Numbers matter at our church because every number is a person.
I don’t doubt that most pastors who say that mean it. And they truly do care for people. But numbers are not people and people are not numbers.
Most businesses are figuring this out, so why are huge sections of the church so far behind on it?
At Starbucks, when I stand in line waiting for my coffee, I don’t have to remember a number any more. They may say my name wrong half the time, but even when they call me “Car” (yes, that happened recently) it means they’re trying. A number means they’re not.
Even my phone and TV have figured this out. I don’t dial a number, I say a person’s name. And I have no idea what channel my favorite TV shows are on – if they’re even on a channel. I enter the name of the show into the search bar, and voilà! there it is.
But too many pastors are hanging on to the increasingly antiquated notion that every number is a person and vice versa.
Numbers Are A Stand-In
Certainly, church metrics can be helpful. But only if we use them wisely. And hold them lightly.
At best, our attendance numbers are like the old-school number machines at the deli. They can increase efficiency when we’re selling bratwurst, but they’re not effective when we’re dealing with the deepest parts of people’s lives.
Some pastors are numbers-oriented. They don’t just pay close attention to attendance numbers, they can cite stats from their favorite sports team from a decade ago. That’s fine. But that’s not how most of us do ministry.
We need to stop treating pastors who don’t have a numbers orientation like they’re failing if they can’t quote their church’s stats off the top of their heads.
I can’t remember numbers that way. Not for anything. I retain ideas, stories and moments with people far more than numbers.
It’s nonsense to suggest that we can’t pastor a church well without a slavish attention to attendance numbers and small group percentages.
Honor The Reality Over The Substitute
In ministry, the numbers on a pastor’s weekly report often represent a soul saved, a person baptized or another step in someone’s spiritual journey. And that is always worth celebrating.
But we must never forget that numbers are, at best, a representational substitute for people. And a poor one at that. They’re not the real thing.
It’s a problem when we honor the substitute (attendance figures) over the reality (engagement with real people).
As pastors, we need to be careful not to be like the doctor with a bad bedside manner who spends all their time staring at the blips on a heart monitor while ignoring the actual person in front of them. That’s what we do when we constantly tout attendance numbers to a congregation of nameless faces. No matter how big or small the church may be.
Numbers Count, People Matter
Certainly, when a church gets beyond a certain size (usually 200 or so) it becomes impossible for any single person to know everyone’s names. That’s why healthy large churches work so hard at getting people connected to each other in small groups where they can be taught, discipled and pastored on a more personal level.
So this is not a rant against big churches. Pastors of small churches can be numbers-obsessed, too.
This is a reminder to put people ahead of stats. Whether our church is growing, shrinking or static, we need to celebrate stories of changed lives more than our attendance numbers.
Don’t pursue a bigger crowd at the cost of a healthier church. We need congregations where people truly do come before numbers.
Keep ministering. Keep reaching for growth. And keep counting.
Numbers do matter. But people matter more.
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