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The Numbers Game: Church Numbers in Biblical Perspective

Zach Putthoff Written by 
Wednesday, 21 January 2015 02:03

For many Christians, a church’s success is a matter of simple mathematics. The more people, the better. If attendance and giving numbers are going up, God must be pleased. And if those numbers are going down, well…you get the picture.

I wish I could say that I’ve never played the numbers game myself, but I can’t, because I do, quite often actually.

Yes, I admit that an ever-changing portion of my Monday morning mood is influenced by the attendance and giving numbers of our church the day before. When the numbers look good, I tend to go into my week feeling encouraged. And when the numbers look less than good, I have to ask the Lord to guard me from becoming discouraged.

However, various circumstances in my life and in our church have led me to do some serious thinking and biblical contemplation over the issue of church numbers. This post is my attempt to summarize most of the big things that I have learned, and continue to learn (as I need frequent reminding), hanging my thoughts on some of the larger principles I see in Scripture. I hope they will be profitable to you as well.

Here they are, in a particular, but non-essential order.

1. Numbers are not spiritually irrelevant.

I admire those good and well-intentioned men who encourage pastors to not care at all about numbers. There is a part of me that wishes I could be more like them. However, I am not convinced that God would have us care nothing about the number of people being reached and cared for in and through our churches. In fact, it seems that if we truly care about seeing the Gospel of Christ spread to as many people as possible, and if we care about the souls of men, then there doesn’t seem to be a way to think so little about numbers – because those numbers represent actual people.

This is why I believe, for example, that when we read of Jesus in Mark chapter 6 feeding a great multitude of people; we are not simply told that he fed a great multitude. We are instead told that he had fed some “five thousand men” (not including women and children). That is, Jesus and/or the disciples counted the people. But why? Because they were market-savvy, pop-culture experts who cared nothing for truth and everything for results? No, rather because Jesus saw that multitude full of “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). At least five thousand sheep, to be specific.

This is also why, for example, that when NT church was born in Acts chapter 2 at Pentecost, we are not just told that a bunch of people got saved. Rather, we are told that “about three thousand” (Acts 2:41) people came to Christ under the Spirit-empowered preaching of the Apostle Peter. The numbers there in Acts 2 are significant because of what they represent. Luke describes them very specifically. “And there were added that day about three thousand souls.” The number is significant because souls are significant.

There are other places we could look, but you get the idea. The number of people being reached and cared for in and through our churches is not irrelevant, because people are not irrelevant.

At the same time…

2. Numbers are not easy to interpret.

That is, the numbers game is not a matter of simple mathematics. This is where I think a lot of Christians would do well to stop and evaluate how they think about the issue.

Many assume that if a church is growing numerically, then it is a sign of God’s blessing; a sign that the church is doing something right. However, it is not only the question of whether a church is growing numerically that is important. The how’s and why’s of church growth are at minimum just as important as any other question regarding church growth.

Churches that experience numerical growth need to ask a number of questions to interpret that growth properly. For starters, are they growing because they have gone soft on the Gospel? Are they growing because they are refusing to confront serious issues in their attendees? Are they growing because they preach hard to the choir and soft to the prospective member?

In other words, why are people coming? Are they coming because they are getting the truth, or because they are hearing what they want to hear? Are they coming because they are coming under conviction under the courageous preaching of the Word of God or because they are made to feel comfortable in their sin? Surely, if it is the latter, the numerical growth of that church is not a sign of God’s blessing.

In fact, the Bible I read warns churches of a trend that is said will increase as the return of Christ draws ever-nearer. The Apostle Paul talks about it in 2 Timothy 4 when he writes to Timothy the young pastor, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).

Therefore, it would seem that there is a common kind of numerical growth that occurs, not as a sign of God’s blessing, but as an indication of spiritual compromise. That deserves some serious meditation.

Conversely, Paul’s words to Timothy also indicate that as the days approaching the return of Christ march on, there will be a kind of numerical shrinkage in the true church as well. That warrants some careful thought as well.

