Doing it by the numbers

David Mansfield

A clergy friend of mine was asked to be the designated driver for a Big Church Pastor (BCP) who was visiting his city.

It was the day before the BCP was to speak at a large conference to an audience of thousands. My friend was to drive the BCP on a political/historical/religious sites crawl around the city.

They introduced, jumped in the car and the first question the BCP asked my friend was, “What sort of numbers are you running?”

My friend was stunned. What numbers was he talking about? How do you answer a question like that without any context? Why would you ask a question like that without getting some context?

I’m glad I wasn’t asked what numbers I was running. I would have gone for my cholesterol count, PSA number and thrown in my blood sugars to cover all bases. These weren’t the numbers that my friend first thought of. But he is a few years younger than me.

The next day at the conference, the BCP mentioned in his first address that many pastors he’d been talking to in the last couple of days (he had probably spent more time with my friend than any other) were whinging about how hard ministry was. “Where was their faith?” he asked.

What is it with our infatuation with numbers? Why must faith equal big figures? Are they the only test of a successful ministry? Or even the best test? Are they an accurate gauge of how God is blessing his work?

The deceit of numbers

On a good day numbers can be helpful. They can inform, when analysed wisely with other criteria, how a ministry is tracking and what actions may need to be taken.

On a bad day numbers can be downright deceptive. They can blind leadership to issues that need to be addressed. They can bludgeon others into feelings of inadequacy and guilt. They can mislead us about what a faithful ministry looks like. They can lead some into pride and others into self-pity.

Raw counting reveals nothing about real context. Thirty years ago I met a middle-aged couple in an isolated part of Australia. They had moved as newlyweds twenty years earlier to a remote aboriginal community to plant a church. They didn’t see a conversion in the first decade. Then a trickle in the second decade, but even then the burials outnumbered the baptisms.

In the third and fourth decades they trained up a small but solid core of converted indigenous leadership. They are still at it but don’t tell the BCP how small the numbers are. Zero to single figures in a decade! Double digits in a lifetime! I’d call that faith – not its nemesis.

Maybe we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. A pastor once told me that he planted a church and on the first Sunday they had 80 people. He grew it, he said, over the next two years to 45.

Not like other pastors who have boasted to me over the years about the size of their budget. It has sounded like they were telling me how big their biceps were, as if their masculinity was on the line.

You see, most of the time numbers are just plain ambiguous. My friend who had been asked about his numbers had been beavering away in a parish in a tough part of town. He was edging into triple-digit numbers, having seen growth from 15 to 100 in fifteen years. He had invested heavily in people who were now leading churches across town.

What would you say about a man, who is running some of the biggest numbers in the world (and knows it), who asks another man, before finding out anything about the context of his ministry, what numbers he is running?

What would we say about a church that has grown from 15 to 100 over 15 years in a tough social context compared to a church that has grown from 1,000 to 1,015 in a nice neighbourhood over the same period?

What would we say about a cluster of churches in the same postcode whose charts of peaks and troughs varied greatly but the net result of all the combined numbers was where it was a decade earlier?

We know that ministry is more than counting bottoms and bucks – is that a new meaning for the Bottom Line?

And if it’s a matter of numbers, what numbers should we be running and rejoicing in?

The Bottom Line

The mission of the 72 (see Luke’s Gospel Chapter 10) appears to have been an outstanding success. They certainly encountered hardness of heart (Luke 10:13), but had demons submitting to their word (Luke 10:17). Even Jesus saw Satan in freefall and staggering in a kind of pre-emptive death rattle (Luke 10:18).

But Jesus warns them in the midst of these halcyon days:

However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in the book of life (Luke 10:20)

As we run the numbers, don’t neglect this bottom line.