It’s All About Numbers

Although I’ve never heard this comment from a bishop, a pastor, or a church that was growing, a frequently heard comment in response to our Conference Priorities, from those who have limited their ministry to decline is, “So? It’s all about the numbers.”

Though I don’t see much indication that we have become infatuated with numbers (I was miserable at math in school) in our evaluation and deployment of our pastors, in our evaluation and leadership of our churches (most of our churches are still declining rather than growing) some question our historic Wesleyan focus on numbers of baptisms, attendance, membership, giving, and mission. The church is all about Jesus Christ and his mission. Are we now guilty of moving toward an “It’s all about numbers” posture?

We loaded up our car for our annual family vacation. I had been clear with the family about our time of departure for the beach. Patsy had dutifully loaded the car. I had dutifully been clear about the time of departure. Harriet was there. Where was William?

“That does it. We’re leaving. He knew the time and yet he’s not here,” I said, in love.

“We can’t leave without him,” Patsy asserted. “How can you go on a family vacation without the whole family?”

I responded, “Look, we have one child who obeyed the rules, did as she was told, is punctual and obedient. Isn’t that good enough? Let’s go. Don’t worry about the other fifty-percent of our children.”

“We have two children. We are not going anywhere without everybody,” Patsy commanded, in love.

“One, two, whatever,” I responded. “So? It’s all about numbers! What difference does it really make whether we have all of our children or half of our children? The important thing is the quality of our family interaction on the vacation. This is about love, not numbers!” (adapted from the Annual Conference learning session with Mark DeVries)

You have a problem with our caring about the actual fruit of ministry, the results of our work? Take it up with Jesus (or John Wesley) who commanded us to go into all the world (100%) and make (more) disciples.

There is nothing wrong with most of our churches, nothing that they need to do, other than reach more people. There is no more honest, potentially life-giving measure of ministry than the numbers that are found on our Conference Dashboard.

The Sunday after this year’s Annual Conference Patsy and I had the privilege of worshipping at Northwood UMC in Florence. There, Rev. Peter Hawker is leading this church into the first growth they have had in many years. In just three years Peter has transformed Northwood through an emphasis on passionate worship, mission to the community, and risk with the Holy Spirit.

Upon entering the Northwood sanctuary, the first thing that one notices is that the first two rows of pews are filled with children and youth. Peter commented that only a handful of those children “are ours.” Most of the children (a number of whom the church recruited from “meth families”) are children that Northwood recruited for the church. I thought of all the dying congregations who say “we have no children or youth anymore.” Those children are leading Northwood (100 years old this year) into a vibrant future, all because a church decided to find a way to be obedient to Christ’s mission.

“We weren’t willing to enter the Kingdom of God without all of our children, all of them with us,” said Peter.

And I responded, in love, “So? It’s all about the numbers.”

William H. Willimon

Which North Alabama congregations grew last Sunday? You can find out by visiting our Conference website and clicking Church Stats at the top of the page. Then look through our Conference Dashboard.

13 thoughts on “It’s All About Numbers

  1. I believe, of course, in reclaiming our mission of making disciples and finding ways to do that creatively in the midst of this time and culture. I respectfully offer that the concerns I hear from others about fixation on numbers are not really a rejection of the idea that bringing along new disciples is important but more of a rejection of institutional/managerial thinking in favor of organic thinking. I’m not saying I agree with the criticism, but only that I think we need to be sensitive to the emotional dynamics of change and navigate the waters with careful rhetoric. All of us, I would hope, are in favor of growth, of healthy congregations, and of effective ministr.


  2. I serve two rural congregations, and believe that Steve is right on about what the person is really saying. Hold churches accountable for dicipling and making disciples but constantly telling them how they ought to do it, is degrading as if to say your are inadequate to disciple without our ideas and structure. The Holy Spirit works even at the local church and can inspire creativity on a grass roots level, instead of needing to be imparted by the conference. In many ways I think that strategic planning seeks to create accountability and grass roots growth, but those in the episcopal structure must realize that support and praise of gifts goes goes much further than "try this, try that, have you done this? Why arn't you…? Why can't you…?"I think that is what the comment was saying. Bishop, this is not to reflect on you, but on the general feeling of the local church about the managerial structure. Blessings,-Nathan


  3. when you figure out how to measure how much closer your congregations relationship with God has grown, then you got something – God will add to those congregations that give him their whole heart. HE will give guidance to reach those who are thursty – not some campain, program, choir, band, or GROW. HE may use them but it wont be about how good those are or arent it will be about HIM! Look upon the LORD not man.


