The Numbers Game
I didn't start caring about church attendance until I was in junior high. In order to boost the numbers at our Wednesday night youth service, the junior high and senior high pastors held a competition between their respective groups to see which one could invite the most friends to church. The prize? The winning pastor would get to shave the losing pastor's head.
I remember employing similar bribe and prize-based tactics when I was a student ministry intern in college. I want to believe it wasn't underhanded. After all, God wanted the kids' friends to hear about Jesus, right? And the more students who came to church increased the odds they would hear, receive, and accept the message. And the more this happened, the greater assurance I had that I was a decent communicator, leader, and evangelist, right?
That was 20 years ago. I no longer twist people's arms to get them to invite their friends to church. I do, however, note how many of them actually show up. We have a whole system for it, actually: a guest relations team that counts attendance in the auditorium, in the children's area, and notes the students and volunteers at our junior and senior high events. It goes into a report that gets emailed to dozens of leaders and directors at our five campuses to let everyone know how we did this week. We want to let them know which campuses went up, which went down, how this week compared to the same week, last year, etc. Every Tuesday, they get an email with "The Count."
I don't have a problem with "The Count." Tracking numbers can be a helpful tool for identifying emerging trends, both positive and negative, in the life of our church. However, in order to make "The Count" serve us, rather than become its slave, it's necessary to answer a few critical questions.
What are we measuring?
If we don't know exactly what we're measuring, we'll end up with data that are not helpful. Some leaders use this as an excuse not to count at all. Others are content to count only the 3 B's: butts (attendance), bucks (financial giving), and baptisms (conversions). One key argument I hear to support "The Count" is the fact the gospels are filled with explicit details regarding attendance and church growth.
Luke does offer specific numbers to support his historical account of explosive growth (Luke 9:14, Acts 1:15, 2:41). Luke distinguishes between how many were in the crowds (many thousands), how many were among the core group (little more than 100), and how many constituted the newly converted (a few thousand). If you're not tracking the right numbers, you may overlook the fact that while the crowd numbers are up, the core is shrinking. Or maybe you'll become discouraged that the crowd is shrinking even you're actually reaching more new people. If you're going count at all, count strategically and proactively. Don't rattle off a generic number for your leaders or denominational office.
Why are we measuring?
Sometimes we're measuring because we have to. Somebody up the chain of command is asking for numbers. Sometimes though, if we're candid, we count because deep down, we have something to prove: to God, to our team, to our ex, or to ourselves. Tracking numbers for trends as a leader is fine. Obsessing over them as an indicator of our worth, value, or competence is downright toxic. Remember the cautionary tale of David's census of his fighting men (1 Chron. 21:1-6). Or consider Deuteronomy 17, where Yahweh explicitly warns Israel's future kings of deriving their sense of power from their military might. He even counsels them to retain only a modest number of horses.