Numbers are a great way for church leaders to gain objective information. They can help us quantify data, spot patterns and trends, and face harsh realities.
But information is not the same as truth.
Numbers can give us facts, but they can't give us truth. Yet, ironically, numbers can tell us lies.
While giving us all the data we need, numbers can actually disguise deeper truths, keeping us on a dangerous path for far too long.
That happened to me and my church.
The church I pastor grew to about 400 in attendance several years ago, then shrunk quickly to barely over 100 people. One of the main reasons for the drop-off was that the talents and gifts required to pastor a church over the 200 barrier are not my gifts. I was miserable spending so much of my time doing things I'm not gifted for.
But the rising numbers hid that reality from me. I misread my own spiritual and emotional state because the increase in church attendance made me think everything was going great.
Those numbers made me feel so good about what I was doing that they clouded over the fact that I was spiritually numb and emotionally miserable.
What Numbers Make Us Miss
As long as the numbers stayed up, they captured my attention. They blinded me to deeper truths about the church, the ministry and my own walk with God.
If all healthy things grow, the assumption is that all church growth is healthy.
Because of this false equivalency, increasing numbers can cause us to make two equal, but opposite mistakes about church growth and church health.
On the one side, increasing numbers can cause us to ignore the cancer in an unhealthy church. That reality has played itself out in far too many megachurch scandals to mention. No, small churches are not immune to scandals and ill-health. But when the numbers aren't increasing, it's harder to hide.
On the other side of the ledger, static attendance numbers can often cause church leaders to miss the wonderful ministry happening in a healthy church. I've gone through that, too.
How many times do pastors of healthy small churches live in frustration and self-loathing, not because the church isn't doing well, but because the numbers aren't increasing like so many church growth principles tell us is inevitable?
We can't ignore the numbers. But we must be careful not to depend on them so much that they blind us to the non-numerical realities of spiritual and emotional health.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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