  4. I have a bit of a problem with the family vacation analogy. You see, it's one thing if there is only one possible church that the person can link up with, then the analogy is sound. But, if you live in a big city with several thousand churches, then if you live in a city with 250000 people and 2500 churches, each of the churches need only 100 to proselytize the entire city. Then … each denomination would not know that the whole city has been reached, because the only stats and demographics available to each would be only based upon their own denomination's records.This is why it's faulty. It's more the whole inward-looking-ness of the denominational culture that skews the numbers like no-one's business.Thanks!


  5. As I read the comments here, there seems to be a defensiveness to back the critique of those who blast those who study the numbers, and question the efficacy of our ministry.It is targeted to a business mentality, and I wonder, if we shouldn't be more concerned with what the numbers represent, than the businessmen who translate these numbers into $$. We are talking about souls, that don't know the peace of God, which sustains us in all things, especially against the threats of sin, satan and death.When we see the unbeliever in our community, as having more value than the number, and when we treasure the presence of Christ enough to know the difference it makes in our lives, perhaps what lies behind the numbers will be a greater concern.


  6. I just sit back and read all of the comments and head to Colossians 1:15-20 where it reminds me that Christ is the image of the invisible God and that God's fullness dwells in Christ and that God is pleased and that Christ's purpose is to reconcile unto himself all things in the universe by making peace through his blood shed on a cross.What I hear in this is what Stevie Wonder says, "Unity is only as big as our vision" and if we are dealing with the Creator of the universe whose purpose, according to Colossians is to reconcile everything into the universe to himself through Jesus, I just cannot think of a better way than by concerning ourselves with discipleship.You can't reconcile all things if you don't work with "all things"


  7. This has been a topic before. The only question I have is what the role of free will has in the equation. Let me explain. We know that salvation is God's work. God alone can save a person. We are catalysts helping the process along, but scripture is clear that it is God, through the Holy Spirit, that does the real work of evangelization. So what does the equation of ministry look like.Is it sufficient to say that if we (the church) do x then God will do y and the church will grow? Or is there something else in the equation?I believe that something else is the free will of the person with whom the church is working and in whom the Spirit is working. So now the equation must look like this:if we (the church) does x, and they (the person) does y, then God can do z and the church will grow.We cannot underestimate the free will of the people to whom we are ministering. We can minister to them, we can love them, we can do all the best "programs" and "techniques" and they still might exercise their free will to reject the grace offered to them. All we can do is faithfully do x. We can measure the number of people participating in various things (how many are participating in worship? in a discipleship group? in a ministry? in leadership in the church? etc).We can also measure how many are ministered to: how many hungry are fed? how many naked are clothed? how many sick are healed? how many captives are set free? how many homeless are housed? how many uneducated are taught?I think this is a better measure of growth. It measures compassion. It measures love for neighbor. That is more of an indicator of growth in my mind than increases in participation that may result from life transformation, but just as likely (if not more) might result from church hopping.Just my two cents…