Now, my point in saying these things is not to say that all numerical growth is bad (remember point #1) or that all numerical shrinkage is good (see the following points). Rather, it is to say that numerical growth is not easy to interpret. A lot of people simply assume without any serious thought that if a church is growing, God must be very happy with that church. I am simply arguing that this assumption is wrong and leads to shaky conclusions.

I’ll try to break this point down in the next two points.

3. Bigger is not necessarily better.

This clearly follows from the previous point, but I’d like to expand a bit here. Here’s how (I think) we know when numerical growth is not necessarily a good thing. Bigger is not always better.

Bigger is not better when people are leaving their otherwise faithful churches to join yours simply because they like your church better. Bigger is not better when you are stealing sheep.

Bigger is also not better if there is not a team of qualified pastors in your church who are able, equipped, and available to care for the souls of everyone coming to your church. If the growth of a church has clearly exceeded the ability of the pastors to care for the flock, it is not a good thing.

Bigger is also not better if the growth is due to a professional model of ministry that relieves the saints of the responsibility to do ministry themselves. So, to get personal; if people are coming to our church because they find it easier to be consumers, it is not God’s affirmation of our ministry.

And as I said before, bigger is not better if the growth is due to a church’s compromise on the hard truths of Scripture. If the bad news that must precede the Good News is never being preached, you can be almost certain that your growth is not a healthy kind of growth.

As I see it in Scripture; there are two kinds of numerical growth that a church should desire. The first is growth by way of genuine conversions, where unbelievers hear the Gospel and are brought under the authority of the Word of God by the Holy Spirit, who makes them to be born again and grants them faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins and right standing with God, and who then are instructed to go into the waters of baptism to publicly identify with Christ in his death and resurrection, and are then joyfully added as members of Christ’s universal and local church. This is the best kind of numerical growth any church can experience.

But a second kind of growth that I think the church is right to pursue, is the kind of growth that occurs as they seek to gather up Christians who are not in healthy church situations or who have found themselves looking for a new church for good reason. Churches should be on the lookout for Christ’s true people who are lacking a biblically faithful church to call home.

Beyond that, I can’t really think of a kind of numerical growth that Scripture would lead us to care about.

Bigger is not necessarily better. Yet, at the same time…

4. Smaller is not necessarily better either.

Some Christians take great pride in being a part of a small church, feeling that they are part of a rare faithful remnant. And while faithfulness to Christ is certainly rare in our fallen world; I’m not so sure it’s quite as rare as this remnant might think.

Rather, the smallness of a church could very well indicate a number of spiritually troubling things. It could indicate that the church doesn’t really care for souls outside of their safe little gathering. It could mean that they are unloving, or that they are lazy in evangelism, or that they preach weird and wacky things. The smallness of a church could mean that it is not focused on obeying Christ by heeding the Great Commission.

Furthermore, the smallness of a church could also reveal that the church is not actively dealing with conflict in a biblical and peace-making kind of way. It could mean that they’re comfortable with divisions and strife, and don’t care when people leave. The smallness of a church could indicate that the church isn’t really that concerned about being a healthy church.

So, while bigger is not necessarily better; smallness should not be seen as a badge of honor either.

However…

5. Smaller is not necessarily worse.

Smaller is not a sign of God’s displeasure with a church if that church is seeking to grow through practices clearly assigned to them in Scripture; serious biblical preaching, passionate pleading over souls, and courageous personal evangelism, to name the top three. If a church is focusing hard on being faithful regarding the depth of her ministry and sincerely seeking to trust God with the breadth of her ministry, it is not a bad thing. Far from it; it is a sign that the Spirit of God is truly at work in that church.

Furthermore, smaller is not necessarily worse if the lack of growth is giving time and opportunity to the pastoral team to adequately care for the souls who are already in the church. I feel that this has been a blessing God has given to our church over the past couple of years. We have not seen any real kind of numerical growth (we’ve lost some and gained some). But the lack of growth has enabled our pastoral team to better care for the saints who are already here, as well as to prepare for any growth that God may grant to us in the future by raising up other leaders.

