Anything Worth Doing For God Is Worth Counting

How do we Methodists define effective clergy? We do it with one word: growth. Effective clergy know how to grow the church in its membership, witness, and mission.

In North Alabama we now have a “Conference Dashboard” that every church logs in on Monday morning and reports their numbers for that Sunday’s attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, offering, and participation in mission. Anyone can see the numbers for any church in our Conference over the past three years. The push-back we have received in this endeavor has surprised me. In nearly every group of clergy in which I’ve discussed our work, there is always someone to repeat at least one of these mindless mantras: ‘It’s all about numbers is it?’ ‘You can’t measure clergy effectiveness, can you?’ ‘So it’s come to this: putting the butts in the pews.’ Yada, yada, yada.

There may be something to be said for some of these slogans. Except not in the United Methodist Church. We’re Wesleyans. That means we believe in the growth of the Kingdom of God. John Wesley had friction with the established church of his day, not only because of his vibrant Trinitarian theology, but also because of his refusal to limit his ministry to the moribund English parochial system.

From the beginning, Methodists were inveterate counters and numbers keepers.

Dick Heitzenrater tells me that in the annual minutes of 18th British Methodism, beginning in 1769, the Circuits that had fewer members than the previous year were marked with an asterisk (12 of the 48). By 1779, that number had expanded to 18. The question was asked at the Conference, “How can we account for the decrease in so many Circuits this year?” The answer: this was “chiefly to the increase of worldly-mindedness and conformity to the world.”

As of 1781, Wesley marked with an asterisk those Circuits who had an increase in membership, which was the case with 32 of them, or exactly half. This method was used for a few years until the percentage of Circuits that experienced increases in membership were 75% of the connection.

Our North Alabama Conference once had four full time people who spent their whole day collecting numbers from our churches. These numbers were duly reported and printed in the Conference “Journal.” Yet here’s the thing: not one single decision was ever made, by the Bishop or Cabinet, on the basis of any of these numbers! It was as if we were all engaged in a studied effort never to notice any of the numbers we were so assiduously and expensively collecting. Of course, when the numbers were as bad as ours — over half our congregations had not made a new Christian in the past three years, a twenty percent decrease in membership — it takes courage to note the numbers.

Wesley frequently cites numerical growth as indicative of spiritual vitality. In his sermon “On God’s Vineyard,” Wesley celebrates that the London Methodist Society grew from 12 to 2,200 in just about 25 years. Heitzenrater speculates that Wesley was trying to spur them on, since their membership had slowed to a gain of only 400 new members in the latest 25 years.

Wesley sent pastors to those areas where, in his estimate, there were the most souls to be saved. He told his traveling preachers not just that they ought to read, but also put a number on it: at least five hours a day. Wesley also kept a close eye (with charts in the annual “Minutes”) on how much money was collected each year—for Kingswood School, for new preaching houses, for the pension fund, for operating expenses. The Annual Conference was invented, not just as opportunity for worship and fellowship, but mostly for the purpose of everyone rendering account and confessing their numbers.

I can’t speak for other church families, but in the Wesleyan family, studied obliviousness to results, deploying pastors without regard to their fruitfulness, pastors shrinking churches, pastors keeping house among the older folks left there by the work of a previous generation of pastors, and churches having a grand old time loving one another and praising God without inviting, seeking, and saving those outside the church, do not make for faithfulness.

“Numbers aren’t important.” Really? Tell it that to Jesus and his parables of growth and fruitfulness. Tell it to the Acts of the Apostles.

Tell it to John Wesley.

William H. Willimon

See you at our yearly Accountability Session – – Annual Conference at ClearBranch, June 4-5. Leadership is this year’s focus.

11 thoughts on “Anything Worth Doing For God Is Worth Counting

  1. Numbers are important ONLY if they reflect souls saved and lives changed.Unfortunately, many are SO eager to increase butts in the pew and bucks in the offering that they sell out and pander to anything the lost want.I agree strongly with accountability as a Wesleyan Christian.But let us never, and I mean never, stoop to the kind of preachin to itching ears that comes with the seeker sensitive movement.We don't need to refocus. We don't need leadership management.We need a Holy Ghost revival in the Methodist church, or we need God to shut us down.


  2. In addition to agreeing with Linda's comments, I agree that numbers matter, but so does context. The church I'm a member of in Texas has had a net .5% annual growth over the last three years, but it's also a church where 10% of the membership has died over the last three years and the average age is 75. It's also difficult to compare the success of a church in a growing suburb to a church in a declining urban area. Again, I'm not saying numbers are irrelevant in evaluating a pastor's effectivness. But so does context, so does content (the Gospel we preach and teach and live), and so does congregational lay leadership.


  3. Linda,I dont think you have to worry about those seekers you appear to have a distaste for invading the UMC.They are seeking real, spirit filled, life changing, relovant worship and that you will not find in the UMC.You are safe.


