Numbers Can Lie

Two quotes; the first is from The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting, which I’m presently reading for one of my classes at seminary.

If a church isn’t growing or is in decline, something is wrong. Therefore, based on biblical evidence, numbers are important and likely indicate that a church is blessed of God and reaching people for Christ.

Now granted, he says “likely.” And the opening principle is sound. If a church is stagnant, there is probably something that needs to be changed. A church should grow. It may not explode in growth but it should grow nonetheless. As far as the second part—that numbers indicate a church is blessed by God—that can certainly be true. Yet those numbers could just as easily mean something else, which leads to our second quote from The Bible Made Impossible:

Numerical growth, the assumption suggests, can be taken as an empirical indicator that the Holy Spirit is present and working and leading a congregation into the right beliefs. God must be “blessing” such a spiritually vibrant and faithful church with increased numbers of visitors and members. The logic is faulty, of course. If it were true, then it would commend evangelicals to convert to Mormonism, which has very impressive growth statistics. Swelling membership roles may have nothing at all to do with spiritual vitality or faithfulness or truth—particularly not in a mass-consumerist, therapeutically driven culture such as ours in the United States.

Popular does not always equate best. The highest grossing movie in North America last year was one of the Transformers movies. That isn’t a piece of cinema that we should be imitating (though it has been and will be). Of course, there are also wildly popular movies that are of high quality. The year before, the highest grossing movie was Toy Story 3, which was nominated for numerous Academy Awards.

The point? A church with numbers through the roof could be a congregation where God is moving in a mighty way. Or a church with massive numbers could be a place with the coolest lights and makes people feel good. It could go either way.

I have heard throughout my life that when a great number of people are going to a church or making commitments that God is moving in an incredible way. Sometimes time bore that out to be true. Other times that enthusiasm fizzled. Sometimes enormously popular things are just that: popular. And among the popular, there is a spectrum from good to bad. We should not assume that huge numbers means that a church is doing everything that God desires. Of course, we also shouldn’t go all hipster and dismiss a growing congregation as hopelessly shallow and/or fundamentally flawed.

(I should point out—to be extra careful—that I am not talking about or calling out any particular church. This is an observation stemming from my Church Planting & Development class and the ways that I have witnessed the church can mirror our more consumerist culture over the years.)

The takeaway? Numbers aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Not even with churches, which is why that first quote raised a ginormous, flying-over-a-used-car-lot red flag for me. Should a church be growing numerically? Absolutely, but we should be careful about the weight that we give to numerical growth when determining whether a church is blessed by God.

By the way, the largest church in the United States? Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church.

The Lessons We Learn as Children

Foreword to Another New Life