Tuesday, April 14, 2009

#76 Numbers

Not the book of Numbers, so much, but the number of people that your church attracts each week. Some churches crave big numbers as if they are a fledgling business. "Invite your friends!" "We're considering the exciting possiblities for this year." "We prayed that He would save 700 people. He did…Plus an additional 40! Totaling 740 lives changed for eternity." "We are praying and fasting for the same multiplication in seeing about 7000 people here this Sunday!" "God provided attendance exceedingly abundantly above our wildest dreams this Easter." (Whose wildest dreams? Oh, your wildest dreams, charismatic pastor man.)

Jesus never said anything about how many people you should cram into your church building. Jesus didn't tell us to set attendance goals. Jesus didn't tell us to pray that a church
(small c) will grow so big that it runs out of folding chairs and has to build a separate campus. However many people come to your church, fill out their attendance cards, and/or come forward at the altar call is completely, completely irrelevant to actual change in their lives and whether or not they actually experienced the person of Christ. Could the tiny church in a small town comprised mostly of elderly people be doing more to further God's kingdom in the ways they love their families and neighbors, than is the warehouse church with jumbotrons and a parking team? Could the megachurch's biggest impact be the way it strokes the egos of its pastors? Corporate America ties its identity to the number of clients it recruits. This is easy for church leadership to do as well.

Case in point from the Acts 29 church planting site:
If your value is in between 80 and 100, your church is making a spiritual impact, is growing rapidly and people are being ministered to in effective ways. Take leaps of faith regularly to stretch the body to its full potential . . . If your value is in between 20 and 39, your church is going to either close its doors or fight for survival. A Spirit-led vision to compassionately reach the lost for Christ needs to explode within the leadership and contagiously spread throughout the whole body.


Anonymous said...

parking team


Dad said...

You sound so bitter.

I'm just saying. I hear a lot of people in Christian culture say, "Its not about the numbers."
In fact, that is a very spiritual thing to say. But what part of American culture doesn't like numbers? (For example ever seen a blog without a statcounter?)

So I'm wondering, are these things that CC likes but shouldn't because it is hypocritical? OR, is it things that CC likes that is different from American culture in general? Because to me, this falls under the, "What Culture Likes" category.

davdrury said...

I don't think you can place a value or number on how much God is "glorified," (which is the point, right?) So talking about numbers misses the point of what is trying to be achieved. What is the value of shuffling 1000 through an altar call vs. loving one neighbor well?

Joey Sanchez said...

I completely agree with you on this one Stephanie. It is so disturbing to me how the church has become such a big business. Let's post our numbers and show people how much work we are doing for God!! Give me a break. Often times those bragging about how many people they baptized or how many people they had at their latest membership class (that should be a post on its own) follow the statement by, "praise the Lord" or "All glory to God!

Really? Or did you just post your "numbers" hoping to gain some new members who look at church stats the way they look at their stock portfolios? Imagine Jesus asking people to fill out communication cards after the sermon on the mount. "Now the first 100 people to turn these in will be entered into a raffle to win an iPod! John, can you pass out the cards please?"

Christy said...

"Whose wildest dreams? Oh, your wildest dreams, charismatic pastor man". haha, excellent.

i have just fallen for this blog, and in particular appreciate its tactful way of satirizing christians, something i myself fail at (well the tact, not the satire).

keep it up

lukeisham said...

This is a tricky one Steph, you've nailed the unpleasant aspects of "size" well enough, but I have to agree with Bennett. From an Australian perspective general American culture (maybe the recession will correct this) seems all about size and numbers. For example it always amuses me to read about the 'World Series' baseball. And I always wonder how the French or the Russian teams are going.

Steve said...

Amen. I avoid these churches at all costs. Give me a good, traditional service in a small or medium-sized church any Sunday of the year. All the glitz, glamor, production values, praise teams, etc. just make my stomach turn.

stephy said...

Luke & Bennett,
You're right, American culture is into size and numbers. Jesus isn't.
In his grip,
bitter stephy

David said...

