It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d aggravated a denominational leader. And it, unfortunately, was far from the last time. Twenty years ago I was asked to speak at a BCI meeting with church planters to share the “success” of my church. In the two years I had been in Cedar Rapids, our church had doubled in size, then tripled. Eventually, we almost fourpled, before our attendance became more stable (unfortunately, I guess). We Baptists have a one-size-fits-all concept built deep within us. Whatever I was doing at Northbrook needed to be analyzed, quantified and reproduced in other churches. If it worked here, it will work there – we all know that!
But I was (and still am) a fan of Henry Blackaby and one of his most common statements was “programs don’t work, God works.” He also taught that God has certain ways and means by which he works, but he pointed out that in the Bible, God never used the same method twice. His methodological creativity was unbounded. Even when he made water flow from a rock, he altered his method – the first time he commanded Moses to strike the rock, the second time only to speak to it.
So, I looked at the assembled church planters and pastors of struggling little Iowa churches and told them there was no magic program that would make their churches work. They should seek the presence and power of God, be led of the Spirit, obey the Word and be faithful to God in all things. Then, I said this:
We need to free ourselves from the idolatry of numbers, believing that statistical growth is a sure sign of God’s blessing.
I am not sure how many pastors there were in Iowa at that moment, but from the look I got, I was quite sure that my ranking as favorite pastor in Iowa was precisely equal to the number of pastors Iowa churches had.
Two Biblical Facts
I still believe what I said that day. However, I have come to believe that the biblical evidence on the subject of numbers and statistics is a little more subtle and varied than my dogmatic statement that day. I stated one side of a truth – truth, but not the whole truth. We have had several arguments on this site about whether numbers are a fair way to measure the blessing of God on a church. Should a church that baptizes no one for a year be considered unfaithful? Should a church that is growing rapidly assume that God’s blessing is on them?
I would like to approach this topic again, but from a both/and perspective, not and either/or outlook. I think there are two biblical facts that are pretty well established in Scriptures.
1) Numerical growth is a legitimate measure of God’s blessing and a sign of spiritual life and health.
Life and growth are inextricably linked in nature. My granddaughter, born while I was in Israel last week, is growing rapidly right now. If she stops growing, it will be taken as a sign of sickness and my son and his wife will get her to the doctor right away! When you stop growing, you start dying.
I am currently preaching through the book of Acts, and it is clear that numerical growth was an important part of the life of the early church. From the day of Pentecost, when 3000 souls were added to the church to the end of the book, there is one report after another of the salvation of the lost and the numerical growth of the church. It was alive and it was growing. It overcame obstacles of all sorts to reach people, baptize them into Christ and train them up for ministry.
It is hard to argue with the fact that Israel, when it walked in obedience to Yahweh, overcame its enemies, grew and expanded its territory. Israel’s borders only shrunk when they turned from the Living God to worship idols.
Simply put, I think you have to ignore or explain away a passel of scripture to maintain the idea that numbers are never a measure of God’s blessing and a sign of the spiritual health of God’s church. Both Old Testament and New, God’s blessing was evidenced in numerical, often quantifiable ways.
2) Numerical growth is not ALWAYS a measure of God’s blessing and of spiritual life and health.
No one counterfeits Monopoly money – they counterfeit what is real. As clear as it is in scripture that numerical growth is a marker of God’s blessing and the spiritual health of the church, it is also clear that not all numerical growth is good numerical growth. Satan has counterfeited church growth with a very close imitation.
Jesus had thousands, probably tens of thousands of people following him. Then, he began to instruct his followers on the costs of discipleship and what was required of true followers of Christ. The vast majority of people listened and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” John 6:66 (the most appropriately numbered verse in the Bible) says, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” By the time he was arrested, the thousands in his “congregation” had become dozens. Any pastor who took his church from 20,000 people to a few dozen would be fired (long before it got that far). None of us would, I hope, claim that Jesus messed up. Many people like the miracles and the fun, but are not interested in taking up their crosses and following Jesus, in dying to self.
Churches can grow large in America today through fun and games, through a therapeutic, man-centered approach to ministry that involves ignoring God’s call to “die to self” and follow him. Churches that emphasize self-fulfillment instead of self-denial can see great growth.
Paul, in some of the last words he ever wrote, said this:
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 2 Timothy 4:3-4
Can’t get much clearer than that.
So, I would summarize the biblical teaching on numbers this way:
Numerical growth can be evidence of the blessing and favor of God on a church, but it can also be evidence of spiritual compromise and false ministry.
