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.

If you don't know why you're counting, stop doing it. If you feel better or worse about yourself and your calling after "The Count," take a break. If you're required to count, designate a staff member or lay person to do it on your behalf and don't ask for it weekly. After a quarter or two, sit down with the chart and look for trends. Then ask yourself and your team what data you really need to lead better.

Last year, for the first time in two decades, we took a more detailed survey of our congregation. Rather than "The Count," which told us how many people came, "The Survey" revealed what kind of people came. The results were equal parts exciting, affirming, depressing, and challenging. I discovered fewer people from our church's immediate zip code were coming than I had imagined. It has challenged us to be better neighbors to the people who could walk to our church, but don't. I learned exactly how much more racially homogenous we are than our community. I know our average age and how much our people give financially and how often they engage in spiritual practices. As a result we have clearer goals we want to tackle based on what we've learned.

Who are we measuring?

So Luke counted and it was great. David counted and it wasn't. What happened when Moses did his version of "The Count?" The result is a compelling account of a changed people. At the beginning of Numbers, when the Israelites are just beginning the Exodus, we learn "All the men in the camps, by their divisions, number 603,550" (Nu. 2:32). Fast forward 40 years to the end of the book. "The Count" takes place again (Numbers 26:1-2, 51). This time, the total number of the men of Israel was 601,730.

Statistically, Moses' numbers are flat. Technically, he's down almost 1,800 men. One could argue Moses didn't do a great job building his team and growing his army of fighting men. But at this point in the biblical record, the number of Israelites under Moses' supervision is not nearly as critical as who they are and where they stand. Other than Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, everyone else who started the exodus died along the way. The ones who remain were either too young to fight at the journey's start or they were born in the wilderness. Their formerly enslaved parents gave birth to an entire generate of free Israelites. The 601,730 ending the trek with Moses are a completely different nation than the 603,550 that started with him; they are filled with faith, hope, courage, and longing. They lack the nostalgia for Egypt and the hardhearted, stiff-necked patterns of their predecessors.

And now, rather than standing on the edge of the Red Sea looking back, they're standing on the plains of Moab, looking across the Jordan to the Jericho of their future.

In ministry, you often experience a similar reality. You just might lead your church for four years or four decades and the numbers may never jump substantially. They may level off, or even drop. The question is: at the end of your tenure, will they be a different people as a result of your leadership? Will they look less selfless and more faithful, less whiny and more grateful, less anxious and braver than they did at first?

I know, it's not the sexy tale of exponential growth that leads to books deals and conference speaking engagements, but I believe it is the essence of steady, gritty, loving, and bold pastoral leadership. So maybe you can give yourself a pass to worry a little less about the count and little more about the character, of you, the shepherd, and them, the sheep.

Always remember: as much as "The Count" tells you, there are more things it cannot. It doesn't tell you who is coming. It doesn't tell you if they're growing. It doesn't tell you who you are. It doesn't tell you if you are trusting, obeying, leading, or maturing. "The Count" is a much better servant than it is a master. If you can leverage it to tell you what you need to know, you will not have to bribe, shame, or guilt people into inviting their friends anymore. And no one will be required to shave their head.

Steve Norman is the lead pastor at Kensington Church's campus in Troy, Michigan.

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