No, no, no...not a "parking team" - a "parking ministry"! Everything in certain churches is cast as a "ministry" :D

jeremy said...

Member 1: Whoa I've never met you before!
Member 2: Yeah I've been in Section 3A Row F for like two years now.
Member 1: No way! I'm in Section 3B Row G!!
Member 3: Hi from the Mezzanine!!
Member 1: Meh. Must be where the outcasts and people who don't participate in any of our thousands of lifegroups sit.
Member 3: Ooh burn. :(

LKT said...

I heartily recommend "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation" for a further interpretation of what these numbers mean. I just posted about this here. A couple of things she discusses in the book:

a) These numbers don't take into account the number of people who leave and don't come back.
b) These numbers don't include people who attend more than one church.
c) The emphasis on getting people to come may have quite a bit to do with paying the mortgage on a huge campus rather than sharing the good news.

The "craving of numbers as if churches were businesses" may be very apt. Which is not to say there isn't a genuine desire to share Christ as well, but each of us is a mix of motives.

I blame the book of Acts, which ties "successful ministry" to "number of converts" far more strongly than Jesus does, it seems to me.


Dad said...

"Bennett, do you do a lot of research on how to grow your church, by any chance?

In Him,
bitter stephy"

Ha Ha. Don't paint me with that brush! I do read about trends in churches, but it is no longer cool to talk about church growth. There are new words like "reproducing" "multi-site" "missional" and so on.

My desire is that as many people as possible hear about the life giving Hope that makes my pain make sense. If that means I get excited when we pack 100 people into our little church, well then, I think it is excusable. I'm sure the disciples got stoked when Jesus fed 5,000 and 4,000 and when 3,000 people joined the church in a day.

For the record I used to think a lot about church growth strategies (like before I actually worked in a church), but now I just think about structures for facilitating and administering God's people as they serve his purpose in worship to him.

Anyway, I don't think you are "bitter stephy." Just trying to bring balance, you know. One man's trash and all that.

stephy said...

I like that Bennett. I really like the notion of Hope that makes our pain make sense. I think that's what it comes down to, it's what keeps us all going, as Christians. And even people who aren't Christians, feeling the tug of hope in some way is what makes you hang in there when your spirit is completely crushed. I actually am bitter about the bad stuff I've experienced from Christians and I am in counseling and am trying to work through it. It really is all I can do to hang in there sometimes but I do have that glimmer of Hope. I think the person of Jesus can be so occluded by Churchiness and that fact makes me ill, so my silly blog here is one way I deal with feeling helpless to change it. I just want to pose questions here for Christians to think about. My sin and bitterness will surely leak through so thanks everyone for hanging in there with me.

Dad said...

That's cool. And I'll stop being a comment hog in just a moment. But I haven't thought much before about hope being why even non-Christians keep going. I believe that is true. I also believe that hope would be unwarranted if there were no Gospel.

As far as you being helpless, I think not. I originally subscribed to SCCL because it helps me as a church leader keep perspective. So I think it is great if you and those reading it can avoid falling into unhealthy cynicism.

Ok, I'll stop. Carry on. Keep up the good work.

stephy said...

I'll be a comment hog again too for a minute - I just think about non-Christians having hope and it reminds me of that Lewis quote about how if our longings aren't fulfilled here, we must be made for another place. I think that even people who aren't Christians (yet) can feel that tug. And even once you're a Christian that tug will still be there as long as we're on this side of heaven.
Just one more thing I've been thinking, is that people aren't necessarily always ministered to well at church. I think it begins in relationships outside of a church building. If you can have friendships with people and put their feelings and interests first, that's being Jesus to them and speaks volumes, much more so that perhaps getting them to a church service where they can hear words, but not necessarily receive the love that is behind them. Hope I'm making sense...

Rob said...

Thanks for the comments today.

dfrank said...

The best "church" I've had was in a bar while smoking a cigar. I really hope the US can get out of the "Church in a building" idea someday...it's actually being done in other cultures around the world where they can't afford a church building let alone 3 big screens and a tv camera. It seems to me that wherever Jesus went is where they had church and usually there was bread and wine involved. Sounds good to me.

