“Our numbers are down.”
Few words have inspired more dejection among American pastors. For many, the emotional ups and downs of their labors are tethered to the attendance figures of Sunday mornings and ministry events. This fixation on numbers plagues churches of all shapes and sizes. Some may acknowledge that such ups and downs are unhealthy—even ungodly—yet they still can’t help being downcast when attendance flags.
For those who wish to break their unhealthy fixation on numbers, the challenge is answering this question: How do I become less obsessed with numbers while also taking seriously the call to evangelize?
We live in a society in which numerical growth is equated with success. Numbers are the currency through which we evaluate the health of organizations, from cities to non-profits to businesses to, yes, even churches.
One of the first questions pastors are often asked is “How many people go to your church?” Such questions are at least partly evaluative—people want to know how successful a church is, and attendance figures seem to be the most tangible way of assessing success. Here’s the tacit, common assumption: the larger the church, the more successful the church. The pastor of a storefront church is not qualified to publish books on the secrets to successful ministry. Those books should be written by megachurch pastors—so the thinking goes.
Insofar as size equals success, when our ministry grows we’ll feel better, and when it declines we’ll feel worse. How might we be set free from such emotional rollercoasters and instead lean into our calling?
Church Growth Is Not Evangelism
Why, though, shouldn’t we fixate on numbers? Isn’t it better if 100 people become Christians as opposed to 10? What about the biblical passages that depict large numbers of conversions, such as the response to Peter’s speech at Pentecost?
The contemporary problem is simply that numerical growth isn’t the same as conversion growth. Church growth is not the same thing as evangelism. You can grow a church or a ministry numerically and not bring one lost soul into the kingdom. This is a “dirty secret” of contemporary American church planting: Much of the growth of new churches has little to do with evangelism. Instead, it’s predicated primarily on drawing people who recently moved to the area or those who’ve merely left one church for another. These are examples of “transfer growth.”
You can grow a church or a ministry numerically and not bring one lost soul into the kingdom.
Growth through Christians transferring from one church to another isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People who move to a new area are grateful to find sound churches where they may flourish. Some churches succumb to false teaching, so it can be a good thing when parishioners move from one to another. There are even occasions in which pastors may send parishioners from one church to another for a particular ministry or calling.
This kind of growth is not evangelistic, however, and it is imperative for pastors to be honest about the nature of such growth. If pastors lack such honesty, they may take measures that are effective at growing a church but not reaching the lost. The fastest way to grow a church is usually through appeals to people who are already following Jesus. It’s intuitive: The people looking for churches are already Christians. Those who are far from Christ ignore our advertisements, our events, and our seeker-friendly sermons.
Many books tout ministry success, teach pastors how to identify target populations, or explain the effectiveness of certain advertising strategies, all geared towards maximizing church growth. But in setting numerical growth as the ultimate goal, pastors are subtly wooed into devoting time and resources to persuading individuals to leave their current church for another. Perhaps this is one reason we see hundreds of church-planting success stories in America while simultaneously witnessing a decline of new church attendees.
Begin with Honest Assessment
In order to break our fixation on numbers, we must begin with an honest assessment of our ministry. Why have people joined your church? You may find these reasons have little to do with your growth strategies. People show up on a whim; they’re invited by friends; they’re guilted by a parent; they’re in the midst of church shopping.
An honest assessment might reveal that most in our church were Christians before joining. This doesn’t have to be sobering news. I believe God brings people to our churches, and we should celebrate that and help them grow in their faith. We can’t ultimately control who God brings, and we should delight in the privilege of ministering to and alongside anyone God brings. There’s a certain joy in knowing that much of our ministry is to believers coming out of toxic, heretical, or isolating forms of Christianity.
But this work shouldn’t be confused with evangelism. We shouldn’t think ourselves gifted evangelists or as having “cracked the code” of evangelism when the bulk of our new members are a product of ecclesial migration.
At the same time, we shouldn’t necessarily equate a lack of explosive growth with a failure to evangelize.
More Excellent Way
Here’s a better question for assessing healthy growth: Who is coming to your church who otherwise probably wouldn’t be active in the faith? This metric, of course, is imprecise, and we don’t want to presume how the lives of others play out. But this can be a good starting point for helping us to see better who’s attending our church, and to understand more clearly what we’re called to do as pastors. If our church is primarily about bringing newly isolated Christians into community, we can learn how to better minister to them. If we truly want to do evangelism, it might mean seriously reconsidering where we’re directing our energy.
We shouldn’t think ourselves gifted evangelists or as having ‘cracked the code’ of evangelism when the bulk of our new members are a product of ecclesial migration.
Pastors must also begin to set different goals for their churches. I suggest they replace the drive for numerical growth with two better goals: becoming more skilled at the practice of evangelism, and glorifying God with our presentation of the gospel.
The first goal may require reorienting the vocational aspirations of pastors and missionaries. The vocational model for pastors is often derived from CEOs, with books such as Good to Great exemplifying career success.
To become more skilled evangelists, pastors should think of their approach to evangelism as a skilled artisan such as a woodworker or a musician might think of their craft. For the woodworker or the musician, perfection of a craft rather than the achievement of earthly success is the goal. Pastors should strive for excellence in praying for friends, sharing the gospel with the lost, and discipling new converts. A church of any size can do those things well, because they don’t depend on numerical growth.
Here’s where patterning ministry after woodworkers and musicians is particularly apt: The goal of these crafts is not success, but the joy of acquiring those skills. One does not master the violin to become wealthy, though such skills may lead to financial success. We develop such skills because there are unique joys in playing the violin. A violinist can delight in mastering a portion of the Brandenburg Concerto whether performances are done in private or before large audiences.
Pastors often fall into the trap of thinking a lack of focus on numerical growth equals a lackadaisical approach to mission. There are standards for success, but they are related to faithfully doing evangelism, rather than the measurable outcomes of evangelism. We can’t control who shows up to our church, but we can control whether or not we do evangelism. We must evaluate the things we actually control—our dutifulness in engaging lost people, our steadfastness in prayer and fasting for them, and our diligence in working to present the gospel clearly. We’ll discover deep joy in evangelism as it grows us in the grace of Christ.
We can’t control who shows up to our church, but we can control whether or not we do evangelism.
This leads to the second goal of evangelism: to glorify God by consistently telling others about Christ. We can accomplish this goal whether our efforts lead to mass conversions or none at all. We glorify God by carrying out the craft of evangelism to the best of our abilities, and our reward is not external success but the internal delight of drawing near to God. Read the great proclamations of Peter and Stephen in Acts, and you’ll see expertly crafted speeches meant to stir sinful hearts to repentance and belief in Christ. One speech ends in thousands coming to Christ, the other to a stoning. Yet, in his stoning Stephen receives a vision of Christ’s glory. God is glorified in both events.
Pastors are tempted to fancy themselves a Peter when the demands of evangelism may call them to be a Stephen. We cannot start with numerical success and retrofit a growth strategy for our churches. We must begin with the simple tasks of prayer and telling others about Jesus.
Practically speaking, this may mean pastors spend more time praying for the names of actual people who don’t know Christ and less time looking over impersonal attendance figures. It may mean empowering those in your congregation who are good at evangelism and learning from them, as opposed to responding to the latest market research about your community. It may mean more time spent on your knees and less time assessing the latest managerial fads.
We can’t control the responses of people with whom we share the gospel. Numerical growth may come, or it may not—God builds the church. Pastors must focus on ministering to those who come and not to those who don’t. In so doing, they may discover freedom from the chains of numerical success, freedom from anxiety, and freedom to enjoy whomever God has called them to reach.