Some Perspectives to Ponder
Consider the following points.
1) A church that is not growing, not baptizing people, not seeing souls saved ought to take that seriously and seek God’s forgiveness (if necessary) and correction.
It would be folly for a church to go through an extended time of stagnation or numerical decline and ignore it. To simply discount numbers as a marker of church health is unhealthy denial. If your church is not reaching people, not extending the kingdom, not seeing spiritual response, you ought to get on your knees and call out to God. Let the Holy Spirit correct you, comfort you, reassure you, or redirect you. But for the love of God and the Crucified Savior, don’t take numerical decline or stagnation lightly.
As a pastor, I’ve gone through times of growth and times of plateau, even slight decline. I try not to get too high in the good times or too low in the bad times. But I would never take an extended time of numerical stagnation or decline lightly. Maybe the church is faithful and we are just awaiting the work of God, but it is also possible that our ministries are misdirected, there is sin in the church, or (shudder) my preaching lacks power for some reason or another.
I cannot say exactly what is going on in anyone else’s church. I often don’t even understand what is going on at Southern Hills. But I know that if there is no growth, that is a sign of sickness that must not be ignored! When I realized that my current church was on a plateau, even perhaps facing decline, I took action. I preached addressing the topic. We formed a task force to completely restructure our church to be more effective in doing real ministry and less focused on maintenance and busy work. We took our lack of numerical growth seriously.
It is foolish, I believe, not to.
2) A church that is growing numerically should not arrogantly assume that it is being blessed by God, but should constantly check that its growth is for the right reasons.
“You may not like what we are doing, but God seems to. We have baptized 57 people in the last three months and our worship attendance has doubled.” Well, praise God. Maybe! Or maybe not. Maybe your church is healthy and seeing the blessing of God. Maybe your church has bought into some of the corporate, worldly, man-centered methods that tickle peoples’ ears instead of confronting them with God’s truth.
There could be great spiritual disease in your church even as it grows numerically.
Basically, bringing points one and two together, I would summarize it this way:
It is foolish to ignore the LACK of numerical growth since it can be a key signal of spiritual problems in your church. It is also foolish to assume that numerical growth is ALWAYS a marker of God’s blessing since it is possible to grow numerically in fleshly, contra-biblical ways.
3) Yes, it is our job to sow the seeds and God’s to bring the harvest, but don’t use that as an excuse!
“It is our job to sow the seeds and God’s job to bring the harvest.” Of course it is. However, it seems to me that a lot of people use this truth as a way of blaming God for their numerical decline or stagnation. “Hey, we are doing our job here sowing the seeds. Once God gets busy and brings the increase, everything will be fine.” Are we not using a biblical truth as a way of passing the buck – to God?
Look, God is in the business of redeeming lost and hell-deserving souls. You can assume that he is not on vacation or messing up on his end. The lack of harvest is far more likely to be a problem with the sowing of the seeds or the maintenance of the fields than it is to be a problem with God failing to do his work. Capiche?
4) There are times of planting and times of harvesting, so numerical growth might not always be evident even in a faithful church.
My church has something around ten or twelve active farmers who are part of our work. I’m no farmer but this I know – there is a gap between sowing and harvesting. In smaller churches, it is often true that church must have a time of sowing and field maintenance before the harvest comes. Of course, we can’t use that as an excuse for not sowing the seeds and not maintaining the fields, but we should not get out the hara kiri knife just because we’ve gone a month or two without a baptism.
5) We ought to judge ourselves, not others.
It would be wrong for me to ignore statistical issues in the church I pastor. It would be just as wrong for me to draw conclusions about other churches based on their statistics. It is easy to judge churches that are struggling statistically and it is just as easy to assume that the church down the street that is growing faster than mine is doing it for all the wrong reasons. Both assumptions are unwarranted.
Numbers are a marker I ought to take seriously in my congregation. I ought never use them to rank churches or judge the work of others. Leave that up to the Holy Spirit, who is immensely effective at his work.
There is more to be said here, but I wanted to put these thoughts down to get some discussion going. We Baptists have always had an uneasy romance with statistical evaluation, and we probably always will. But this issue is more subtle that the simple views that are so often expressed on the subject.
- Should a church that baptizes no one be concerned? How could they not be?
- Should a church in spiritual stagnation or decline examine itself? Absolutely.
- Should we judge those churches? No, give room to the Spirit.
- Should we assume that growing churches are good churches? Not if the Bible is true!
Now, it is time for you to chime in.