Bebe said...

that I am but a small part of a grand scheme. Cardinal Newman I always find a stumbling block in Christian evangelization. It seems we take the preaching of the Apostles post-Pentacost as carte blanche to bring all nations to Jesus Christ...whether they like it or not. Clearly, "the more souls saved, the bigger the reward in heaven" seems to be our guiding light. Unlike Bennett, I see hope not from the prism of the Gospel, but from the certain knowledge wrote: "God created me for some definite service...I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. I ask not to see, I ask not to know, I ask simply to be used." Consequently I am uncomfortable with Christian missionaries: it matters nothing that my neighbor is not saved according to the Gospel of Christianity (For what profit it if I gain the whole world but lose my soul). What matters is that I should be saved (am I my brother's keeper?). And why is it that only Christianity evangelizes? I've never had a Hindu sahdu, a Buddhist monk, a rabbi, or an imam knock on my door. And just try to get one of those religions' holy men to help with your conversion! I would chalk this evangelization up to monotheism, yet neither Islam nor Judaism is a proselytizer. Perhaps you can comment on this phenomenon, Stephy.

dfrank said...

Hi Bebe,

I'm pretty sure you are thinking of Jehova Witnesses or Mormons? I've never heard of Christians going door to door (at least I hope they don't). The missionaries I have met are building wells and hospitals or working in orphanages. I have even met "commando" missionaries that rescue enslaved child sex slaves. Of course there is always the guy on the corner with the tract or the sign that says "you are going to hell" but I wouldn't classify those guys as missionaries I would classify them as people who might just need a big hug or a big punch in the face.

stephy said...

When I was in Campus Crusade we'd go door to door and explain the four (or was it five?) spiritual laws. I don't think I'd respond to it well if I were on the receiving end of it. I think people who do this are taking on the 'go and spread the gospel' command. Where it doesn't necessarily mean to go around and verbally explain the gospel in no uncertain terms to strangers. I think the best kind of wintnessing is when you love people well, from the love Christ has put in our hearts, within the context of relationship.

Dad said...

There are still Evangelical Christians who go door to door, though now it is usually following up with "prospects," people who have visited one of your church services and have indicated that they are open to a visit. Or they may go door to door inviting people to an event or doing surveys. It has become rare for Christians to go door to door simply to share the Gospel with unsuspecting sinners.

And I do have to disagree with Bebe. I know for a fact that there are Muslim missionaries in many parts of the world including the US. Some of them are simply promoting their beliefs. A few of them are recruiting for darker purposes.

Also, I should point out that there are many many Christian missionaries focused on evangelization. Yes they are usually building wells, opening clinics, healing disease, fighting the sex trade, but the missionaries I'm affiliated with are living with the purpose of spreading the Gospel. The good news is the strategy has changed. 50 years ago Baptist missionaries tried to start churches in Africa that had pews, organs, suits and ties, and a parking lot ministry. In other words they wanted it to look American. Now missionaries (more and more) focus on translating and teaching the Bible and letting indigenous leaders led by the Spirit apply the Gospel to their own society however it best fits. While missionaries of the past could often get mixed up in imperialism, modern missionaries are better associated with true social justice and spiritual freedom.

Bebe said...

If there are Muslim missionaries in the States, then good for them: they've just never knocked on any door I've lived behind. Still I am unhappy with foreign (read American) Christians evangelizing the Gospel in foreign lands: whether it's the numbers game or the "front" of good works, the bottom line is to win souls for Christ. Bennett, I believe you are sincere, and you speak of "the strategy" changing. Your usage is what I see as the point of this post: numbers of souls. Does Christian salvation require marketing and sales analysis? My Gospel interpretation desires prayer and good works, but not active evangelization...so you and I will differ in kind and means of ends. I am suspicious when I hear about social justice and spiritual freedom in the same sentence as well. I believe the "Church" will always be separate from the "World", and to expect laws and society to reflect Biblical or Gospel revelations will satisfy neither the Church nor the World. Yet our God-given spiritual freedom requires that you yourself complete God's will as best you see it...even if it is to "save" those poor, benighted heathens (as I've heard some Christian acquaintances say). And I mean that completely tongue-in-cheek!

