Some years back I followed a discussion on the internet that was addressing the modern success of churches. As I remember it was Baptist people discussing the issue. The interaction began with a premise of not counting the people who attend our church but counting the people who don't attend.
I admit I was skeptical of the underlying premise. In either scenario the success of the church would be determined by counting heads. I realize that pastoring a small church places me at a disadvantage to question such reasoning. Certainly my motivation is subject to being called into question. I can live with that, and I understand it. But God is my witness.
I understand the tendency to fall back to counting heads. I do it! Numbers are an easy way to quantify what is happening. The problem is that numbers really tell us very little. It is one of the least important things to consider. It is a lazy way to make an assessment. We have had slightly larger numbers before and things were not well. We have had slightly smaller numbers before and things were not well.
When the focus becomes numbers and how many attend or don't attend becomes the standard by which one judges the success of their church priorities can tend to become skewed. It is dangerous when we begin to ask ourselves what we can do to increase the numbers. And it is a much different question than, What can we do to get the gospel to the lost?
The first question is not, in my estimation, a valid or wise question. To ask this question introduces the tendency to pragmatism. If it increases numbers it is good, if it does not or decreases numbers it is bad. Trading principle for pragmatism in spiritual pursuits can be adorned in such a way that no objections can be raised. "Don't you care for the lost?" "Don't you care about young people?" "Don't you want to reach the modern generation?"
I remember one of the participants indicating we should focus on two things, What is God blessing, and what are we good at doing?
What does this blessing look like? The word blessing can often be a synonym for success. How do we determine that? By counting heads? How do we determine what we are good at doing? Do the results determine what we are good at doing? How do we judge the results? By counting?
There was some discussion of our "percentages rising". The implication seemed to be if our percentages are rising then God is blessing and we have found what we are good at doing. And, conversely if our percentages are not rising then God is not blessing and we are not good at what we are doing.
At one point it was mentioned in relation to a new ministry that the kids loved it. Obviously that is not necessarily a bad thing. But it it not necessarily a good thing either. If the world loves what we are doing in church are we doing what God wants us to do in church? Goats don't have as discerning an appetite as sheep do!
This really strikes at the heart of one of my core ministry principles. We are not to be making huge efforts to get the lost to church but rather making tremendous effort to get the church to the lost. The commission is not to bring them to church, it is to go reach them where they are. Don't get me wrong I'm not against lost people coming to church. But we hazard the risk of running aground if we cater the ministry to natural men who receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God because they are foolishness unto him. Remember, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
A Fragil Assessment
Some of history's most inspired ministries were not successful based on a head count.
Noah preached for at least 120 years only to win his family.
Isaiah was told before he got started that he would not have much fruit. He prophesied anyway, because that is what he was called to do.
Jeremiah did not have many converts. The nation did not repent. Jeremiah himself was abused, he was the weeping prophet. Was Jeremiah a success?
The Holy Ghost in the inspired record rarely referenced number of congregants or visitors or any kind of head count at all related to churches in the New Testament. The almost universal silence on this issue seems to speak volumes. After you get past Acts nine there is hardly anything said about numbers in the early churches. We simply do not know the size of the congregations. We have reason to believe that Ephesus may have been a larger congregation because they had a plurality of elders, but even then we can't know for sure. The seven churches of Asia in Revelations have nothing said about their size. Many different issues are addressed but not the size of the congregations. In all my reading of Baptist history I have encountered very little emphasis on the size of the congregations. That is up until recently. Issac Backus' book on the history of the colonies with special reference to the sect called Baptist actually referenced the size of many of the congregations. Most of them were small. The largest was, I believe, about 125. I'm guessing in the early churches and the churches of history they had an idea of the size of congregations they attended but little is made of it. There is more attention given to doctrinal soundness, relationship issues, practical living, and being a witness.
A FRANK ASSESSMENT
Rather than concentrate on numbers maybe our focus should be on other areas.
How spiritual is my church?
Acts 4:13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.
How holy is my church?
1 Peter 1:13-16 Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.
How faithfully do the members attend services?
Hebrews 10:25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
If we want to use numbers as a measurement let us compare our Sunday morning attendance with our Wednesday evening attendance.
How much brotherly love is being practiced?
1 Peter 1:22 Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently:
How much ministry is being done?
Matthew 28:19-20 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
If we want to use numbers a better gauge might be what percentage of our people are active in taking the gospel to the lost? Do our people only know how to invite people to church or do they know how to bring people to Jesus?
How much giving is being done?
2 Corinthians 9:7 Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.
In my estimation these are a lot better questions and tell us more about a church than Sunday morning attendance figures. It is not about counting people but cultivating them for Christ's sake.
1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
Counting heads, as a rule, is probably better left in the arena of cattle than congregants in a Baptist churches.