I read a letter from a minister the other day on a church website. In the short note to people that had never visited his church, he fired off three quick statistics: how many people attended, how many had professed faith and how many had been baptized. I’m not a huge fan of that, but I understand why he did it. I think there are two reasons:
1. The world is wired that way.
Don’t kid yourself, the church didn’t invent throwing around braggadocio when it comes to attendance. (I had to look up that word.) When a movie does well its first weekend, you can expect the next wave of commercials to proclaim, “The number one movie in America!” Or when a book sells well, publishers often rush a second print out with the words “New York Times Bestseller” on the top. Telling people something is popular or hot gets more people to come check it out. That’s natural.
2. It’s easy.
I’ve been having conversations with publishers and literary agents in the last few weeks. And I find myself talking about web traffic and unique visitors. That’s not who I want to be. The publishers and literary agents aren’t doing anything wrong, I am. When I talk numbers, I miss the honesty of people reading the site, I reduce the hurt of Timbo and his divorce and Kathe the atheist and her frustration with being beat up with the Bible. I turn those people into a stat. And that sucks and for that I am sorry. That’s not what I want to do, but it’s easy. Because the success is a little intoxicating and suddenly the words and the numbers start flooding out of your mouth. And you start to think that’s what matters.
But here’s the thing for me and that minister, numbers tend to blind. They are a good indication of growth, but they can’t be our destination. And people notice. When people that aren’t Christian tell me they don’t come to church because they don’t want to be brainwashed or become like a sheep or a follower or a number, I know where they are coming from. They are repeating what we are telling them. On our websites we are telling them they are numbers. On our church signs we are telling them (one near my house said, “VBS: 1933 attended, 456 saved”). In our words we are telling them.
The shame about the whole thing is that Christianity is a celebration of an individual relationship with the individual God. He doesn’t see you as a number. You are not 1 statistic out of 6 billion to him.
You are Karen.
You are Mike.
You are Billy.
You are Susan.
And that’s how the church and I need to see you.
Miguel makes a really great point below. Here is an excerpt: Think about it – how many people did Jesus feed with just some loaves and fishes? How many people did He appear to post-resurrection but pre-ascension? How many people came to faith after Peter’s spirit-filled sermon at Pentecost We know the numbers for all of those things. It is not that numbers were the point, but they do express something.
And I agree, we are given some numbers in the New Testament, but more often than not, it seems like we are not given specifics, we are given generalities:
Acts 11:21 – “a great number of people believed”
Acts 11:24 – “a great number of people were brought to the Lord”
Acts 11:26 – “Saul taught great numbers of people”
Acts 14:1 – “a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed”
Acts 14:21 – “a large number of disciples”
Acts 17:4 – “a large number of God-fearing Greeks”
Acts 17:12 – “Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men”
Acts 18:8 – “many of the Corinthians who heard him believed”
You can certainly argue that this reflects a nuance of the writer, but it’s interesting that we don’t get specifics there. I think numbers are good, North Point often uses them when they say they want to engage 100,000 people in small groups. I think that’s good and like most things, it takes a careful balance. Numbers aren’t wrong or right, we can use them either way. And I think the church should be the most number focused organization on the planet when it comes to being focused on delivering an excellent experience that engages people. We should put accountants to shame, not in worship of numbers, but in respect to the responsiblity we have been given. But numbers should be one of the internal tools we use to measure the health of the church, not necessarily an external tool we use to recruit people to the church.
When it came time to write this post, and I had to choose, “does the church say too much about their numbers” or “does the church not say enough about their numbers,” and the decision was pretty easy.