Dad said...


Thank you for recognizing my sincerity. I'd like to better understand your wariness of Christan workers. I don't think I understand your suspicion. It seems to me that Jesus' life was all about social justice and spiritual freedom. The Sermon on the Mount is a great example, but perhaps we interpret this differently as well. I believe Jesus' ministry of healing people and teaching them with a message of hope wasn't a front for anything subversive and neither is the various ministries of missionaries serving around the world. "Strategy" is just a word. Anyone with a purpose should have a strategy. God himself had (and has) a strategy.

I also believe that the church and the world will always remain separate--probably increasingly separate. When I speak of social justice I'm talking about feeding the poor, comforting the prisoners, caring for the orphans, healing the sick. If that means influencing society and governments, I don't see a problem with that. In fact I don't see any way around it. If God's answer for the pain and evil of the world is the work of Christ carried on by the church, then how can the church be silent? If that is not the purpose of the church then God has tricked us by speaking to us at all. If He has spoken and has no answer for the evil in the world He is not who He has claimed to be.

Also, in light of Paul's argument in Romans 10:14 along with Jesus' desire for God to send workers into the harvest field and other passages where Jesus made it clear he wanted his message to spread, I don't see how you can interpret the Gospel to end with prayer and good works.

(Sorry if this sounds like a rant. I really like discussions like this. Its what makes the internet worthwhile.)

Simone said...

One thing Jesus did do (supposedly) with numbers was feed 5,000 people. These monster churches would sooner seat 5,000 than feed 5,000. Sick.

Bebe said...


I think our comments are off-topic. Stephy's point was that Christian churches seem to be into packing 'em in, a mentality Jesus did not preach. No matter whether there were 5,000 or 50 eating fish and bread while he preached. Focusing on things other than the message of Jesus Christ diminishes the beauty of Christianity.

To address your question, I feel American Christian missionaries who go to other countries to preach the Gospel are not needed today. If they want to do good works, great. Otherwise, just like the soldiers I have heard in Iraq, our former president, and some of our citizens, there are too many American Christians who have only contempt for and are arrogant of Islam (as one example). I am not scared of Muslims preaching in the U.S., but rather of American Christians running roughshod over other cultures and beliefs simply because they KNOW that Jesus wants them to evangelize. Emerson wrote, Every Stoic was a Stoic, but in Christendom, where is the Christian?

I believe as an article of my Christian faith that God has many mansions to bring the human race to him. Christianity is simply one of those mansions, one which I live in because the accident of my birth in the U.S. makes it plausible to me...rather than Judaism or Buddhism, say. I don't care what Paul said about evangelization because Paul said all lot of things which probably should stay in the 1st century C.E. Some say Matthew 16:15 justifies evangelism, even though reliable manuscripts and witnesses do not record this verse. The Sermon on the Mount is lovely in its simplicity and certainty of the carrot and the stick method: behave this way, and you'll be rewarded that way. Matthew 25 (ministering to the least of our brethren) is a slippery slope: one day it's the soup kitchen, the next day, the protest at the nuclear power station.

And therein lies my suspicion of workers for the Gospel. Being weak of flesh, we are prone to error, and so easily lose our way. As you point out, Christianity is a cause with a strategy: winning souls for Christ. As in a Christian jihad for Jesus. How can I be sure that it is God's will that all nations bow on bended knee to him through the prism of belief in Jesus Christ when I'm not certain Jesus himself even desired it (at least in accordance with today's interpretations). Of course, Paul burned to preach to all nations, but we know converts are more zealous than those born in the faith. For my own part, I am happy to pray and do good works in the fields of the Lord. I just don't want to convert anyone who neither wants nor needs the preaching. Therein lies your spiritual freedom and mine as each of us is accepted with all our failings...for God's greater glory.

Dad said...

I agree we are off topic. And, stephy, if you are sick of hearing it please feel free to delete us and we'll get the message.

