The Numbers Game: Game Over

We're looking at the wrong indicators.

God’s Priorities for His Churches (2)

We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of your love for all the saints; because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, which has come to you, as
it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth… Colossians 1.3-6

The focus on numbers
Some 45 years ago, when Susie and I were just beginning our ministry, I was reading as much as I could about how to do the work of ministry to which we were called.

I came across an article in a Christian magazine reporting on the 100 largest Sunday schools in America, with a particular focus on the 10 largest of those. These 10 largest Sunday schools were truly large. Students in the thousands of every age and from every part of the city populated those Sunday morning classes. The churches provided transportation where needed. They trained teachers and used only the latest curricula and methods. And they were well endowed with facilities and other resources.

Since this article was the tenth in a series, I wrote the magazine and asked them to send me copies of all the previous years. As it turned out, those largest Sunday schools were for the most part the same ones every year, with a few newcomers nudging their way into the top 10 from time to time. Same huge enrollments, well-trained teachers, excellent curricula and methods, and great facilities. And the same detailed analyses about what these churches were doing to grow their Sunday schools, so that we could do the same.

But I also noticed one other factor these largest Sunday schools had in common: They were all located in big cities, where, increasingly, crime, poverty, and homelessness were on the rise, schools were troubled, families were breaking down, culture was largely frivolous and self-indulgent, drugs were proliferating, and community leaders seemed at a loss as to how to staunch the flow of life-blood from the cities to the suburbs, which had their own growing problems.

And what about those multiplied thousands of Sunday school students, celebrated in those articles? Where was the salt, light, and leaven of the Kingdom of grace, peace, and truth which we might have expected would bring the goodness of God to light in those cities?

The articles did not mention anything about the impact of those large Sunday schools on their communities. All that mattered was that they were large – really large – and that by following a few of their practices, your Sunday school might grow, too.

The message was clear: Growth is good, and by growth we mean numerical growth. In those waning years of the 20th century, theologians, consultants, publishers, and pastors of large churches agreed that healthy, growing churches were those that sported the greatest numbers. Pastors wanted their churches to grow. We wanted to see more people in attendance, and so we read the books, attended the seminars, and looked to the thinkers of the day to tell us how to increase our numbers and grow our churches.

But when the focus on numbers became the driving force in church growth, much of what it means to be a healthy, growing church as defined by Paul and the other apostles was set aside or lost. Growing churches grew numerically. And to get the numbers up and keep them there, many churches took on the mall-like appearance that James K. A. Smith decries in his writings.

Yet the view that church growth means numerical growth remains the guiding focus for thinking about what makes a healthy, growing church in our day. As Benjamin R. Wilson wrote in a recent article in JETS, “The book of Acts tells the story of how Jesus’s small, ethnically homogenous group of disciples grew to become a fledgling multi-ethnic movement sweeping across the Mediterranean world, all within the span of a single generation. Acts thus affords the preeminent picture of church growth in the NT…” (“The Depiction of Church Growth in Acts,” JETS, June 2017).

Church growth?
The problem with taking numerical growth as the template for “church growth” is that it does not consider the indications of increasing grace, peace, and truth that are reported in the book of Acts and commended in the apostolic literature. Not all churches can grow numerically. But all churches can increase in the kind of Spirit-filled boldness, devotion to prayer, selflessness and generosity, humility, mutuality, and witness that we see in the church in Jerusalem, or in the kinds of social and cultural impacts of the congregations in Ephesus, Thessalonica, Corinth, Colossae, and elsewhere. All churches can grow in helping families know more of the order and love of Christ, in training their members for lives of ministry, and in being beacons of beauty and joy in their communities. All churches can improve in helping their members live that irresistibly attractive life in Christ that causes their neighbors to wonder about the hope that is within them. Churches need not be large and bulging with attendees to be healthy and growing by the standards outlined in the New Testament.

Indeed, if one extends the search for ideas about church growth beyond Acts, to discover what the apostles commended, commanded, and prayed for the churches, the focus on numbers all but disappears. Instead, more qualitative criteria for church growth – criteria that follow on from what we see in the book of Acts – are emphasized throughout the epistles, as we shall see in subsequent installments in this series. The emphasis on qualitative criteria for church growth predominates in the epistles, taking center stage as the proper focus for pastors and churches.

And every church can grow qualitatively, so that grace and peace abound, truth is lived and proclaimed, and the salt, light, and leaven of the Gospel penetrate every nook and cranny of a local community.

The marker of church growth?
Our current fascination with numbers as the marker of church growth is doing us no good. We have over 2,000 megachurches in this country alone, and doubtless another 20,000 megachurch wannabes. And yet every year, the American Church is more marginal to life and culture; and the culture and its people seem further from the truth that is in Jesus than they were the preceding year.

The numbers game is not working. It’s the wrong focus for nurturing healthy, growing churches, churches from which Spirit-filled, Christ-transformed members spontaneously bear irresistibly attractive witness for Christ. A renewed focus on qualitative church growth will enable us to realize more of what it means to be the Body of Christ, the very incarnation of Christ, by His Spirit, in our communities and world. Luke reports the numerical growth of the churches in Acts only incidentally. What made those churches truly healthy and growing was the vibrancy of the Spirit and the aliveness of the Word of God, as Jesus built His Church with grace, peace, and truth.

Every church can grow. Some of them might grow numerically. But if we focus primarily on numerical growth, we may miss the most important factors – factors of grace, peace, and truth – which are the truly Biblical markers of healthy, growing churches.

Mission Partners Outreach
Our Mission Partners Outreach program gives you the tools to train your people for a witnessing way of life. We’ve now adapted it for use in a Sunday school or Bible study setting, so watch this brief video, download the flyer, and contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.to discuss how you can bring this free training effort into your church.

Prayer for Revival
Here’s the schedule to join other men online to pray for revival this month (all times Eastern):

Monday, February 19, 9:00 pm
Wednesday, February 21, 9:00 pm
Every Tuesday morning, 10:00 am (monthly attenders welcome)

If you’d like to join one or another of these groups, just send me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I’ll get you the link to join us for our time of prayer.

“‘Grace and peace!’ Christ told his apostles to make peace their first word when entering into houses. So it is from this that Paul always starts also, for it was no small war which Christ put an end to, but a many-sided and enduring conflict. And it was not because of anything we had done, but by his grace. Since then love presented us with grace and grace with peace … he prays over them that they may abide constant and unmoved, so that no other war may ever break out, and he beseeches the God who gave this peace to keep it firmly settled.”

- John Chrysostom, Homily on Romans 1 (Ancient Christian Commentary Series, InterVarsity Press)

T. M. Moore
Principal
www.ailbe.org

Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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