Pastoral Numerology: Numbers Count

Numbers count. Unfortunately, however, numbers have fallen on hard times among the pious because of the abuse of numbers by church leaders seeking the praise of men by flashing big digits in the faces of their peers. See, for example, Mark Driscoll’s goal of 100 campuses and 50,000 people in 10 years or Rick Warren’s publicity stunt attempt to get 3000 people baptized on 1 Sunday. The stories of churches that claim more converts and baptisms than are people in their counties are common. And in some cases people will cling to those inflated numbers even while their church auditorium is only 18% filled to capacity. It is quite easy, therefore, to understand why some Christians write off numbers. They claim that anytime a pastor asks another pastor how many attend his church that it is an underhanded way to boast about numbers.

That is an overly simplistic accusation and fails to admit to the remote possibility that a pastor may, on occasion, actually be humble. It also fails to acknowledge the obvious: numbers count for something. They matter, but they’re tricky. Numbers can be the source of great pride; they can also be the reason for discouragement. Numbers may lead to ministerial delusion or they can be a great information lode for analyzing the progress (or lack thereof) and health of a ministry. Therefore, some thoughts:

Interest in numbers does not equal ungodliness.

We must not automatically denigrate a positive statistic as man-centered, self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing fluff.  Granted, it has become a sanctified braggadocio that is tolerated in some circles without the least amount of critical thinking. But just because it is possible that a statistic may inflate a person’s ego does not mean that it necessarily has that effect on a Christian leader. Just because it is possible, and likely, that a Christian leader be proud does not mean that he is proud. So, while an interest in numbers is definitely vulnerable to abuse we should not be more godly than the Holy Spirit by condemning numbers all together.

The Holy Spirit seems to have thought that it was important that we know that 3000 people were baptized at Pentecost. We know that 120 people were in the upper room. There were 500 witnesses of the resurrected Christ, 16 soldiers who guarded Peter, and so on. The Bible is filled with statistics because numbers are useful for analyzing a situation.

The value of numbers is not numerical, but exponential.

I’m sort of playing with words here with the word exponential but the idea is that a number is powerful to explain visually and symbolically what is happening in our ministry. A simple number has exponential power to the interpreter because of what it is able to say symbolically. 2000 swine — a large number — stampeded off a cliff to their death. 1 demoniac — a relatively small number — was cleansed. Two thousands (2000) says the demoniac was very possessed. One (1) says that he was very loved.

Though numbers are exponentially valuable, they do not tell the whole story.

Numbers never tell the whole story; they only tell part of the story. Jesus had 12 disciples. That’s part of the story. 1 of them was a son of perdition; that’s the rest of the story. Yet even this is an oversimplification: 1 was very close to Jesus, 3 formed an inner circle, a 4th sometimes participated in that inner circle, but they were all — including the 1 traitor — known as “The Twelve” (12). In the same way, when a pastor says, “We have 1000 people,” what does he mean? What does Mark Driscoll mean when he says, “50,000 people”?

Likewise, 5000 men were fed with the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. 5000 men and women and children. We are not told how many women and children were present, but the Holy Spirit thinks it suffices to say that there were 5000 men, not counting women and children, to make the simple point that there were a lot of people! While this may not gratify the Sword of the Lord, the count of 5000 men says what needs to be said.

Small numbers may be more valuable than large numbers.

The shepherd left the 99 to go seek the 1. Gideon’s army was not worth anything until it became Gideon’s band. Great crowds abandoned Jesus, leaving only a handful of nervous disciples. Yet it was with these disciples that Jesus began to build His Church Isaiah was promised that his message would be resisted all his life. He, therefore, had good reason to be nervous if the head count of people flocking to his preaching got alarmingly high. It would be evidence that he was off message.

The problem is not numbers. The problem is learning to interpret numbers and recognizing the statistics that are most important.

Every ministry should be analyzed numerically, but numerical analysis must be more than just a head count. Therefore, the challenge for church leaders is interpreting the numbers and selecting the statistics that will help them properly care for the flock the Chief Shepherd has entrusted to them. It should never be mere nose counting and reporting the results. Anyone can count; only wise leaders can interpret numbers rightly. Some pastors are very discouraged about the low offerings, but if they had a proper understanding of the demographics of their church they would actually be greatly encouraged! Several years ago I noticed that my congregation of 150 at the time gave significantly smaller offerings than my friend’s church of similar size. I was mildly frustrated because I kept thinking about the many things our church could do if we only had more money.

Then I did a demographic study of my church. I found out that 50% of our congregation at the time was under the age of 18! In other words, kids make for an exciting and loud church, but poor offerings! Suddenly, I was on cloud nine (note the numerical expression!). By carefully analyzing our numbers I began to realize something incredibly wonderful was happening right in the midst of my whining! Children are a wealth that many ministries pine for. It also influenced the kind of ministries that we chose to do as a church. So, interpreting numbers and collecting the right data is important to good shepherding.

Suggestions:

1. Get a head count for every event. This is the least meaningful number of all (and usually the only one people collect), but it is a base number for comparative studies within your own ministry. Note: I’m not suggesting that you compare your ministry to other ministries; I’m suggesting that you learn to compare numbers with numbers in your own ministry as I will try to explain further in these suggestions.

2. Analyze the numbers only in the light of a completed cycle. For most churches a complete cycle is Sunday to Saturday. For me, one of the most important numbers is the midweek number after Sunday morning (Sunday AM being the beginning of the cycle). This affords a more realistic read on what is going on in our assembly. Sunday’s numbers may have been unusually low, but a steady midweek number can keep the pastor from despair!

