For many Christians, a church’s success is a matter of simple mathematics. The more people, the better. If attendance and giving numbers are going up, God must be pleased. And if those numbers are going down, well…you get the picture.
I wish I could say that I’ve never played the numbers game myself, but I can’t, because I have and I do.
However, various circumstances in my life and in our church have led me to some deeper reflection over the issue of church numbers in recent years. This post is my attempt to summarize most of the big things that I have learned and continue to learn (as I need frequent reminding), hanging my thoughts on some of the larger principles I see in Scripture. I hope they will be profitable to you as well.
Here they are, in a particular, but non-essential order.
- Numbers are not spiritually irrelevant.
I admire those good and well-intentioned men who encourage pastors to not care at all about numbers. There is a part of me that wishes I could be more like them. However, I am not convinced that God would have us care nothing about the number of people being reached and cared for in and through our churches. In fact, it seems that if we truly care about seeing the Gospel of Christ spread to as many people as possible, and if we care about the souls of men, then there doesn’t seem to be a way to think so little about numbers – because those numbers represent actual people.
This is why I believe, for example, that when we read of Jesus in Mark chapter 6 feeding a great multitude of people; we are not simply told that he fed a great multitude. We are instead told that he had fed some “five thousand men (not including women and children)”. That is, Jesus and/or the disciples counted the people. But why? Because they were market-savvy, pop-culture experts who cared nothing for truth and everything for results? No, rather because Jesus saw that multitude as a large group of “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). At least five thousand sheep, to be specific.
This is also why, for example, that when NT church was born in Acts chapter 2 at Pentecost, we are not just told that a bunch of people got saved. Rather, we are told that “about three thousand” (Acts 2:41) people came to Christ under the Spirit-empowered preaching of the Apostle Peter. The numbers there in Acts 2 are significant because of what they represent. Luke describes them very specifically. “And there were added that day about three thousand souls.” The number is significant because souls are significant.
There are other places we could look, but you get the idea. The number of people being reached and cared for in and through our churches is not irrelevant, because people are not irrelevant.
At the same time…
- Numbers are not easy to interpret.
That is, the numbers game is not a matter of simple mathematics. This is where I think a lot of Christians would do well to stop and evaluate how they think about the issue.
Many assume that if a church is growing numerically, then it is a sign of God’s blessing; a sign that the church is doing something right. However, the question of whether a church is growing numerically is by no means the only important question to ask about a church.
Churches that experience numerical growth need to ask a number of questions to interpret that growth properly. For starters, are they growing because they have gone soft on the Gospel? Are they growing because they are refusing to confront serious issues in their attendees? Are they growing because they’re constantly preaching to the choir and going easy on the prospective member?
In other words, why are people coming? Are they coming because they are getting the truth, or because they are hearing what they want to hear? Are they coming because they are being brought under conviction under the courageous preaching of the God’s Word or because they are being made to feel comfortable in their sin? Surely, if it is the latter, the numerical growth of that church is not a sign of God’s blessing.
In fact, the Bible I read warns churches of a trend that is said will increase as the return of Christ draws increasingly near. The Apostle Paul talks about it in 2 Timothy 4 when he writes to Timothy his young pastoral delegate over the church at Ephesus, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).
Therefore, it would seem that there is a common kind of numerical growth that occurs, not as a sign of God’s blessing, but as an indication of spiritual compromise. Conversely, Paul’s words to Timothy also indicate that as the days approaching the return of Christ march on, there will be a kind of numerical shrinkage in the true church as well. Those things deserve some serious meditation.
My point in saying these things is not to say that all numerical growth is bad (remember point #1) or that all numerical decline is good (see the following points). Rather, it is to say that numerical growth is not easy to interpret. A lot of people assume without any serious thought that if a church is growing, God must be very happy with that church. I am simply arguing that this assumption is wrong and leads to shaky conclusions.
I’ll try to break this point down in the next two points.
- Bigger is not necessarily better.
This clearly follows from the previous point, but I’d like to expand a bit here. Here’s how we know when numerical growth is not necessarily a good thing; when bigger is not necessarily better:
Bigger is not better when people are leaving their otherwise faithful churches to join yours simply because they like your church better. Bigger is not better when you are stealing sheep.
Bigger is also not better if there is not a team of qualified pastors in your church who are able, equipped, and available to care for the souls of everyone coming to your church. If the growth of a church has clearly exceeded the ability of the pastors to care for the flock, it is not a good thing.
Bigger is also not better if the growth is due to a professional model of ministry that relieves the saints of the responsibility to do ministry themselves. So, to get personal; if people are coming to our churches because they find it easy to be consumers in them, it is not God’s affirmation of our ministries.
And as I said before, bigger is not better if the growth is due to a church’s compromise on the hard truths of Scripture. If the bad news that must precede the Good News is never being preached, you can be almost certain that your growth is not a healthy kind of growth.
As I see it in Scripture; there are two kinds of numerical growth that a church should desire. The first is growth by way of genuine conversions, where unbelievers hear the Gospel from God’s Word and are raised to spiritual life by the Holy Spirit, who causes them to be born again and grants them faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins and right standing with God. The best kind of numerical growth occurs in a church when these converted people are then instructed to go into the waters of baptism to publicly identify with Christ in his death and resurrection, and are then joyfully added as members of Christ’s church. This is the best kind of numerical growth any church can experience.
