Starting from the small church of my youth, winding through my last 20 years of vocational pastoring, I have had a decent vantage point on the church growth narrative. Here’s the secret to church growth: Jesus will build the church if we make disciples. But first we must break free of the “numbers leash.”
When I was in a booming attractional church, we took pride in our voluminous felt-needs programs. When I was in a liturgical church, there was a palatable panic around when our numbers of people dropped. No matter what our style was, we were numbers conscious.
We’d hear about the metrics over and over; how many campuses we have, how many people attend, how many got saved, how much money we raised, etc. Honestly I came to dread church conferences because of the onslaught of that single question “so how many…” Even when I pastored at a megachurch, I was embarrassed to answer.
The question itself exposes our ambitions.
As a church planter, the volume of resources for church planting stresses this anxiety. Supposedly, after your first Sunday Launch, the race is on to get to 100 people in order to survive. This is the goal. I was just reading a church planting book published last year that suggested borrowing people from another church to create the illusion of numerical energy so that church shoppers feel you’re a big deal in town. This feels awfully disingenuous.
Weighing Our Impact
Every church I’ve served has been led around by the numbers leash, creating a producer-consumer relationship with parishioners. Whether spoken or unspoken, it is how we weighed our impact. Simultaneously, we always had angst about a lack of involvement, spiritual maturity and genuine care for mission.
Despite this angst, we did not change our matrix. We still emotionally and pragmatically were yanked about by numbers. The unnerving truth is God gets heated when leaders survey the success of their organizations using numerical size.
“David took a census of the people of Israel commissioning Joab to count the inhabitants of Israel. ‘Take a census of all the people of Israel—from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north—and bring me a report so I may know how many there are.
But Joab replied, ‘May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this?’
But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab traveled throughout all Israel to count the people… God was very displeased with the census.
Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt for doing this foolish thing.’” – 1 Chronicles 21
A Paradigm Shift
This leads me to believe that we need a major paradigm shift. We need to stop emphasizing the most obvious, simplistic cultural sign of success and instead use a more Kingdom-oriented pattern. What we measure is what will eventually matter the most. Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.” I’ve found this to be true.
Missional Churches are going to have to wrestle with resisting the numbers template. Numbers tell us very little about the DNA of Discipleship, Neighborhood Rootedness and Relational Tethering. These are qualities that mattered in the 1st Century Church. What if we reoriented around their vitality?
We need a new fresh metaphor, one that has little do with numbers and a whole lot to do with rich soil and earth under our fingernails. The metaphor I find most helpful is The Garden, The Gardeners and The Gardening.
The Garden – Seeing Neighborhoods
God got really clear about his love for the world by moving into the Nazareth neighborhood. We need to get clear about locality. Like a raised bed in a garden box, we need to define the size, shape and contents of our garden.
Your garden may be a section of your city or include several small towns in your county. If the language you use in your church is always connected to the brick-and-mortar of your Sunday gathering place, then you will naturally count heads as the means to measuring.