There is much conversation in my church right now about whether we are a declining church body and whether or not we will survive this decline. So, surveyors of statistics tell us that we are in for a long, slow dip before we hit rock bottom and recover. That is not exactly the message you want to hear if you are a believer faithfully caring out the work Christ left the church to do. Here's the thing, the numbers are the numbers, right? We must trust the numbers; the numbers wouldn't lie. I say the numbers are lying. Here is what we know about the church. Chuck Colson summarized it nicely in his book, The Body, 1992, Word Publishing, p. 70.
"Yet membership in a confessing body is fundamental to the faithful Christian life. Failure to do so defies the explicit warning not to forsake "our assembling together." His understanding of this prompted Martin Luther to say, "Apart from the Church, salvation is impossible." Not that the church provides salvation; God does. But because the "saved" one can't fulfill what it means to be a Christian apart from the church, membership becomes the indispensable mark of salvation.
"So highly does the Lord esteem the communion of His church," Calvin wrote," that He considers everyone a traitor and apostate from religion who perversely withdraws himself from any Christian society which preserves the true ministry of the word and sacraments."
The Attendance Lie.
If we measure the effectiveness of the Gospel by church attendance and dollars in the offering plate, we must also admit that the life-saving message of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins is not working. That is what the numbers say. But that is not a measurement of the Church's effectiveness or fruitfulness. No matter how faithfully you preach, teach the gospel, administer the Lord's Supper, or baptize, no matter how much you do, you will be discouraged when those numbers do not change. If we continue to see a steady decline in the number of people coming to church and supporting the church's work, we want someone to blame.
Our work is ineffective if we believe the numbers. That would mean we no longer believe in the power of the Gospel. Take a moment to consider that. Is that what's causing our churches' morale to plummet? We see the numbers, and we're doing what God said we should do, which isn't working. Efficacy and power of the Gospel are not defined by numbers. The nature of God's word is not reflected in attendance. The lower offering numbers do not mean we have no mission left to accomplish. It's lies, all lies. God made us a promise, and God keeps his promises. In Isaiah 55,
10 Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
and don't return there without watering the earth,
making it conceive and yield plants
and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater,
11 so is my word that comes from my mouth;
it does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want
and accomplishes what I intend.
The numbers do not define us; they serve as useful data. But God's mission is still needed. If anything, the numbers prove that God's mission is needed more than ever. The church is facing stiff competition for the heart of culture. This writer captures the challenge well by comparing the church to sports.
"Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter. Baseball in the spring and summer. This pastor has been an avid sports fan all his life. But I've had it! I quit this sports business once and for all. You can't get me near one of those places again. Want to know why…
Every time I went, they asked me for money.
The people with whom I had to sit seemed to need to be more friendly.
The seats were too hard and not at all comfortable.
I attended many games, but the coach has not called on me.
The referee made a decision with which I could not agree.
I suspected that I was sitting with some hypocrites — they came to
see their friends and what others were wearing rather than to see the game.
Some games went into overtime, and I was late getting home.
The band played some numbers that I had never heard before.
The games are scheduled when I want to do other things.
My parents took me to too many games when I was growing up.
I don't want to take my children to games because I want
them to choose the sport they like best."- Author Unknown, At Calvary, Covington, KY.
One of the most hurtful things the idea of church attendance has planted in the American Christian psyche is that "if you are not growing as a church, you are a failure as a pastor and congregation." So, we play the comparison game with our younger selves. How were we doing 10 years ago today? Imagine doing that in your life now. Compare your fifty-year-old body to the body you had in your twenties; how will that comparison turn out? And we judge our shepherds on the number of new converts. Or the number of kids in the Christian Day School or Sunday School. On a larger scale, the national church might count on the number of new churches planted to offset the number of church closures. Or the number of pastors and teachers entering our colleges and Universities.
If you want to stop that madness, we need to find new ways to gauge congregational and denominational health. By putting the health report numbers of attendance and weekly offerings in the Sunday bulletin, we ask those reading it to judge our success based on those measurements. And we are buying into a false narrative about the effectiveness of the Word of God.
When the church continues to miss the mark of the weekly recording of those numbers, it only further demoralizes the membership and even an entire church body. Start tracking other things to avoid being judged by those figures and feel like you are losing the battle. Not to mention the numbers are Holy Spirit-driven numbers, and we can't control His work anyway.
Instead, track numbers that help hold your church accountable for those things that the church in Acts was measuring: people studying God's word, the number of individuals engaged in living life together in community, the number of people helped with the offerings of God's people, the number of prayer gatherings and the number of answered prayers. Imagine measuring in church what God is doing among his people vs. the number of individuals coming on one day a week. Isn't faith a 24/7 thing, not just one hour on Sunday?
Discussion questions for your leadership:
What are the things we want to measure?
For example, the number of people attending Bible class, interactions our members have with those in our community, or ministry connection points.
The amount of money we donate to mission partners, like overseas missionaries or local ministries in our district, and inviting those people to give updates on their work can serve as a source of encouragement.
What steps must we take to accomplish this shift in our culture?