But a second kind of growth that I think the church is right to pursue, is the kind of growth that occurs as they seek to gather up Christians who are not in healthy church situations or who have found themselves looking for a new church for good reason. Churches should be on the lookout for Christ’s sheep who are lacking a biblically faithful church to call home.
Beyond that, I can’t really think of a kind of numerical growth that Scripture would lead us to care about. Am I wrong?
So then, bigger is not necessarily better. Yet, at the same time…
- Smaller is not necessarily better either.
Some Christians take great pride in being a part of a small church, feeling that they are part of a rare and faithful remnant. And while faithfulness to Christ is certainly rare in our fallen world; I’m not so sure it’s quite as rare as this remnant might think.
Rather, the smallness of a church could very well indicate a number of spiritually troubling things. It could indicate that the church doesn’t really care for souls outside of their gathering. It could mean that they are unloving, or that they are lazy in evangelism, or that they preach weird and wacky things. The smallness of a church could mean that it is not focused on obeying Christ by heeding the Great Commission.
Furthermore, the smallness of a church could also reveal that the church is not actively dealing with conflict in a biblical and peace-making kind of way. It could mean that they’re comfortable with divisions and strife, and don’t really care when people leave due to a conflict. The smallness of a church could indicate that the church isn’t really that concerned about being a healthy church.
So, while bigger is not necessarily better; smallness should not be seen as a badge of honor either.
- Smaller is not necessarily worse.
Smaller is not a sign of God’s displeasure with a church if that church is seeking to grow through practices clearly assigned to them in Scripture; serious biblical preaching, Word-centered encouragement, passionate pleading over souls, and courageous personal evangelism, to name the more important practices. If a church is focusing hard on being faithful regarding the depth of her ministry and sincerely seeking to trust God with the breadth of her ministry, it is not a bad thing. Far from it; it is a sign that the Spirit of God is truly at work in that church.
Furthermore, smaller is not necessarily worse if the lack of growth is giving time and opportunity to the pastoral team to adequately care for the souls who are already in the church. Sometimes a lack of growth in a church enables the pastors of the church to better care for the saints who are already a part of it, as well as to prepare for any growth that God may grant to the church in the future by raising up other leaders.
But beyond these things, there is simply no guarantee in the Bible that if a church is faithful to its God-given mission that God is going to grant large measures of tangible fruit to that church. The only thing that God guarantees to His faithful people is hardship! “Indeed,” the Apostle Paul says, “all who live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Not surprisingly, these words echo the words of Jesus, who told His followers, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
Tribulation and the presence of Christ in that tribulation. Those are the only things promised to Christ’s faithful saints.
And so, smaller may not necessarily be worse. It may simply be evidence that God’s Word is true.
- The most important kind of growth is supernaturally produced.
Far beyond numerical growth, the Scriptures would lead us to care most about true spiritual growth. And spiritual growth is supernatural growth. It is only produced by the Spirit of God. What kind of growth am I talking about?
Well, let’s first consider a kind of growth that sees a person brought from spiritual death to spiritual life. This is the “growth” of conversion, which is a lot less like growth and far more like a resurrection. We should be praying and working to see this kind of “growth” take place.
Beyond that, we should desire the kind of growth whereby Christians are transformed increasingly into the likeness of Christ. The kind of growth that takes place as a Christian regularly encounters the glory of Christ in His Word and is made more like Christ by the Spirit as a result of those encounters, and who becomes more loving toward other people, more concerned about the state of lost souls, and more gracious in his dealings with other people.
The growth of a church is about so much more than a growing number of people sitting in chairs or pews. It is about lives being changed through encounters with the living Christ through his Word.
And “this [kind of growth] comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). There are no shortcuts to it. The only way to see this kind of growth is to plant and water with and according to the Word of God, trusting that God will do what only God can do: “give the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7). And that growth may or may not have any drastic affect upon a church’s numbers.
- Success is about far more than numbers.
While giving attention to various tangible metrics may be helpful to a church that is seeking to honestly evaluate the success of its ministry; those tangible metrics are not everything. True success is ultimately measured by whether a church has sought to be faithful to the Lord Jesus and truly obedient to His Word as they have gone about life and ministry as a church.
Has your church sought to give glory to God as Creator and Redeemer in Christ? Has your church sought Spirit-produced Christ-likeness by giving prayerful attention to the Word of God in private and as a gathered body? Has your church sought to be centered around the glorious reality of God’s grace in Christ as revealed in the Gospel? And has it sought to be a place of loving, truthful companionship and partnership in Gospel ministry? Has it sought to spread the Gospel as far as the Lord would allow? Is the church seeking the glory of Christ above all things?
If a church can answer “yes” to these questions (not as if they’ve done these things perfectly; but in the sense that they’re doing them sincerely), that church is a success, no matter the numbers.
Now, I only pray that God will give me faith to believe these things more consistently. Lord, hear my prayer.