The Numbers Game

People waiting on a busy platform for the underground train — do similar crowds in the Church equal success too?

More and more numbers seem to equal growth in the Christian community, but is this really the case? And why does ‘a good number’ seem to be the essential thing when we talk about the success of an event?

Does numerical value equal success (i.e. bigness)? Does size equal growth? Is a ‘good number’ really a good number? It concerns me how we talk about numbers in terms of growth and blessing (normally done by big churches, but also by small churches who have to prove themselves to their backers).

Does it matter if 92 signed up to a book club? Or 80 came to a seekers event or 40 to another? Why do we feel the constant need in some parts of the Christian community to trumpet these numbers as if they are the essential sign of our success, growth, achievement and God’s blessing? What if no-one came or one person to the event, or the church community is small, or even starts to go into decline?

Looking at the Bible, Jesus (our statistical role model) would not meet our numerical criteria for success and growth, or anything really. Most of the time he had a solid 12 (a good number?) at times lots of people around him (atleast 5000); but he was abandoned by everyone at one point and solo apart from the solace of the Holy Spirit and God the Father. Should we see him as unsuccessful, as not growing, as unblessed? I think he has something to teach us about what and who we see as important. Though it’s good to think about things in a smart way, too much I think we bring in the language of corporation and business in the Church community — numbers become all from attendance to giving (and sometimes we artificially inflate them by inviting along Christians to events aimed at non-Christians). The photos of busy, packed rooms are equally unhelpful and may be stock photos or taken from an artful angle sometimes!

Whilst the ultimate intention for the Church to grow is the main thing, God can equally use the small, declines in numbers and even scattering too. I think we as Church communities would be wise to use individual testimony more as signs of community growth and changed behaviours, attitudes, tones, of our shared lives with one another and with those outside the Church (how do they speak of us?) Not so sexy for sponsors/financial donors or so easily made into a bar chart at the end of the year or for displaying on socials, but to play the numbers game is to devalue smaller church communities; to make our bigness the main thing, our busyness and resources the main focus, to imply failure if you aren’t packed to the rafters. For some communities, the additions take time and are tough — people make huge lifestyle and community shifts and sacrifices to choose to become Christians and battle through life. And well, the use of a ‘good number’ can be a bit smug because we mean lots by this rather than perhaps a precious one or two who might pop their head into this thing called Church to find out about Jesus.

In chasing the many, we miss the few, the unusual, the less obvious who would never go near a Church and we fail to seek them out and welcome them in — yet God has other plans and wants diversity, the more the better! So please, dear brothers and sisters, please stop using numbers to justify success and blessing and rather let’s talk about harder to measure things like character impact, changed hearts and behaviours, community impacts in being, not just doing, attendance, baptisms and statistics.

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Susan Tailby

Susan Tailby

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By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....