But beyond these things, there is simply no guarantee in the Bible that if a church is faithful to its God-given mission that God is going to grant great measures of tangible fruit to that church. The only thing that God guarantees to His faithful people is hardship! “Indeed,” the Apostle Paul says, “all who live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Not surprisingly, these words echo the words of Jesus, who told His followers, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).

Tribulation and the presence of Christ in that tribulation. Those are the only things promised to Christ’s faithful saints.

And so, smaller may not necessarily be worse. It may just be evidence that the Word is true.

6. Supernatural growth is supernaturally produced.

Far beyond numerical growth, the Scriptures would lead us to care most about true spiritual growth. And spiritual growth is supernatural growth. It is only produced by the Spirit of God. What kind of growth am I talking about?

Well, let’s first consider a kind of growth that sees a person brought from spiritual death to spiritual life. This is the “growth” of conversion, which is a lot less like growth and far more like a resurrection. I’m not talking about mere professions of faith; but actual conversions; whereby a person is made a new creature by the power of the Holy Spirit. I’m talking about the new birth, where the heart of stone in a sinner is replaced with a heart of flesh that is sensitive to God and His ways; a heart that as a result clings to Christ the Son of God in genuine faith to save him from his sins, to make him right with God, and to guard his soul in life and in death. We should be praying and working to see this kind of “growth” take place.

But beyond that, I’m talking about the kind of growth whereby a Christian is transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. The kind of growth that takes place as a Christian regularly encounters the glory of Christ in His Word and is changed increasingly by the Holy Spirit as a result of those encounters, making that sinner more and more like His Savior.

I’m talking about the kind of growth that sees Christians growing in Christ-likeness also growing in love for one another; genuinely learning to lay down their lives for the good of their brothers and sisters in Christ. A growth where Christians are learning to forgive one another, as the Lord has forgiven them; where Christians are seeking peace and genuine unity with one another as they speak the truth into each other’s lives and extend patience and grace to one another in love.

I’m talking about the kind of growth where a Christian becomes more and more concerned for the state of lost souls; souls that apart from the grace and power of Christ will suffer an eternity in hell under the righteous judgment of God. A growth where Christians grow in grace toward those on the outside of their assembly and where they are seeking the eternal good of their neighbors.

The growth of a church is about so much more than a growing number of butts sitting in chairs or pews. It is about lives being changed through encounters with the living Christ that are blessed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And “this [kind of growth] comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). There are no shortcuts to it. The only way to see this kind of growth is to plant and water with and according to the Word of God, trusting that God will do what only God can do: “give the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7). And that growth may or may not have any drastic affect upon a church’s numbers.

7. Success is about far more than numbers.

While giving attention to various tangible metrics may be helpful to a church that is seeking to honestly evaluate the success of its ministry; those tangible metrics are not everything. True success is ultimately measured by whether a church has sought to be faithful to the Lord Jesus and truly obedient to His Word as they have gone about life and ministry as a church.

Has the church sought to give glory to God as their Creator and Redeemer in Christ? Has the church sought Spirit-produced Christ-likeness by giving prayerful attention to the Word of God in private and as a gathered body? Has the church sought to be centered around the glorious reality of God’s grace in Christ as revealed in the Gospel? Has the church sought to be a place of loving, truthful companionship and partnership in Gospel ministry? Has the church sought to spread the Gospel as far as the Lord would allow? Have they sought to faithfully share the Gospel to as many people as the Lord would grant? Have they sought the glory of Christ above all things?

If a church can answer “yes” to these questions (not as if they’ve done these things perfectly; but as if they’ve done them sincerely), that church is a success, no matter the numbers.

Now, I only pray that God will give me faith to believe these things more consistently. Lord, hear my prayer.

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