The “Successful Church” and Numbers

I had lunch with a good friend of mine from seminary the other day, and our conversation meandered into talking about what “success” looks like for a church.  What makes a church “successful”?  In essence, the conversation centered around being a Biblically faithful church; a church that is successful in God’s eyes is one that is faithful to “be the church” as outlined in His Word.

This discussion could have gone on for years, but one of the things that struck me was the stark contrast between what we felt were qualifiers the Lord might use to determine a “successful church”, and the qualifiers that 21st-century Christianity might use to determine a “successful church”.

Here are three of those qualifiers that our “Christian culture” might use to define a “successful church”….

  1. Numbers
  2. Impressive Facilities
  3. Lots of Ministry Activity

I’d like to address each of these separately, so I’ll tackle “numbers” today, and leave the other two for future posts.

The general impression is that if you are drawing a large crowd, that you are doing something right.  In reality, the only thing a large crowd indicates is that you are doing something that is drawing a large crowd.  A large crowd doesn’t mean that you are any more or less Biblically faithful as a church.  You can have a Biblically faithful mega- church and a Biblically unfaithful mega-church.  You can have a Biblically faithful small church and a Biblically unfaithful small church.

With regard to being successful in God’s eyes, do numbers matter?

I’ve heard all the arguments.

Numbers matter, because numbers represent people, and people matter to God

You will count what is important to you, and if you don’t count people, then people are not important to you

If you count the money in the collection plate, and not the people in the pew, then you’re saying that money is more important than people

I’m not saying numbers aren’t important.  I’m saying that if we gauge our “success” as a church primarily by numbers then we are missing the boat.  If all Jesus was concerned about was a large crowd, I think He would have told us as much.  But He didn’t.  He didn’t say “go and get a lot of people to come under one roof once a week”, He said, “go and make disciples”.  Jesus didn’t call the Church to draw a crowd, He called the Church to make disciples of all nations.

Along these lines, I’ve also heard the refrain, “small churches are small churches for a reason”.  One church growth expert is known for providing a number of reasons why a small church is small.  Some of what he has to say is very helpful, such as some of these reasons:

  • The church loses its focus on evangelism and turns inward on itself
  • The laity starts running the church instead of inviting their networks.
  • The pastor does not respond personally to every signed in visitor with 24-48 hours.
  • Either the pastor fails to hand-off most ministries or the church expects the pastor to do the ministry and to care for all the people.
  • The pastor either doesn’t learn how to hire, grow, and fire staff or a church committee does the hiring and firing of all staff.
  • The church doesn’t see the need to hire more staff, especially a solid worship leader.
  • The church members expect the pastor to focus on them now that there are enough people to sustain the budget.

Most of these are helpful words of wisdom for churches of all sizes to seriously consider and evaluate, but I would submit to you that this reasoning begins with the false assumption that “bigger is better”.  Bigger IS better if you are buying into the definition of “success” that nominal American Christianity espouses.  That definition of a successful church includes the three characteristics I mention above (large numbers, large facilities, and a lot of ministry activity).  However, if you’re more interested in God’s opinion, then success is not defined in those terms, and bigger is not always better.

Yes, God cares about numbers, but He is building a Kingdom with a capital “K”.  He is using the Bride of Christ (the church) to proclaim the good news of Christ (the Gospel), and through that means He is drawing to Himself people from every nation, tribe, language, and race.  In partnering with Him, we must surrender our man-made dreams of our little kingdoms (with a lower-case “k”), in favor of being used in whatever means He wills to build His Kingdom (with a capital “K”).

Some might ask, “so is staying small the answer?”  Again, that’s the wrong question.  It doesn’t matter whether a church is large or small; either can be Biblically faithful or unfaithful.  The size of the congregation is not a determining factor in whether a church is successful in God’s eyes.  Not only does God’s Word not give us any indication that size matters, but the facts tell the same story.

According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the number of mega-churches in the US (defined as those with weekly worship attendance of atleast 2,000) has doubled every year since 1990.  In that same time frame, the percentage of Americans who attend church on any given weekend has declined (source, “The American Church in Crisis”, by David Olsen).  Can we say from this that small churches are the answer to the decline in the American Church?  No, of course not.  But neither can we say that the mega-church is the panacea for the decline in attendance.