  8. I don’t know if an equation helps explain the feeling you get when you are in a church that is celebrating the Spirit’s power and you can feel its warmth working in the life of the church. If you ever dawn the door of a church like this, that is full of life inside and outside, you want more of this warmth that comes over you. You want to come back. You want to be a part of this community. Some would say the Holy Spirit was moving. In my life though, I have experienced only a couple of churches like this. It is true that these churches were not in decline spiritually or in physical numbers. So, if the true mark of a healthy church is the mark of the Holy Spirit moving, who is responsible for the Spirit moving? Is it God alone? Is it the preacher? Is it the church leaders? Or, is it the people in the pews? I believe it’s a team effort. As Eric said, there is free will in this equation. There is free will at every level. At every level there needs to be synchronization and rhythm with God’s will. I believe the Holy Spirit is that rhythm. If the preacher is in tune, but no one else is it’s not going to work. However, the sacred duty of the preacher/minister is to try to tune the piano by understanding and then proclaiming and inspiring others to hear God’s will. Until the minister, the church leaders, and the laypeople are in tune with the Spirit it will not work. In any given church there are breakdowns. There are people who do not want to hear. There are people who hear but are afraid to follow. There are people that hear but are too proud to trust in God. It can be difficult on ministers who try and try to get their churches in tune, but face great resistance. It’s difficult for churches that are in tune but the minister is not. The UMC upper leadership needs to realize these realities though unquantifiable, and avoid deconstructing ministers and or churches where the spirit is moving. It also has to be more willing to reconstruct, revitalize, or remove members, churches, and ministers who are unwilling to let the spirit move, before they discredit Christendom beyond repair. Large churches may look good on the books, Episcopal leaders may even be tempted to think that all churches should try the many programs of the large church, but is the spirit moving in that church? Can people really feel it? A church may be small and numerical growth may be slow. It may even be in numerical decline due to declining population, but is the spirit moving? Can people really feel it? UMC leadership must spend its effort trying to help open ears, and pathways so that the spirit can move again. In the end it is very difficult to quantify a mystery like the Holy Spirit, but once you have experienced the Spirit’s power, you know when a church has it and when it doesn’t. Bishops and cabinets must be in tune with the Spirit, and learn to sense whether it is moving or not. The UMC leadership has a difficult job in catalyzing the Spirit and helping ministers and churches hear God’s rhythm. Move in our churches Holy Spirit, move in us! -Nathan


  9. I presently attend a small country church, Chestnut Grove and I think that we are under attack by the politics of the UMC. I was brought up as a Baptist and have been a member of the UMC for some years now but it seems to me that politics have taken over the UMC. I do not really care for the Mega Churches, which I'm sure is where the money is for the UMC, but I have tried these and I think that it is more like entertainment than worship. Mr Bell has determined that our pastor will be removed even though he likes it here and we like him. I think the one that needs to be removed is Mr. Bell who appears to me to be a bean counter! I try to do all that can in our church. I have assumed duties in leadership and I tithe as I should but when this minister leaves so will I. It will be the last straw in this political game in the UMC for ME!


  10. The following comment is an adaptation of the introduction of a paper I once wrote in school titled, "Consecrating Capitalist Consumer Commercialism:A Reaction to Robert Pierson’s Needs-Based Evangelism."I share it here because I find that Willimon and Pierson have many argumentative and theological faults in common."The [school debate team] recently sponsored a debate between [a seminary professor] and a nationally syndicated columnist and church consultant on the topic of “Pack up the Polity: Dumping the Dead Weight.” [The consultant] argued that the Church needs to make decisions with the consumer in mind and the consumer does not want burdensome bureaucratic polity: “selling a mainline denominational church is like trying to selling Tylenol after the discovery that it had been tampered with.” In the following Q&A session I asked him, “my congregation’s attendance drops when we do communion, should we stop taking Eucharist if the consumer does not want it?” “You can’t beat the market” he answered. This vignette closely approximates the basic argument (church should be more business-like) and the theological foundations (wrestling Scriptures into warrants for capitalism) in Pierson’s "Needs-Based Evangelism" [and in Willimon's "It's all about the numbers"]. In this essay I will show how Pierson’s thesis is flawed many times over, how his theological foundations are smokescreens for smuggling in demand side economics, and how a more robust theological understanding of evangelism leads to life-giving possibilities and practices."I really hope that the NAC will grow out of this unhealthy obsession with numbers soon and return to a more faithfulness centered mission. If you want pastors to deliver butts in the seats, then they will; but at what cost? Do the ends/numbers justify the correlating means/theological compromises? In the course of xn history is there a high correlation between the church's size and it's faithfulness? After the Constantinian shift was the now obese church faithful or not? Were the churches in the 60s who invited the George Wallaces in growing or shrinking in their numbers and popularity? Is x with culture or against it? If x is against culture, then the true church will always be lean. Where in Paul's list of the "fruits" of the Spirit is there any mention of more paying butts in the seats?


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