By Chuck Lawless
I understand those who argue against the use of numbers in evaluating a church’s health. We can get idolatrous of numbers, and numbers do not fully illustrate the condition of a church. On the other hand, numbers do matter.
One of my favorite writers is Charles Spurgeon, the famous 19th century pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. Spurgeon, who emphasized the sovereignty and grace of God in saving non-believers – and who warned against the danger of overemphasizing numbers – also recognized the importance of church statistics. Read his words in his lectures in The Soul Winner, and take note of why numbers matter:
I am not among those who decry statistics, nor do I consider that they are productive of all manner of evil; for they do much good if they are accurate, and if men use them lawfully. It is a good thing for people to see the nakedness of the land through statistics of decrease, that they may be driven on their knees before the Lord to seek prosperity; and, on the other hand, it is by no means an evil thing for workers to be encouraged by having some account of results set before them. I should be very sorry if the practice of adding up, and deducting, and giving in the net result were to be abandoned, for it must be right to know our numerical condition. It has been noticed that those who object to the process are often brethren whose unsatisfactory reports should somewhat humiliate them …. The fact is, you can reckon very correctly if the figures are honest, and if all circumstances are taken into consideration if there is no increase, you may calculate with considerable accuracy that there is not much being done; and if there is a clear decrease among a growing population, you may reckon that the prayers of the people and the preaching of the minister are not of the most powerful kind.
1. Numbers are one means of evaluation.
Because God mandated that we make disciples (Matt 28:18-20), it seems logical at least to ask the question, “Is God using us to reach non-believers and make disciples?” Numbers are one means to answer this question. The numbers matter not because we want to build our kingdom or impress our denomination, but because we genuinely long for God to use us in His work. The numbers, when properly understood and utilized, are but one tool for evaluating our ministry.
2. Decreased numbers should drive us to prayer.
If we believe the gospel is life changing but we see no lives transformed through our ministry, that “nakedness of the land” should lead us to seek God’s help. He alone can change lives. Especially when we read of God’s power exhibited in the Scriptures and throughout the world, how can we not grieve when He do not see that power? We should not be content with fishing that catches no fish.
3. Increased numbers should lead to rejoicing and encouragement.
Jesus died for a lost world (John 3:16), and heaven rejoices when lost sheep are found (Luke 15:7). People from every tongue, tribe, and nation will worship God around His throne (Rev. 7:9). When God draws men and women to Himself – thus increasing our church numbers – it is right to celebrate. It is right to encourage those whom God is using to change lives.
4. Numbers require us to ask hard questions.
Spurgeon’s words are tough indeed. Where there is no growth, there may be little getting done. Where numbers decrease amid a growing population, “you may reckon that the prayers of the people and the preaching of the minister are not of the most powerful kind.” Those words sting, but they sting because they ring true. Is it possible that the church I lead is not reaching non-believers because my praying and preaching are weak? Do I choose to decry statistics because the numbers I would have to report are low?
5. Numbers help us evaluate the type of growth a church experiences.
Even if a church is growing, we must evaluate the source of that growth. Leaders should know if growth is simply transfer growth rather than conversion growth. Spurgeon again was right in an earlier section of the lecture quoted above, “We do not regard it to be soul-winning to steal members out of churches already established.” Statistics help us to see if our church is really threatening the enemy.
Agreeing that we do not want numbers to become an idol, tell us how you have used statistics properly to lead your church toward growth.