When a pastor says "we count people because people count" and "numbers matter because every number is a person," I agree.
Everyone in a church service, a discipleship class or a small group is a person for whom Jesus died. And knowing how many of them are in the room is a vital first step in ministering to them.
But it's just a first step.
Every healthy church knows this, both large and small. But when we're constantly bombarded with the importance of numerical growth, it can be easy to forget that attendance figures are only the first – and often the least helpful – step in determining how well we're meeting people's needs and challenging them into a deeper walk with Jesus.
As important as it is to keep accurate records, there are three big problems with allowing attendance figures to become a primary determiner of effective ministry.
1. Every number may be a person, but people aren't numbers
When we're looking at spreadsheets more than having conversations, it's easy to be fooled into thinking we're doing more pastoring than we actually are.
If a church staff talks more about statistical analysis, numerical trends and annual growth patterns than what they're hearing from their time with Jesus and their personal interactions with church members, we're probably treating people like numbers.
This doesn't mean we should abandon statistical analysis. Done right, it can give us a great look into objective reality. But we must never fall into the trap of thinking those numbers are telling us more than they're capable of.
2. The smaller the group, the less true it is
Church growth proponents and denominational officials rely on statistics. And justifiably so. When you're dealing with thousands, even millions of people, stats are critical to understanding trends, needs, and our effectiveness.
But, the smaller the group, the less helpful numbers become and the more important relationships are.
So yes, every number may be a person. But in a small church environment there's no need to substitute numbers for people.
In a healthy church of any size, every attendee is a person. And every person has a name, a history and a future.
3. Names are better than numbers
When a group grows large, the pastor can’t know everyone any more. So they need to make major adjustments in the way they do ministry. Train the pastoral staff, prepare small group leaders, and use statistics to provide one set of criteria for how well we're doing ministry.
But we shouldn't rush into it. Even as we use the best statistical tools available, we need to resist the 'every number is a person' approach to ministry for as long as we can and strive to embrace an 'every person has a name' approach to ministry as much as possible.
When we work with crowds, numbers matter. When we work with people, names matter.
Copyright © 2017 by the author or Christianity Today.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.