Bebe, I see that we've had vastly different encounters with missionaries. Running roughshod over culture would be the last thing my friends who are missionaries would want to do. They see the damage that has done in certain places like South America and Africa where churches that were supposed to become Gospel lighthouses are little more than cults of Americanism. Missionaries I know are very much concerned with preserving the culture of the people they are ministering to. And let me be clear on this point-- I have NEVER ever met a missionary who felt called to work with Muslims who had contempt or arrogance toward Islam. I've met plenty of casual (fake?) Christians who have never considered the idea of praying for Bin Laden much less telling him how Jesus believed in peace and forgiveness.

Also, I see our interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount is different. The revolutionary aspect of this message is not "work harder and God will love you". I think it is the opposite of the carrot and stick image. The message is that being religious is just never going to be good enough. If it was, then the Pharisees would have had things pretty much under control. Jesus' revolutionary message was that you should stop living in fear and instead live a zealous love for God and his character. God loves you. So don't avoid adultery because you might get killed by men for it. Avoid it and even a hint of it because God hates it.

I really like your regard for God's glory and recognition of our failing nature. It is true that we are prone to fail when we attempt to do God's will. I don't see that as a reason not to try.

Finally, I don't see how Jesus could NOT want his message preached. If he believed it and preached it (until they killed him for it) then surely he would be all for others carrying on that message.

Thanks for continuing the conversation.

Bebe said...


Thank you also for your thoughts, though, of course, Stephy's blog is the real vehicle to be praised because through it she allows an exchange like ours.

I've lived in Mexico and Asia, and seen some unattractive missionaries, so you must excuse my jaundiced views. I am glad there remains hope, as you point out, for the good works of the Gospel. As dfrank noted above, I am familiar with LDS and Jehovah's Witness missionaries, many of whom have given cause for my wariness.

I should have narrowed my comments on the Sermon to refer simply to the Beatitudes. These words are lovely from a rhetorical standpoint, though I find them personally unnecessary because I believe Jesus asks me to trust in God's kindness, and not worry about the morrow. And, I agree with you, we should try to live out God's will...however that will reveals itself to us. The joy and sorrow is in the attempt, and not in the attainment.

I am still not sure that Jesus' words indicate a strong wish to evangelize...as in preaching the Gospel to the "heathens". I view his comment about not hiding your light under the bushel basket as one asking we be good examples in our own lives, that we say in the humblest way, Here I am, I am a worthless servant, having done what I could, and I trust in God's mercy.

I am quite grateful actually for your responses, since they have allowed me to reflect on what Christian evangelism actually means (the original point of Stephy's post). I hope I continue to read your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Stephy, I feel for you.

Currently, I'm on hiatus from religion of the fundamentalist Christian variety. I figure that an omniscient God understands exactly why I am where I am. The personality He gave me, is the very reason why I don't fit in there any more. Every fundamentalist/Christian culture male I have ever met outside my family, couldn't handle the fact that I might know more scripture or theology than them (because that would have wrecked their Spiritual Headship) and furthermore they couldn't handle their sneaking suspicion that God might have made me more intelligent than they were, since after a point, I couldn't hide it anymore.

How many women with advanced degrees in science, do you know, inside these churches? Maybe a few MDs, or nurses (since those are acceptable "Christian" professions) but that is probably it.

If "God doesn't want you to check your brains at the door" why does the culture get so upset when we use the brain God gave us???

Whereas, my "heathen non-christian" friends, accepted and appreciated me for *exactly* who I was. And then I realized many of them were Christian, just of the liberal varients that I was taught Were Deluded And Going To Hell.

Amy said...

Steve said...
Amen. I avoid these churches at all costs. Give me a good, traditional service in a small or medium-sized church any Sunday of the year. All the glitz, glamor, production values, praise teams, etc. just make my stomach turn.

THAT, in my opinion, is a great example of Christian Culture!

Stephy, I LOVE your blog! I've enjoyed reading the whole thing. But I really think you need to add a sub-culture or a counter-culture section for the mega-churches, and post about Relevance, Numbers, Making an Impact, and Hands-free Headsets there. Because your traditional Christian Culture rejects all of those things.

