By The Numbers...

Having grown up and served as a youth pastor in "mega-churches" I know a thing or two about counting people. I have attended more church growth seminars and read more church growth books than I care to remember. Please understand. The church ought to care a great deal about reaching people. When it pleases God to grow a faithful church then we rightly give him praise. But during my ministry I have spent too much time in the pressure cooker of numeric success. When numbers, rather than faithfulness and God's glory, becomes the "end" then pragmatism and compromise are sure to follow.

Certainly there are times when God grants astounding numeric growth such as happened in Jerusalem following Pentecost. Indeed, there have been times throughout the history of the church where faithful biblical preaching and practice have overflowed in times of great harvest. But we also know from the ministries of the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself that numeric results and popularity are sometimes dismal precisely because of faithfulness. The wise pastor, indeed the wise church prays regularly and passionately for a great harvest of souls but is careful to leave the growth to God.

Brian Croft has written a thoughtful post asking the question, "Should a pastor evaluate his ministry by numbers?

There is an epidemic in the American Church. It is an obsession with basing fruitfulness in ministry on a numbers game. The American way is bigger and better and I am troubled that the church in many ways has bought into this method of evaluation, and continues to do so. I would hope that all pastors want more people to come hear the gospel preached, experience the warm fellowship of our people, be baptized, discipled, and flourish in the church. If you do not desire these things, please do not be a pastor. Yet, in my experience of serving on staff at two different mega churches, closely knowing many other churches, and observing the envy that some small churches possess towards larger churches, there is a great deal focus on numbers as that which deems a ministry fruitful and faithful.

There are several problems with a pastor allowing numbers to be the measuring stick of our ministries, but here is the greatest: It does not appear to be how God evaluates our ministries. According to Hebrews 13:17, God is evaluating our ministries based on our faithfulness to “care for souls as those who will give an account.” Numbers may communicate all kinds of good things about one’s ministry, but whether God is pleased with it based on numbers is a dangerous conclusion to make. Especially if the Chief Shepherd will hold a pastor to account for all those “reached” and brought into the church…but whose souls are neglected.

For pastors who are feeling the pressure of this number’s measuring stick, there is some helpful counsel for you. However, I had to seek it from outside the American Church scene and from a different time altogether. The 19th century Scottish pastor and trainer of pastors, John Brown, wrote a letter to one of his students newly ordained over a small congregation and extended this word to him:

I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at his judgment seat, you will think you have had enough.

Pastors, regardless the pressures you face in your congregation to “produce the numbers” focus on caring for souls. Be faithful to evangelize, preach the gospel every week, pray for conversions, but make sure your primary focus is on caring for souls. When we stand before God to give an account for the souls of our flock, God will not be impressed with our increased numbers, but how faithful we cared for the souls of those that make up that number.