Church Numbers: the Golden Calf in the Middle of the Room

My spirit cringes in disgust every time I hear someone boast of their congregation, “Yeah, we worship 235 on a Sunday morning.” That statement absolutely wreaks of idolatry. For one thing, as Christians, we don’t worship 235 of anything. We worship one– count em’ 1, uno, the one and only– God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may be blessed… correction… God may be blessed to have 235 worshippers gathered in a particular place on a Sunday morning to worship. But when I hear statements like that thrown around, I can’t stand it. And while I can’t speak for God, I’m sure this whole “yeah, we worship 235 or 75 or 666 on a Sunday morning” must stir the divine stomach, too.
church numbersIt’s time to call it out for what it is. It’s symptomatic of the thinking which plagues the mainline church, my United Methodist tribe in particular. It’s the numbers game. And the way the numbers game is being played these days, it’s nothing more than idolatry, and therefore is a breach of the First and even Second Commandments.

So why all the fuss over numbers? Well actually, the church has always counted numbers. There were 12 disciples, down from 72 at one point. There were 12 apostles. After Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were added to their number that day. The book of Revelation records 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel sealed for the day of redemption. (And no, I’m not a literalist on this last one. Nevertheless, it’s a numbered count, even figuratively.) Of course, the Old Testament records all kinds of numbers pertaining to God’s people.

But as for our modern obsession with numbers, I once heard United Methodist Bishop James E. Swanson say quite prophetically, “No one ever fussed about evangelism and discipleship until the money started running out.” Amen and amen, Bishop. I wish that statement could be trumpeted to every board, committee, and task force of our denomination. As the church began to decline in both financial and people resources, then we started scrutinizing our statistics and desperately cranked out catchy slogans and programs designed to promote things like evangelism, discipleship, and stewardship.

It’s the same old spiel so many of us have heard every year at our annual denominational gatherings:

Our membership is declining at precipitous rates. Our membership is getting older. We’re running out of money. We need to address this before we die out. How will we do this?
Well, we need to reverse these these trends. We need to increase our membership with newer, preferably younger people. And, of course, we need to get money out of them to keep our ship from sinking.

Idolatry. Sheer, ugly, shameful idolatry.

Instead of fussing over numbers, we need to fuss over Jesus. And therein lies the problem. As congregations became established and static, the fervor and passion of being disciples of Jesus began to ebb away. When we lost our vital connection to a life lived in Jesus, we lost our heart. When we lost our heart, we lost our passion and settled for programs, comfortable routines, maintenance-minded structures, and a club-like, members-only mentality towards congregational life.

Numbers and statistics are important, but only as a one kind of thermometer. For example, let’s say I take my temperature, and it reads higher than it should be. If I were to use today’s church mentality, I’d be saying to myself, “My goodness! This number is too high… I need to find a way to lower this number” and then proceed to shake the thermometer to a better, lower number. (Never mind it was a digital thermometer…) You can see the problem. I’m fussing over the number without diagnosing and treating the causality, the real sickness.

The real sickness within today’s mainline church is our lost fervor for being Jesus’ disciples who strive after him while expecting great, awesome things from his kingdom here on earth and in heaven to come.

Numbers tell a story, but they do not cause or fix problems. Numbers are a gauge of spiritual activity, but they are not our chief, primary focus. Jesus is. The moment we learn that lesson is the moment we can be freed from the bondage of worrying over numbers. Numbers are not to be reveled in when they’re good. We revel in and give glory to God; giving glory to numbers is self-serving idolatry. And, conversely, numbers are not to be consternated over when they’re bad. We wouldn’t worry over a thermometer. We would address the sickness and seek a remedy for it.

In our case, we have a merciful, bountiful, fiercely loving God who is ready to pour salve on our wounds, wash away our sins, cure our spiritual blindness, soften our stony-hearted apathy, smash up our self-seeking idols of worldly success, and fill us to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of Jesus. We have an Abba Father who runs breakneck towards us prodigals the moment we decide to return home. That’s true for us as individuals, and certainly true for our faith communities, too.

In order to smash up the golden calf of the numbers game, we need a revival of biblical discipleship in which we re-learn our identity as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. As disciples, we worship with passionate abandon (no matter the form of worship, form of worship being yet another manifestation of self-serving idolatry). As disciples we build authentic, caring relationships of support, learning, and accountability with other disciples. As disciples, we learn and live the Word of God contained in the pages of Scripture, crafting a thoroughly biblical lens to view God, the world, and ourselves. As disciples, we are passionate about bringing our lost neighbors to a healing relationship with Jesus, fighting for justice, binding up the broken and injured, all the while living in hopeful expectation for the kingdom of God to come. As disciples of Jesus, we seek to be like Jesus Christ, to be the living flesh, bone and sinews of  his way, truth, and life.