"The church that doesn't want to grow is saying to the world, “You can go to hell." -Rick Warren

I'm proud of my pastor and his mega-church. But Christian Culture isn't. ( Just Google that quote and read some of the comments about it.)

Isn't it possible that people (even some elderly people who love their families and neighbors) choose big churches despite the jumbotrons and big parking lots, and come forward at the altar call BECAUSE OF actual change in their lives and having actually experienced the person of Christ?

We fed 30,000 homeless people in our community 3 meals a day for a month. We recently collected/donated 6 tons of food in one week. That's not just Numbers, that's a church body obeying Jesus.
Come on now, somebody complain about it. You know you want to! Find something wrong with one local church setting a goal to send missions teams to every nation on the planet.

If you can, you fit into Christian Culture much better than the mega-churches do!
In Christian Culture, it's not about how many Numbers you have, it's how many you SHOULD have compared to other churches. I used to go to a church of about 80 people, but I got tired of being verbally abused every week for not bringing enough of my friends and neighbors with me.

Maybe there's a reason that "The Feeding of the 5,000" is sandwiched between 2 different stories where Jesus heals one little girl.
One is important to God.
5000 are important to God.
Why does Christian Culture insist on pitting one against the other?

There's nothing wrong with the tiny church in the small town, the entire population of my hometown in Michigan could all sit in the Worship Center at Saddleback. I can see how some folks would be intimidated by it. But in a county of over 3,000,000 a church of 30,000 doesn't seem outlandish.
Worship where you feel comfortable.
I'm just sayin' that criticism of Numbers isn't a commentary on Christian Culture, but rather a sure sign that one is part of it.

Billy said...

The church I attend meets in two high schools and an uptown theatre, I'm sure you're familiar with it, you took a shot at my pastor in your soul patch blog. Numbers do matter, I believe, read acts. Each number represents a person, a story. The two go hand in hand. If you're just trying to shuffle them in and shuffle them out, thats wrong, but it's up to them to get "plugged in" (notice the pun).

BTW, I'm enjoying getting caught up on all your blogs, I think you are missing the mark on some of them, but humorous none the less.

Justin Bower said...

I grew up in a small town church (small = less than 1000 people split between 2-3 churches). I have attended some of the largest churches in the country. I have never felt even a fraction of the sense of the holiness/sacredness/etc in one of the made-for-tv megachurch operations that I did in that small humble church. I'm sorry, the greater the number, the less connected the community. Since the whole POINT is to share a common experience in a way that complements a personal relationship, the megachurch seems a detraction rather than an evolution. All those fringe benefits are nice, but not at the cost of the main reason you're there. To me, it seems more the venue of the prsperity doctrine/christian-from-10-12-on-sunday-only/Hummer in the garage type rather than the honest, humble christian.

You cannot serve God and Mammon. behind all the rhetoric, these megachurches are hardcore businesses marketing an image and an experience rather than a meaningful relationship. I'm sure there are people who do very well in this environment. But I'd bet that's the exception, not the rule.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

A phrase that always makes me cringe:

"We've got to count people, because people count ... to God."

Unknown said...

Contemporary christian culture has become all about putting on a show and adding as many numbers as possible to make everyone feel their club is special. I'm not even remotely Catholic, but when I go to EWTN and look at worship services or discussions going on there and then compare them to TBN or Daystar, it's night and day difference---quiet devotion vs loud, raucous, showmanship and emotionalism. Most conservative christians like to think of that verse about Jesus rebuking those at the day of judgement who say "Lord, Lord, didn't we do wonderful things in your name?" as applying to liberals---I tend to think many of those huge numbers filling megachurches for the rock concert of the week and the fun show will be surprised. The more contemporary megachurches try to look like and behave like the world in order to be "relevant", the less truly relevant they'll be---it's the quiet, "unexciting", unassuming worshippers in small churches that are the heart of the true church.

mlheiss said...

"All growth is good," is the philosophy of the cancer cell.- Anthony DeMello