Numbers That Don’t Matter

The second in a three-part series on measurable growth in the church—and whether it matters.


Yesterday we saw that God does care about numbers. He inspires the historian Luke to devote too much time to the unstoppable numerical growth of the primitive church to think otherwise. However, we do not want to be simplistic in our affirmative answer. We would do well to ask not only if God cares about numbers, but also what sort of numbers does God care about?


Here we address the primary concern that many have when talking about measurable growth in the church: many (but by no means all) of the churches that have impressive numerical growth are the sorts of churches we thumb our noses at—lingering remnants of a (thankfully) by-gone movement. The days of production-driven, seeker-sensitive churches are over for most of us. Attendance was high, numerical growth was explosive—but growth in Christ was woefully lacking. At a mile wide and an inch deep, these churches failed to produce genuine disciples, wholly committed to following Christ. So those sorts of numbers cannot be our focus. They bring no pleasure to God, not like the exponential growth of the early church.


Ultimately, numbers matter because people matter. Behind every number stands a living, breathing man or woman—sinners and saints, all in desperate need of grace, longing for the abundant life God offers or suppressing the truth while clinging to lies. Every one of us needs more of Jesus. And if we show up on Sunday morning for the service—or Wednesday night for Awana, or Thursday afternoon for Bible study—we are more than just numbers. We are the people for whom God sent his Son—his only Son, whom he loved—to die.


But our showing up in itself is not enough. Mere attendance is not the sort of number God cares about, because a mere attendee is not the sort of disciple God seeks. Here I think we can draw a helpful lesson from the business world. To be successful in business, one must carefully distinguish between input variables and output goals. Simply put, output goals are what you hope to see happen; input variables are how you are going to get there. So, for example, suppose you set a 15% increase in profit this year as your output goal. How will you get there? Well, you might decide to “innovent” (in the words of John Francis Donaghy) three new products that will lead to greater profitability. We might be tempted to see these new inventions as outputs, a goal we set for ourselves, feeling pleased when we completed it. This would be short-sighted, however; in truth the inventions are inputs leading to our true output goal—profit.


The church has not been careful to discern the difference. What is our output goal really? As our church puts it, we want to make as many people as much like Jesus in the shortest time possible. In other words, our output goal is simply to fulfill the Great Commission: to make disciples of all nations as we go, baptize, and teach. Is attendance a genuine measurement of this output goal? Certainly not. One may attend a church for many years without ever becoming a disciple of Christ. Millions do just that (cf. Matthew 13:24-30). Instead, attendance is an input variable. In order to make disciples effectively, we have to bring people into the local church—to hear the Word proclaimed on Sunday morning, to develop profound accountability relationships in small groups, to receive one-on-one discipleship teaching, and the like. If we want to produce true disciples of Christ, however, attendance cannot be the output goal; it has to be one way we attain our true goal of making people more like Jesus.


It seems to me that our input variables relate to our faithfulness as ministers of the gospel; our output goals depend on the providential work of God—promised fruit of faithful labor. Tim Keller, in his new book Center Church, distinguishes the work of the gardener from the work of the Creator. The gardener has certain responsibilities if he hopes to see growth, such as planting, watering, watching for blight. However, he cannot control the soil or the climate: these belong to the Creator. In the same way, ministers of the gospel cannot bring about renewal in people’s hearts (soil) or culture (climate). Those are in God’s hands. We have been called to faithfulness as gardeners.


How does this relate to the sorts of numbers God cares about? We measure our faithfulness as gardeners—not our success as ministers—by joyful completion of the input variables. When we are faithful, we wait in hopeful expectation of a harvest, knowing that we do not labor in vain when we labor for the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:58). If we want to see conversion growth, we will set an output goal (number of converts) accompanied by several input variables: for example, we might resolve to have a certain number of evangelistic conversations that include the potential for follow-up; or we might decide to train a certain percentage of the congregation in personal evangelism.


Here’s where we need discernment: if our attendance in the main service increases as a result of transfer growth, we would not see that as accomplishing our goal. But if attendance at our evangelism training sessions swells, we would see that as an encouraging sign of faithfulness, completion of one input variable. Then if thirty people repent and believe in Jesus under our new evangelistic ministry, we would rejoice to see God causing growth in conjunction with our faithfulness as laborers.


God does care about numbers because he cares about people. But he does not care about mere numbers. Increasing numbers only matter when they reflect a true increase in the harvest, the irresistible spread of his kingdom in this world. May he give us the wisdom to distinguish the difference.

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