So if a focus on growth in attendance is not something that will help us become a church that is successful in God’s eyes, then what will?  Instead of focusing on church growth, how about focusing on Gospel growth?  What if everyone in the church saw that their mission in life was to “make disciples of all nations”; to engage people relationally all around us and expose them to the Gospel regardless of where they are spiritually?  What if the Church (that is, you and I and everyone else who has trusted in Christ alone for salvation) was all about proclaiming the Gospel to “the lost” and trusting God to being some to faith in Jesus, and proclaiming the Gospel to “the already found” and trusting God to bring growth in spiritual maturity and sanctification?

Wouldn’t that be a better way of ensuring that God is glorified, than just doing whatever we needed to do in order to draw a crowd?


6 thoughts on “The “Successful Church” and Numbers

  1. “The general impression is that if you are drawing a large crowd, that you are doing something right. In reality, the only thing a large crowd indicates is that you are doing something that is drawing a large crowd. ”

    This is a great statement; clear, concise and oddly unimagined. When I read it I thought, “Well, yeah, of course; why hadn’t I ever realized that?”

    This was a very practical and clear post. Thank you for the paradigm shift 🙂

  2. Great thoughts Ken! Al Spalding and I sat in the car in the church parking lot last night after the mens group and dinner (both of which were fantastic), and really got into it about “What is our purpose?”. We both agreed that having the ability to share the Gospel is a “basic need” if we are to live our lives missionally! How can we be ready “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), if we can’t “persuade men” (2 Cor 5:11) by being workers who are “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). We decided to make a committment to hold each other accountable in becoming excellent communicators of the Gospel. We agreed to memorize all the verses, practice our presentations, and go out into the fields which are already “white for harvest” (Jn 4:35), and let God use us as He wishes.

    It’s a start. We realized that we can’t pretend we can live missionally if we can’t effectively communicate what we believe. Al asked me to share the Gospel with him right on the spot, as we were discussing it. I did it, but it was choppy, and I couldn’t remember where some of the verses were, as he played the role of an unsaved person who was sure that being a good guy would get him to heaven. That is the kind of thing that I need to be ready for. Al and I are going to meet weekly (at least) for the next 3 months to learn Gospel sharing 101. We’re confident it’s exactly what is needed to help our marraiges, parenting skills, finances, and friendships. Understanding, and being able to communicate the Gospel is the starting point in our walk with God. We are excited and looking forward to being ready for Him to use us as sharp, skilled soldiers who are ready for battle!

  3. Great post Ken. Too often, the real purpose of the church forgotten and replaced by worldly ambitions. The encouraging news to me, however, is that there are still pastors, churches, church leaders, and folks who just love Jesus who have not forgotten that our purpose in life was given by Christ Himself as he ascended to Heaven.

    “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

    Keep up the great work for the Kingdom (with a big “K”).

  4. Interesting post. Over 20 years ago when God called me to ministry one of the things that turned me off was the numbers game. As first year theology students we were thrown into a church to help a pastor were three months before the had an evangelistic campaign and a little over 50 souls were baptized and none of them were attending church. Our first organizational meeting in which we were told what our mission was it became clear it was all about the numbers specially about the financial numbers. We the newbies were outraged but went to work. What an amazing experience I do not remember anyone returning to church but I do remember how we worshiped in these homes and doors were always opening and how the Spirit moved at all of those homes we visited… Soon I changed to education… I was fed up with the hypocrisy of the church leaders (at least that was my perception). After 20 years running away from my calling I finally surrendered to God and I’m heading to Seminary. The argument presented here represents to me an inner battle of faith. Is it going to be my way or God’s way? Isn’t He who called us going to take us all the way? Are all churches supposed to look the same? Is it my church, our church or God’s church? Are we really trusting the Captain to take the ship to port? I believe, He who started the good work in us will finish it. It is funny how now as grown ups we have been taught to rely more on our selves and less on others, specially God. Perhaps Christ’s biggest argument about us being like children is about the trusting relationship that children have with their parents. It is His work and He will see it true we are just His instruments, through whom He does His work. Thanks for the post!!!

  5. John – Great insights. I’m encouraged by your surrender to Christ in this regard, and by your trusting Him to lead you to (and through) seminary education.

    It truly is a battle of faith…a battle of who we will listen to and follow and believe. Will we follow the voice inside ourselves (that old man that Paul calls our flesh), that says that we aren’t successful unless we’re baptizing 100 people a year no matter what…or will we follow the voice of God that tells us we are nothing without Him and ANYTHING we “achieve” without Him is rubbish (no matter how impressive it may look to our fleshy eyes and passions.

    The challenge is to listen to and believe God, and not our flesh. The problem is that we are all prone to listen to our flesh, and none of us are immune to its siren call…myself included.


  6. Pingback: Why A Conference About The Gospel? « Roots Run Deep

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