Evangelicals love to count, and the higher the numbers the better. After all, the more people we count in our pews, the more people are "coming to know the Lord." In our better moments we know that is not necessarily true—most church growth is transferred growth, people just changing churches. But in our best moments, higher numbers mean people are coming to know Christ.

We've taken church growth statistics to new levels in the last few decades, and have created all sorts of formulas to determine whether we're growing or not. I recall as a pastor having to figure out how to determine "decadal growth rates" and "conversion rates." The goal of any card-carrying evangelical leader is to learn to count as high as possible, and there is something invigorating about that. But I wonder if we'd be wiser if we learned also how to count to one.

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The Religion News Service just published its annual story on U.S. church growth, with the prosaic headline "U.S. churches continue growth, decline trends." What they reported is that for another year, yes, mainline churches continue to decline. This trend has for decades given evangelicals a cause for self-congratulation as they've looked to their own churches and seen them growing.

This started in the early 1970s after Dean Kelley published his Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (HarperCollins). Kelley noted how badly mainline liberal churches were declining and how conservative evangelical churches were growing. Kelley more or less just reported what he saw, and noted the correlation between high-demand churches (which conservative evangelical churches were at the time) and church growth. Conservative evangelicals took pride in the correlation, and many began assuming that the righteousness of orthodox theology was confirmed by the growing numbers.

That has worked for decades, but the last few years have given us pause for thought. The recent RNS story reports that, again, even evangelical churches like the Southern Baptist Convention are now in decline. One conservative church is growing—the Assemblies of God—but it's nothing to write home about: a mere half a percent.

A couple of churches are doing remarkably well. The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) are up 1.42 percent. And the membership growth sweepstakes winner is the Jehovah's Witnesses, coming in at an astounding 4.37 percent growth rate. These are certainly high-demand groups (many would call them legalistic), but they are hardly models of Christian orthodoxy as traditionally understood.

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Some evangelicals defend the paradigm ("We're growing, so we must be right") by shifting their eyes overseas to marvel at the exploding numbers of Christians in the developing world. It's not a stretch to see that nearly all of that growth is coming through evangelical and Pentecostal efforts. But when we look beneath the numbers, we see troubling signs. Lots of strong, mature, orthodox churches, to be sure. But also a lot of disciples of the prosperity gospel, those who practice syncretism, and those who pander after religious experience rather than the narrow road of discipleship. Overseas church growth does not automatically signal orthodoxy or church health, by any account.

And then, sadly, there are the outright lies. Christianity Today editors were talking with a Christian journalist from India a couple of weeks ago. He could not emphasize enough how many Indian Christian organizations exaggerate their numbers. The reason? If you can demonstrate numerical growth, the money from America will keep rolling in. What is true in India has been an infection in evangelicalism on every continent for as long as anyone can remember. One thing that made Billy Graham's team so unusual and so remarkable was their effort not to exaggerate their numbers. But Graham was made of extraordinary stuff. Your average evangelical—as Graham well understood in his day—cannot resist the temptation to exaggerate numbers once he starts counting.

The confidence that there is a correlation between orthodoxy and growing numbers, and between growing numbers and people "coming to the Lord," has been shattered. Being able to count higher and higher is not what it's cracked up to be.

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It may not be all it's cracked up to be, but it's not as if it's useless information. And it's not as if we can stop doing it even if we wanted to. It's part of evangelicals' DNA. We suck on numbers as a babe on a mother's breast, and believe in them as a Cubs' fan does in his baseball team—even when we know deep down that numbers don't measure all that much.

I've told this story before, but it is such a perfect illustration of the problem. I was visiting a megachurch in Southern California where the pastor in charge was telling us about the first men's ministry meeting, which had taken place the night before. I asked him, "How did it go?"

He did not describe the character of the meeting—the atmosphere of the event, the feeling of the men, the nature of the talk, the quality of the presentation, the comments of men afterwards. No, the first and nearly the only thing he said was this: "We had about 66 men."

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It's an interesting comment. It was clear that he was trying to downplay numbers by using the word about—as if numbers really weren't that important. But in fact, he knew exactly how many men were in attendance. Exactly 66. And it was this number that came immediately to mind when I asked, "How did it go?"

Such is the hold of numbers on the evangelical imagination. We know better, and yet can't help ourselves. Every meeting is counted, and every count is compared. When the numbers are up, we're elated. And when the numbers are down, we're depressed. We almost sound like people caught in the cycle of addiction.

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There are worse addictions than fixating on how to get more people into church. This is an addiction the Lord seems to bless from time to time with genuine church growth. Then again, an addiction is an addiction, and there are times for intervention. I think we live in such a time. I have a suggestion: Instead of concentrating on counting higher and higher, we need to learn once again how to count to one.

To count to one means to think about people first and foremost not as heads to be counted for the annual report but as human individuals with a unique history and spiritual journey. It means giving our highest attention not to programs that attract lots of numbers but to individuals who walk in the church door. It means acting like the person we are talking to in church is not a "prospect" for the choir or youth group or men's Bible study, but is first a person who is due our undivided, loving attention—as if that person were for those moments the most important person in the universe. To count to one is to love as God does—with an attention that is both riveting and exclusive.

Practically speaking, counting to one may entail the following:

  • Stop counting how many members and/or attendees participate in church.
  • Delete the numbers of how many attended last year, and don't project about how many more will do so next year.
  • Stop using numbers in the church's annual report to determine the church's health.

Certainly there is a place for counting—you have to know how many chairs to set up, how much coffee to make, and so forth. You have to have a ball park idea of numbers to determine a budget and do intelligent planning. But once we start recording those numbers and especially comparing them month to month and year to year, we open ourselves to all sorts of demons. Those year-to-year spreadsheets are for the church what a bottle of sherry is to an alcoholic. The stats may just sit in a computer file for the longest time, but eventually, we're going to take a sip, and before you know it, we're plastered. We'll be tempted to inflate, to lie, to treat people as numbers, to count higher and higher. In our drunken stupor, we'll forget how to count to one.

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It's not an either/or, some will say: "You can create big programs that attract lots of people and love individuals!" Of course. But in many cases, that's like telling an alcoholic that he can take the occasional drink. Yes, there are people who can drink responsibly, but they are able to do so only because they know what a powerfully addictive and dangerous thing alcohol is. And there are Christian leaders who can both bring in the numbers and treat people as individuals to love one at a time.

But these are the same people who recognize how dangerous an addiction large numbers can become, and so never let an opportunity pass to count to one.

Mark Galli is senior managing of Christianity Today. He is author of the forthcoming Chaos and Grace: Discovering the liberating work of the Holy Spirit (Baker, 2011). 

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Previous SoulWork columns include:

Super Bowl Evangelism | Why Jesus did not say, "Market your neighbor as yourself." (February 3, 2011)
One Wedding and Six Funerals | What it can mean to participate in the life of God. (January 20, 2011)
Blessed Are the Poor in Virtue | Why some people may want to abandon New Year's resolutions as soon as possible. (January 6, 2011)

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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