When we get at that, the numbers game will care for itself. After all we worship only One.


Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

9 Responses to Church Numbers: the Golden Calf in the Middle of the Room

  1. markwalt

    There’s an interesting quote here: “The real sickness within today’s mainline church is our lost fervor for being Jesus’ disciples …”
    From my vantage point as an atheist outsider, it really seems to me that fervor is not declining. In fact, as church attendance declines, and all religions slowly lose adherents, the ones who are left behind are the most fervent. The stalwarts who uphold the faith with zeal and vigor.
    This is why, it seems to me, that those institutions which have the reputation as being the most fervent or fundamentalist or (in my view) objectionable are even more of those things today than they were in years past.
    In the political realm, there is both more and less religion in our lawmaking. In some areas, like Seattle where I live, there is far less of a religious influence than in the past, but in some areas there have been greater and I would say more audacious attempts by God-fearing folks to illegally and unconstitutionally legislate God into things.
    I would suggest that we are living in interesting times, and that there may be more fervency on display than at any other time since the founding of our republic.
    Fervent people will go to church. It’s the unfervent ones that you need to keep or attract. And I know that you don’t like the numbers game, but the truth is out there: If you don’t attract new people, your church will rot and die. It’s doing that now.
    So, you will have to focus on numbers. Or find a new profession.
    As you know, I’ve visited a LOT of churches lately. The ones that are dying fast are the ones that are just preaching, and singing, and praying. The ones that aren’t dying fast are the ones that are fostering a sense of community, belonging, and family, and having a little fun while they’re at it.
    Anybody can Google God Stuff at home, so what’s a preacher good for? A preacher has to be a leader, a parent, a friend, a confidant, and a counselor.

    • Mark, as always you have wonderfully thoughtful, helpful things to say. That’s why I like you! 🙂 You raise an interesting point about fervency. Christian author Brennan Manning (one of my favorites) once said in an interview that in the coming years, Christians will be mystics or nothing at all and he also anticipated a continuing decline in numbers, which he didn’t really worry about. His thinking was the same as yours: the faithful core will truly be faithful. All the rest will be pruned away. I think that’s very true.
      As for good fervency verses obnoxious and destructive fervency, I think Jesus said it best when he said we’ll know a tree by its fruit. In other words, healthy, authentic, Christ-like fervency will be truly good. Of course, it will always offend the powers, the powerful, and the truly wicked, but for everyday, seeking people, it will be good! To that end, I really like your statement: “As you know, I’ve visited a LOT of churches lately. The ones that are dying fast are the ones that are just preaching, and singing, and praying. The ones that aren’t dying fast are the ones that are fostering a sense of community, belonging, and family, and having a little fun while they’re at it.” You’ve touched on what is truly the authentic, and as a leader in the UMC, that’s what I’m trying to get congregations to rediscover within themselves, where the divine already is.
      I’m also using topics like “the numbers game” as a way to focus on what is truly essential about our identity and ethos as the Christian community, the church. We’ve gradually lost that along the way and have been trying to regain former glory by focusing on symptoms instead of root causes, or by addressing new challenges with dated remedies. So yes, numbers are important in that they tell a story and are a particular kind of gauge. (Use your metaphor of choice here…) But all too often, I hear more about numbers, reversing numerical trends, statistical comparisons, etc., and not enough on what is actually causing those numbers. Even then, the answers and remedies, all too often, are programatic and cute, not deep and soul-stirring.
      Keep up your great work, Mark, and again I value you and the conversation!

  2. Edmund Metheny

    First, a minor question: when people say “we worshiped X people this week” , its really just Christian jargon, right? Rather like the way Christians have turned the word “disciple” into a verb. They aren’t actually saying “we worshiped these people” but are really using the phrase to mean “we worshiped with (or had attending our worship service) X people.” Am I correct?
    Second, I think that while – like anything – the “numbers game” as you call it can be taken too far, and perhaps some people are doing that now, but underlying the numbers game is a real problem for any organization and particularly ones that have hierarchical structures and multiple branches such as most mainline Protestant denominations.
    Numbers mean revenue, and in a revenue driven economy revenue means goods and services. You can’t acquire goods and services without revenue, and your ability to offer goods and services without revenue is extremely limited and local. Without revenue, for example, the UMC could not continue its lobbying efforts in Washington, and would be extremely limited in the amount of aid it could offer during natural disasters.
    In short, the church, like any organization, needs money to operate, and money is a function of the numbers and devotion of the church members.
    At the moment, at least in the United States, mainline Protestant denominations are in the middle of losing their market-share, so to speak, to fundamentalist charismatic evangelical groups. The product that you sell is not appealing in the marketplace of ideas. This needs to change or, as Mark so aptly put it, your organization will rot and die.
    So the question that the United Methodist Church needs to be asking is “what are the growing religious organizations offering that make them more attractive than us, and is there any way that we can offer those things too without losing our identity?”

