June 23, 2016 Aaron Ross

The Failure of Numbers (and the Success of Discipleship)

I have been a part of a sizable variety of churches. I have worked at small and medium size churches, been a part of worship at churches with just a handful of people and other churches that are often titled “mega-churches”. I have seen “revival” movements that turned non-believers off to Christ and even a large church have homeless people kicked off of their property. I’ve seen small churches that have impacted a city, and remained small, but I have also seen small churches impact a city and have their numbers explode. I guess when you have been around the church for as long as I have (and is isn’t even that long compared to some!), you get to see the good, bad, beautiful, and ugly of the church. However, there is one thing that has always thrown me off, churches (here in America at least) tend to dictate success majorly based off of numbers.

There is something I have always found weird about meeting pastors or hearing about a new church. A lot of times, though not always, a pastor’s introduction is colored somewhere in the discussion with the size of their church. Knowing the size of the church became a pragmatic way of determining whether or not a pastor was successful (as if it is even up to the pastor to grow the church). As the thinking goes, bigger church = more conversions, more baptisms, more success. Well, to be honest, that is just wrong. There are two things that are here that constantly hit me:

Numbers do not equal success in terms of Christianity.

We fail both our large churches and small churches when we assume, even subconsciously, that numbers equal success. The success of the church is not based on the amount of people who say a sinner’s prayer or who raise their hand during the seeker friendly version of an alter call, on the number of baptisms a church records for the year, or how many active “members” that come in to the church building on any given Sunday. The success of a church is based on the discipleship of those that a specific church community has been entrusted with by God. Success comes with discipleship, not numbers. When a friend of mine was asked how many people were “saved” during a service at his church, his reply gives me hope for understanding success in the church. “I don’t know. Ask me in six months.”

It is not about how many conversions or baptisms that happen at a church, it is about how many of those church goers are discipled and become productive members of the Kingdom of Heaven. Salvation is not the end-all-be-all goal of the church, discipleship and fruitful citizenship of the kingdom of God should be our goal. We aren’t called to go out into the world and make converts…. we are called to make disciples (and yes, baptism and salvations are a huge part of that goal!). – Matthew 28:19

We cannot forget that capacity for service does not equal success in service.

There are churches God has called to be large, and there are those who are purposed to be small. The capacity of a pastor or church body is not an indicator of how holy it is or how blessed it is, capacity is based on God’s Will. Not all pastors have the capacity to be megachurch pastors and that is more than okay. In fact, there are a lot of megachurch pastors who probably do not have the capacity to be megachurch pastors either. We actually hurt the church when we assume that being in God’s will automatically assumes that the church grows numerically. God’s blessing for the church does not always equate to more members, more people in seats. We only hurt and degrade our pastors when we praise pastors of large churches while ignoring pastors of small churches.

Now by no means do I assume that the numbers mean nothing. Numbers can definitely help us get a snapshot of where a church may be at. Using numbers is not the real failure (as so implicitly noted in the title), but relying on numbers as the main determiner of success makes us rely on what we can easily perceive, and this causes us to fail. The success of the church should be measured on the fruit of the people who are a part of a church community, success is measured in discipleship. It is easy to see why most people would rather rely on the numbers, it is easier to track. The numbers of the church give us easy metrics to say “our church is successful”.

When it comes down to it, I would rather be a part of a small group of Christ followers who are making a difference in the lives of people, ushering in the Kingdom with the Spirit, than a large church that has the numbers, but fails in creating active members in the Kingdom. I want to see the success of the church being measured not by its growth or numbers, but by their discipleship and the fruit of those who claim to be a part of that community.

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About the Author

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Aaron Ross Aaron Ross is an instructor of theology at Southeastern University and a PhD student at the University of Birmingham (UK). He is also the senior editor of ECCLESIAM. In his spare time, Aaron enjoys running and being an avid movie watcher.