I want to write more extensively on this question. For now, though, I will explain why one argument against focusing on number fails. Let me say at the outset that I think it is wrong for churches to focus exclusively on numbers. But numbers can be useful in judging the effects of one’s ministry efforts. (And I also do not think that total attendance is the most important number for ministers and leaders. I think the numbers actively involved in serving either the church or the lost is more important.)
The argument that I sometimes hear concerning numbers goes like this: “You shouldn’t focus on numbers so much. They aren’t important. What’s important is the people. Don’t reduce them to numbers. They aren’t numbers.”
This argument is expressed many different ways. The essential element is the claim that those of us who keep track of attendance and growth rates are reducing the people to mere numbers. That we are somehow treating them as less than human, and so missing out on the important human element involved.
On the face of it, this has some emotional appeal. After all, we are all repulsed by the image of a minister looking over attendance stats as if they were financial records for a company. That is repulsive, and it should not be done.
But, in general, I think most of us who pay attention to the numbers are not guilty of “reducing” people to numbers. In fact, I think that it is the people making the argument who are guilty of reducing people to numbers.
“What?” you might say. How can you accuse them of reducing people to mere numbers when they are not even keeping track of the numbers? Let me explain by an example.
Imagine if I ran a hospital that solely treated children with cancer. We took no other cases. One day I come to you and say, “You won’t believe it. Last month, we cured 50 kids of cancer. This month we cured 100! Can you believe it? We doubled the number of people we cured.”
You say, “I can’t believe you would keep count. And I can’t believe you are excited about the numbers. These are children, Micah. They aren’t numbers. Stop counting.”
I think everyone can agree that your response is misguided. But why? It is because those numbers refer to actual people. You see, what’s exciting about the numbers in my hypothetical case is that they indicate that 50 more children have been cured of cancer. It is exciting that the numbers doubled, since they only doubled because the children saved doubled! Not being excited about the numbers shows that you are not thinking about the people behind the numbers. You are only thinking about the numbers. You’ve reduced the people to mere numbers.
Similarly with church numbers. I don’t get excited over attendance numbers and the number of people serving in our ministry because of the numbers. I don’t get excited about conversion numbers because of the numbers. I get excited because of the people behind the numbers. The increase in attendance means more individuals, more precious souls, are coming to worship with us. The increase in the number of people serving in our ministry means that there are more Christians living out the mission of God in the world. The number of conversions shows me that more people have joined that Kingdom of God. I keep track of the numbers because it helps me keep track of the people. It’s not all I do. But it’s part of it.
Not to be excited about the numbers is not to be excited about the people. And to me, that’s just wrong.