    • Hi Ed-
      In answer to your first question, it’s a disturbing figure of speech I’m hearing more and more. Of course, I know what they mean, but the phrase, “we worship [x numbers of worshippers]” unintentionally but ironically illustrates the problem: we’re “worshipping” numbers.
      And no, I’m not throwing out numbers, statistics, and that kind of thing. Those things are very important for the reasons you mentioned so very well. At the end of the day, the amount of resources we have spells out the work we can do. I’m just trying to get us to drop an unhealthy preoccupation with the numbers game that would distract us from much deeper issues that need addressing, issues which, I believe, if properly addressed would put our numbers in a much better position.
      There are some (and I’m not one of them) who want to discard dealing with numbers out of a fear of accountability. Like I said in my post, numbers tell a story and gauge the state of things. But the cure isn’t just to boost or otherwise shift our numbers to a desirable outcome. The cure is to address root causes head on, and perhaps for a season, not worry so much about the numbers so we can address those issues more intentionally.
      Thankfully, I’m beginning to see that happen, especially from my vantage point on Conference staff. Churches are reclaiming their relationship with Christ and their mission and are trying to live into that. I have the fun task of coming alongside them to coach and equip them in the direction God wants them to go. That is awesome! So there is some good news here. Is it enough? Well, we’ll see…

  3. Ros Saddington

    Hey babe the numbers only count if they are in your favour. Love you.

  4. You worship in Spirit and in truth – its not about the place but about the people who turn up to pray with Christ in the center. Sometimes the place can hinder more than benefit because the pastor starts to sweat over paying the bills. The beauty of keeping it simple is that you don’t do that…early Christians met in homes (and in the temple and in fields…etc…etc) now it just seems that they can’t worship unless they are lining up in a fusty, mostly cold, building!
    Jesus said, “If two or more gather in my name then I am in the center with them”. That is church…it doesn’t need a secretary or a governing board for the charity and all that stuff…that is just man made and it is not required for church. Church is the people not the building and I know that sounds more cliché today it is just the simple truth…Jesus said he is building His church of “living stones” the people who actually follow Him!
    You can attend church, join the choir, do good works but actually not want anything to do with Jesus (like the good charities do but have nothing to do with Jesus).
    The word church means “ekklesia” – called out. To do what? To tell people that the “Kingdom is at hand” – the new kingdom is soon to be established on this earth. That Kingdom is the kingdom of Christ. Jesus said “repent, for the kingdom is near”. That is the message, some will hear the message and some won’t…all said and done…that is what we are here for at the moment…and those who know this truth – follow Jesus…and he said “bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who despitefully use you” = love your neighbour as yourself. This means that we tell them that they need their sins to be washed and cleansed – whether you believe that or not is not up to me…Without the washing of the word…with the cleansing of the blood of Christ – you can’t enter heaven. Doesn’t matter if you believe that or not – I am telling you what I know – you can’t enter heaven unless you are born again. That only happens when we turn to Christ and ask for His forgiveness. If you think your not a sinner then it won’t matter what I tell you. Only Christ gives the new birth. The message is this
    “God so loved the world that he gave His only Begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believes on him is not condemned: but he that believes not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
    Do what “you” want to do with this message but one thing is for sure – you have now been given the truth and you cannot stand before God and say you never heard the gospel of salvation. You cannot earn your way into heaven. Your salvation is a gift offered to you through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Gifts are free to the one receiving the gift. God gave us prophesy so we can know that He is God…Some of these prophesies which can be witnessed today are Isaiah 17 and Isaiah 19 – these are not vague prophesies but things that are happening today…things that foreshadow the return of Jesus Christ.
    I can’t save you – you have to look for Christ yourself. One thing is for sure. When you stand before God you will stand alone and you will answer alone and just because we say that we don’t believe in Him isn’t going to change the fact that you will still stand before Him.
    God bless you all

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