When Church Growth Numbers Blind Us to Deeper Truths

Numbers can give us facts, but they can’t give us truth.

Numbers can be 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.

In a recent post, “Why My Church Is Better at 200 Than It Was at 400,” I described how my church grew to about 400 in attendance, then shrank 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.

So what do you think? Have rising or falling numbers ever blinded you to the deeper truths of the ministry?

Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.

1 Comment

  1. We sometimes identify numbers as being evidence of quality. Not always true. Yet, our drive is to save as many souls as possible…. forgetting that it is God doing the saving. It isn’t supposed to be about us, but then we feel like we are failing God if we don’t deliver what we think he has called us to do.

    Success is so often measured by numbers, and it is pretty easy to doubt yourself, or your calling, if you can’t evidence it in the way your feel compelled to.

    In Acts chapter 2 – “Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day–about 3,000 in all.” (New Living Translation). So we (some of us) tend to think, from numbers being quoted in a way that signifies success, that numbers matter. We forget that numbers alone do not matter.
    (Please note that in “we”, I mean “some of us”…. )

    I can’t deny that I would like our fellowship to have more people.

    If I suffer from poor physical health, I want to be well, and to live long. But I might not get the chance to do that. I need to make the best of what I have and not regret what I do not have.

    Nice to see your articles on ChurchPlants.com

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