The numbers game
This past Sunday was a significant point in our church’s life: our annual church meeting. It’s a powerful time for us to celebrate what God has been doing over the past year and look forward prayerfully to what God is doing in the future.
Along with all these things, we have a number of pieces of business we need to do as well. Two of those are to do with our electoral roll (an equivalent of membership in the Church of England) and finances – activities that are concerned with numbers.
Numbers are an attractive thing in church life. They are concrete and quantifiable, easy to measure and easy to compare. For that reason, it can be terrifically easy for us to measure success in terms of numbers.
After all, numbers allow us to compare one church to another. Do I have more people coming to my church than this church or that church? Do we have a bigger budget, a larger income, more substantial giving than this other church or congregation or gathering?
Numbers also allow us to compare one year to another. Have our numbers gone up or gone down? Are more people coming to church this year compared to last year? Are more people giving this year? Do we have more to spend or less?
Numbers have an insidious sense of power attached to them. If this church has bigger numbers than that church, then does that make them more influential? Better respected? More important?
All of these things slip easily into the minds of church leaders. I like to measure with numbers because numbers feel familiar, they feel understandable, they feel safe. But the church, and growth in God’s kingdom, is not a question of numbers.
Numbers do have a place in church life, however. Finances are important to kingdom work, and it is vital that we are careful and responsible stewards of the money people have given to the work of the church. A finance report at a church meeting, therefore, is a necessary thing.
Equally, knowing the size of the church is helpful at times too. It is good to know if people have left the church, to follow up with them, find out why and help as needed. It is good to know if people have joined the church, and especially to celebrate where people have come to new faith in Jesus Christ. It is not necessarily wrong to know the size of a church in numbers.
Ultimately, however, it is not the numbers that are important. It is what those numbers represent: generous giving, sacrificial service, people with the complexities of their lives and struggles. Church life is about those things, not the numbers. Church life is also about those things that numbers can never measure: growth, life, spiritual health, fruitfulness, the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Those are the things that we can never really quantify in numbers but should look for and celebrate. Numbers have their place, but they are a tool, not a goal.