A few years ago I heard a story about a Methodist District Superintendent who was visiting a church in his district. The church was conducting an afternoon training event. At the height of this event, the superintendent asks the pastor of the church how many people he thought were in attendance. The pastor looked around and replied, “About 400.” The superintendent said, “Oh, how many does this sanctuary seat?” “250,” responded the pastor, unperturbed.
It makes a great joke, backing up the phrase “clergy estimate,” but it also illustrates a problem that we have with the church. We have a fixation on numbers, and we’re often not quite sure what numbers we’re fixated on. We’re reasonably sure, however, that these numbers are supposed to be large.
Thus the clergy estimate. Let’s make it look like we’re doing well, because the appearance of doing well is all-important. What gets lost in the discussion and the paperwork is just what those numbers mean.
I wrote a post about the characteristics of a living church back in 2006, and I don’t see any reason to change anything I wrote then. What I’m looking at here is our tendency to measure. The health of a living church that I noted back then is not that easy to measure.
So perhaps I prefer a small church? Smaller churches have certain opportunities for community and for ministry that larger churches might not. Smaller churches are sometimes perceived as more faithful, more orthodox in their Christian beliefs.
No, not really. My problem is with our measurements of success. I won’t link to the site, but today I saw posts for ebooks that would tell you how to reach the visitors who come to your Easter service and get them to come back to church.
Inadequately impressed by the resurrection? There’s a program for that!
The same site offers to provide you insight into strategic hires to help grow your church. If you follow the directions and hire the right people, your church will grow. You can sell your church service just like laundry soap or hamburgers.
There are those who will say I’m being unfair. Good business practices are good for a church. Yes, good business practices in finance and management are important for an organization. But is a well-oiled, well-running, constantly expanding machine a sign of a spiritually healthy church?
I’m going to suggest that basing our thinking on numbers is just wrong. I hear this often in comparing various movements in Christianity. We’re losing members because of too liberal, too conservative, or just too dry of theological positions. We’re gaining members because we’re preaching “truth,” however that is defined by the speaker.
Challenge one of these claims by pointing to increasing numbers in groups not on the approved group list (an amorphous thing that changes with the individual), and you’ll hear the counter that Christians shouldn’t follow the crowd, that numbers don’t mean everything, and the way to destruction is wide and straight!
It’s very like my theme picture. We’re measuring things with the wrong tool, in the wrong units. We don’t know where we’re going, but if lots of us get there, we think it’s (probably) a good thing.
The question is this: Are we growing in grace? Are we a healthy community?
Or perhaps more precisely, are we a community at all?
Once we’ve taken that step, we can ask the next question. But once we’re functioning as a real community, we might not really need to ask the question at all. We’ll be too busy being a healthy church to take time to measure the health.