  4. Actually, I'm a convert.Those "real, relevent, spirit filled life changing" churches, well, often aren't.Real is not found only in dockers.Relevance is not music from the current top ten CCM play list.Spirit filled happens in traditional, in liturgical, and in contemporary forms. The Holy Spirit ministers–period. And the Holy Spirit cannot be conjured up by 40 days of this or another seminar on that.And if those churches are so life changing they would not have just as high, if not higher, rates of divorce, substance abuse, domestic violence, and unwed pregnancy as the lost world.I'm a convert who came seeking worship centered on God Almighty rather than on the worshipper and the latest trends.I found a home in the UMC.I found a home where I hear the old old story of the gospel rather than one more lecture on how to have a happy life. Where I hear music about God rather than about my feelings. And where the gospel has feet that goes to the hurting and needy rather than another pep rally to tell them they can change their lives without God's help.Now if the local UMC had more Bible study–but its a coming, its a coming.


  5. Linda,John and Charles Wesley could not hear their own "worship music"where they attended church.It was not accepted,so they took it to the streets Wow! that was radical.Can you believe those dudes actually are known for holding the first tent revival?Oh and the rhythm to those songs sounds like bar tunes to me how disgusting,what no pipe organ in the tent, heaven help us all. GIVE ME A BREAK !If you dont believe John Wesley preached to itching ears you dont know the history of the Methodist Movement .


  6. Linda, and the itching ears got scratched and look what a movement it produced.Now we just set back and let the UMC slowly slip into the grave yard of churches who should be called "God clubs".Think the Conference in Bham voted to close a dozen last week.JW would not be proud.


  7. Just a side note–bar songs are not songs written and sung in places serving alcohol. It is a musical term.I come from the other side of the equation. I was reared in a traditional church, and in the 80's chose to follow what today is called seeker sensitive contemporary style worship.Been there. Done that. And let me tell you, it isn't changing lives, getting out the gospel, or doing all that great stuff it is promoted to do. In our town you can literally tell who has the best band (at church) by attendance. And it revolves constantly.But sit down and discuss Jesus and the gospel with the folks chasing the band, and you find out in a hurry there is no depth–no doctrine–no understanding of Lordship.My understanding of the Wesley's is just fine. I grew up UMC, left for the Nazarenes, and have returned to the UMC.But let's not distort history….the Wesley's were not pitched out of the Anglican church for singing contemporary music. John Wesley saw himself as an Anglican minister.John Wesley experienced a vibrant born again faith, and took it wherever he could. The common miners and workmen were a fertile field…and yes, one best reached in open air mass evangelism.That is VERY different from "Jesus is my boyfriend" music in churches devoid of any Christian symbols such as crosses lest the seeker be annoyed to find out he isn't God.Please note: I firmly believe God uses contemporary services, traditional services, and liturgical services.None of those are what are properly called seeker sensitive.The last seeker sensitive church I attended and was member of went three weeks without mentioning Jesus Christ in Sunday School, preaching, praying, or any part of the service.And yet folks were being claimed as converts "to this fellowship."No, John Wesley would not have preached that way to itching ears. He consistently called for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.And we who consider ourselves Wesleyans must do no less, whatever form of worship we choose.


  8. Linda all I am saying is each generation has its own "spiritual leaders "some good some bad.John and Charles were just that for their generation.In their eyes,the Anglican church was full of legalism and lifeless,but yet sincere.In 1737 John printed a hymnbook for use in his congregations. This hymnbook was called Collection of Psalms and Hymns and included some songs by Isaac Watts.This was not well recieved by the community,and a grand jury indicted John with "introducing into the church hymns not authorized".Now I am not saying you are that harsh but it does appear you have some since of what should and should not be authorized, but do you have the authority? And Charles worked with many composers to find just the appropriate tune for his hymns.Many were German chorales,classical and popular melodies,and new psalm tunes.Not appreciated by the Anglican Church.The Wesleys never heard their hymns sang in the Anglican Church and the Methodist were eventually kicked out of the Anglican Church and many Anglican Churches were closed to the Wesleys.These are Facts.In summary the Wesleys were just to "contemporary".


  9. Linda maybe you need to define "seeker"is it like "seek and you shall find ask and it shall"well you know the rest.Or is it someone that goes from say the Methodist to the Naz to the Non Denom then back to the Methodist? Or is it someone that says "you know my life seems so messed up there must be more than this,think I need to check into that Jesus stuff"? Linda thats where we come in. WE are called into action, not JW or the Pope or Martin Luther or the Bishop just US and Jesus.


  10. You are not hearing what I am apparently poorly saying:I love many contemporary songs and services.Contemporary does NOT equal seeker sensitive….at least not in our area.If you attend a seeker sensitive service you will not hear "I can only imagine." You will not hear "come, now is the time to worship"…..not as written.Neither will you hear gospel songs or true hymns.You will hear versions purged of any reference that can only be applied to Jesus Christ.You will not see a cross, a font, a baptistry, a picture of Jesus, or anything that is overtly about Jesus Christ.You WILL be encouraged to find your own spirituallity, to try different paths to God, and to just "open your heart to being part of this fellowship."So again, please note what I am saying and not just reply to what you think you heard.I'm not harsh about ANY mode of worship: liturgical is wonderful and reaches many people, traditional is wonderful and reaches many people, contemporary is wonderful and reaches many people.I'm harsh about so called Christian worship that deliberately removes Jesus from said "worship."I'm not fighting the worship war of anticontemporary as you seem to think.I AM fighting against purging Jesus from our churches.More clear?


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