3. Look for motion in numbers. In other words, too many pastors only look at the Sunday AM number. That’s the one we like to tell people about. It’s the one that turns heads. But the fact of the matter is that we need to be looking for motion in numbers even if the Sunday AM is stagnate. For example, my congregation on Sunday morning is consistently over 200. We started with around 40 8 years ago. The Sunday morning number goes up and down over the 200 mark, but there is not a lot of exciting rush going on right now with that number. However, I am not discouraged, nor do I feel like I have no work to do. Here’s why:

When we were smaller (around the 100) mark, we had upwards of 80 to 90 percent return on Sunday night and upwards of 70 to 80 percent return on Midweek prayer night! I was giddy with excitement about those numbers. Now, if we have a 220 on Sunday morning we only have about 60% that return on a Sunday night. Because of a thriving Kids-4-Truth program in the midweek we have a higher percentage of the Sunday morning crowd return. However, we as leaders have much work to do to encourage discipleship and involvement.

Granted, Sunday night may or may not be the best means for reaching our people. For example, since we only have Sunday night service every other week, we have noticed that the total tally of our Life Groups (small groups) that meet on the off week is higher than the total of what we see on a Sunday night service. My point is not to discuss the merit or demerits of our particular strategies (although we’re open to it), it is simply to say that looking for numbers in motion is looking to see how many people are moving from peripheral Sunday-go-to-meetin’ people to discipleship, men’s groups, Life Group’s etc. Therefore, while one may see a stagnate Sunday AM number over the period of a year, he can be encouraged that within that stagnate number is a lot of motion in the right direction! More leaders, more disciples, more growth, more small groups, etc.

4. As often as possible do a simple demographic analysis of your congregation.

In the eight years of pastoring this church, I have not yet done one funeral for a church attendee. It is inevitable, and I am quite surprised by this statistic. I could interpret the number to brag that we are unusually blessed by God and are enjoying a supernatural protection from the curse. But that would be blasphemously preposterous. The reason can be explained by the fact that we have so many young people. On the other hand, I have some very dear pastor friends who have done many funerals this year. One just moved to his new church and has buried 9 people in the past 6 months.

A demographic understanding of your congregation opens your eyes to what it is exactly you are called to do as a pastor. My friends who pastor older people enjoy larger offerings than our church collects, but they are entrusted with a wonderful and sacred trust: the care of God’s saints as they prepare to cross the Jordan. These pastors are wise to saturate themselves in reading and meditation that can be translated into helpful counsel to the aged and infirm.

Simple demographics are helpful to ward off discouragement and unhealthy comparisons with other ministries. Remember how I was discouraged that my church of equal size with my friend’s church did not give as much in the plate? This was because I wasn’t looking at the congregation in the right light. When I realized that they were mostly young people I got so overwhelmed with joy and humility that I was blessed with such a gift that I could hardly contain myself.

My city is always struggling economically. In Rockford, last I heard, we have 18% unemployment and we do not have wealthy people in our congregation. I continue to be thrilled at the what God is doing through these people. On their own, the numbers are not all that impressive, but God sees the whole picture and he knows when a congregation is giving out of their poverty.

5. Numbers will help you recognize where you are failing.

Some people take pride in the fact that their numbers are crashing. We have reason to be concerned if we’re not seeing growth. Unless, we can positively point it to the unpopularity of the Gospel we would be wise to ask ourselves some hard questions when we see, say, a large Sunday morning attendance and no mid-week involvement. Maybe we should fire up the pulpit and get some pew warmers mad. One time I realized that our midweek studies and prayer and discipleship groups had stagnated, but we had a overflow of Sunday morning pew attenders. I frankly told them one Sunday morning that we had no intention of building a church for Sunday-go-to-meetin’ people and if they wanted to warm a pew I could point out a number of good churches that had the space. We didn’t have space, I said, for self-congratulatory anemic Christians, but if they wanted to start getting serious, they were always welcome. That Sunday night we had a record attendance. One family left though.  Fine. We needed their chair space.

Brother pastors, we are called to shepherd. We have to know our flocks. It is sinful to use numbers to boast and downright foolish. Some pastors who boast of large attendance probably should remind themselves that Jesus said, “Woe are you if all men speak well of you.” Maybe they should ask themselves how many are actually disciples. But it is silly to go to the other extreme and pretend that numbers are worthless. They count.

Now, I don’t know what Driscoll meant by 50,000 people. I really don’t care. I assume that his motive is good. He knows that only God can convert people so I doubt he is bragging that he’ll get 50,000 converts. But whatever his motive, we would be wise to realize that we can mask a pride of our own by disguising our failures and low ambitions with an unwillingness to look at the numbers and ask hard questions.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks Bob,
    That was encouraging. Especially being in a smaller church. I am always looking at the demographics to try to rightly assess where we’re at. I certainly need some help in pastoral wisdom. Can I give you a call sometime?

    Thanks,

    Will

  2. Bob,

    Great article. I was just having a discussion this last week with a group of friends talking about numbers. I noted that my guess is an avreage congregation over the last 2000 years of church history, (around the globe) might be between 30 to 60 believers. As a matter of fact in many parts of the world 60 believers is a mega-church. It’s my guess that many local assemblies in the early church were this size – despite the dispensational and ecclesiastical “Big Bang” (pentecost) in Jerusalem that started a church out in the thousands. IMO – A church of 60 can actually be more vibrant and accomplish more “real” ministry for the cause of Christ than a church ten times that size. Enjoyed your thoughts here.

    Straigth Ahead!

    jt

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