The Two-Sided Cliff of Numbers in the Church


Church people love to count numbers.  And sometimes it even becomes a disturbing obsession to count everything.  The numbers game is often one of the things that drives me crazy when I attend conferences; shortly after meeting another pastor, you are quickly asked, “How big is your church?”

And we all know what happens when you answer.

Pastor’s math… take what the number really us and round up significantly so as to make yourself look slightly more impressive than we really are.  It’s like we play a game of church envy as we jealously compare our spreadsheets to see who has the bigger budget or larger attendance.

The Prosperity Gospel of Growth

The biggest danger in an over-obsession with numerical growth is that we often will find preachers that condemn a prosperity Gospel from the pulpit and embrace it in their leadership.  There are many preachers who would never dare say, “If you have enough faith, God will bless you” but will proudly lead people to believe that God is blessing their church simply because they are being faithful.

And the subtle thought is, the small churches aren’t being faithful.  And some of them may not be… but I have a hunch that many of them are.

The danger for us as church leaders is to believe that if we have enough faith and just “do it right” that our churches will be healthy, wealthy, and happy.  This dangerously leads pastors to a cliff of despair at their inability to make their church successful enough or to the cliff of arrogance and self-righteousness.

The Poverty Gospel & Antinominiasm of Church Decline

But then there’s the other problem.  Because I don’t think our solution is giving up on counting.  Equally as big of a problem within our churches is a complete aversion to numbers.  Especially within my generation, more and more pastors have gotten so burnt by the pursuit of the numbers that they’ve reacted by ignoring the numbers.

But ignoring the numbers - attendance, visitors, or budget  - is a problem.

There tends to be two ways that we can go when we avoid numbers at all costs.  We can ignore our numbers to an extent that we ignore any warning flags that are popping up to show us what we are doing something wrong.  When we completely ignore numbers, we are in danger of missing the warnings of the law that calls a church to repent.

For some, ignoring the numbers is a practical antinomianism.

Antinomianism is fancy theological word for those who don’t believe in the law.  When we don’t pay attention to numbers it is often because we don’t believe that our decline in attendance or poor financial state has anything to do with what we’ve done.

That’s a dangerous place to be.

And it gets even worse if we get to the point where we see the reduction numbers as mark of pride.  While it may be possible that your church might decline in numbers while you are being faithful to God, we should not ever assume that because our church is declining we are obviously being faithful.

In our crazy world that always reacts to what it dislikes.  More and more people react to a dislike for the mega-church by having great pride in being a small church.  Small churches are great and necessary.  But if we ever start to believe that we are being more spiritual or faithful because our church is shrinking, that’s dangerous.  Jesus preached and the crowds shrunk but that doesn’t mean our goal should be shrinking churches.

We need an honest look at our numbers and an honest look at our faithfulness to God’s calling as His Church.  My goal as a leader is to live in the tension.

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