett!

    I have often pondered this as well and I agree with Zee’s comment about requiring a balance.

    I think a growth in numbers is a natural outflow of the healthy spiritual maturation of believers – although I must add that I have seen churches grow because of the “entertaining services” etc.

    I believe that as we spiritually mature, we will share our faith with people and that there will be a natural increase in the number of people responding to faith – that is a good thing. The bad thing is when all we do is measure the performance of our churches and ministries by numbers.
    Many churches and organizations who sponsor missionaries are bent on numbers: “If a missionary isn’t producing believers, then he or she must be a failure in that particular ministry.”
    This is obviously not true!

    I know of a family who was in Tunisia for over a decade and were only able to bring ONE person to Christ during their time ministering there. Is that a failure on the part of the missionary? Of course not.
    The obverse of this is the church in North America that may increase from 500 to over 2000 people in a year – is it a successful ministry? That’s only “measurable” by the spiritual maturity and discipleship of the congregation.

    I think we SHOULD be aware of the numbers that are the outflow of God’s work, we should DESIRE to see people saved by God’s word and through the work of the Holy Spirit.

    I think you are right in saying: “I do not believe it is my job to save people, or to add them to the church.”

    That is solely God’s work and we are just participating in it. =)


  6. dude (aaron), i can’t believe they made you wear a clip-on tie and go door-to-door “winning” souls. that’s so mean to a 7th grade kid. we got to wear regular clothes and just ask people if we could pray for them about anything. that’s not nearly as uncomfortable. we also didn’t do any cheers about how many people got saved. but a lot of that is probably just because we didn’t believe people could be saved without walking through the doors of our church building…

  7. thich, i can’t tell you how thankful i am that my sending church isn’t focused on numbers only. i am really blessed in that way. but, in complete honesty, if there were no numbers, i’d be sorely disappointed. not necessarily in myself — because i know it’s not my task to save men — but disappointed all the same. i’m not sure in what… maybe that i didn’t choose a more open field, or that i spent a lot of money for few numbers, or that i just didn’t get to experience the joy of witnessing the salvation of souls? but then again, there’s a lot to be said just for people hearing the gospel and having the opportunity to accept or reject it.

  8. James: Willow did a study a few years ago (can’t remember what it was called) and they found out that while they did a good job of reaching the lost they did a really lousy job of teaching them how to grow spiritually themselves. I suspect you can go to their website and find more info about it.

  9. Pingback: church maturity question « aliens and strangers

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