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The Numbers Game

We've all done it. We've all looked at the numbers.

‘Ooh, look how full the church is! It's fuller than last year's Christmas Eve service.' ‘Twenty-five for Alpha last night? Wow, that's encouraging.' ‘Giving is up, you say? That is good news.'

Or the reverse.

‘Less than half the number we had last week for Alpha. Sadly, not a good night.' ‘Clicks are down. Much lower than last week when I thought we were reaching Australia.'

Numbers, numbers, numbers. They get in our heads. No, more than that. They mess with our heads. So much so that we're apt to lose our bearings. In response, many simply opt for an extreme response: numbers are meaningless; it's all about faithfulness.

On the surface, that sounds like the right response. Faithfulness is indeed a way of assessing a life in ministry. It's affirmed in Scripture as one of the most important character traits of a servant leader. Just be faithful; ignore the numbers. End of blog post?

Not so fast, because those numbers won't go away that quickly.

During our Living Leadership conference recently, I was discussing this issue with a young leader. He made this comment and it resonated immediately. Here it is:

Numbers matter because people matter.

Just let that one sink in for a moment. He is absolutely right. People matter and people are reflected in almost every number we count. In Luke's account of the birth of the church in Acts, he writes,

Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. Acts 2.41.

He concludes the chapter with this:

And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2.47b.

It's absolutely clear that Luke is giving meaning to those numbers. He's telling us that the message is finding fertile soil, the gospel is gaining ground, the kingdom is advancing, and it's reflected in the numbers. The numbers indicate that something good is happening. God is at work.

Numbers matter because people matter. Bang on.

But hold on, because this can go badly wrong. If numbers are an indication of God being at work, then it's not long before we're drawing the wrong conclusions.

Numbers equal success. Low numbers: God is absent. High numbers: God is present.

But that is false, false, false. Not true at all.

The problem here is that the methodology for assessing the numbers is far too simplistic. First, success can never, ever be reduced to numbers alone. Second, the numbers relate to different activities. This is when the young leader came up with another gem. He said,

You have to understand the significance of the number.

What does the number indicate? In life, which is highly competitive, numbers seem to tell a very simple story. Jeff Bezos started Amazon in his garage in 1994. Today it's a trillion-dollar company. The high numbers equal success. Tom Brady just led his team to another Super Bowl. He holds more records than any other American football player in history. Cue worldwide acclaim. J.K. Rowling sold gazillions of Harry Potter books. She's now a household name.

But the church is not the world. Our metric for success doesn't work like that. So if numbers matter because people matter, then we would do well to look at each number and be very careful about drawing the wrong conclusions. (Some might also caution that obsessive number crunching is unhealthy, and I would tend to agree.)

Which numbers are you looking at? What is their significance?

The number of people who attend church fluctuate. There is very little significance in the ebb and flow of how many attend your Sunday service. Stop counting. It's not important.

Donations? Once you've determined how you'll talk about money, just leave it to God. Leave it to the church treasurer. Fret about money and you will drain yourself of energy and you will lose focus.

Numbers at your mid-week prayer meeting as a bellwether of the spiritual health of your church? Be very careful. You have no idea why the numbers are down, or what other commitments people have.

Youth ministry is well known for flexible numbers. A youth leader must remain committed and resolute, trusting in God at all times, because one week twenty-five turn up, but the following week just five. ‘Oh didn't you know? So-and-so is having a party tonight.' It's okay to feel a little disappointed, but then your character will emerge . . .

‘Okay, let's give the five who are here my very best.'

That's when the goal of ministry becomes crystal clear. I'm here for the people who show up; I mustn't be discouraged because the numbers collapse.

I have run Alpha for twenty years, on and off, and it is impossible not to be affected by the numbers. Sometimes we would start with over forty, and end with less than twenty. It's always disheartening when a person, who was becoming integrated, just fails to show up. We are human after all. But what is the significance? This one is a challenge. Are you upset because your numbers are down and you can't crow about the high numbers? Or does your heart break for the person who no longer wants to pursue questions of life and faith?

Your answer will reveal your heart.

There is another aspect to numbers. Even if you reject the link between numbers and the word success, they are rarely meaningless. So for those who are repelled by numbers, consider this. If you try something new in your church and no one turns up – or very few – then like it or not, that is significant. An evangelistic event where hardly anyone turns up, and no one responds – that has meaning. Should you keep going? I do not know. Only the Lord can show you the significance of each number, because only he knows the end from the beginning. So seek him.

Perhaps the best way to assess the significance of a number is to submit it to the fruit test.

Does the number indicate that the activity is bearing fruit? Very broadly, fruit means growth. Growth in knowledge. Growth in spiritual maturity. Growth in faith. Growth in love. Kingdom growth. And last but not least, growth in the number of people coming to faith.

Growth is good. Perhaps that's why Jesus chose the vine metaphor. Vines grow; they bear fruit. In John 15, he said,

If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing . . . This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Later on in the passage, he says,

I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.

Ah, there it is. That's a much better way to assess numbers. Whether they're up or down, do they indicate lasting fruit? Changed lives. Deeper knowledge of God. Disciples who are growing in faith, hope and love. Is that the fruit you are seeing? Because there's only one way to reach that goal.

Faithfulness and obedience.

Timeless character traits that speak of a life wholly committed to God.

Numbers matter because people matter. Absolutely right. We must never forget God's heart for the lost. For God so loved the world . . .

But don't ever get lost in the numbers. Don't allow them to discourage you. Try to understand their significance – for often they do have meaning – and then commit those numbers to God. He says he's faithful to us. He is. Every day. Will we be faithful to him whatever the cost? Then the numbers won't hold any power over us.

For one day, our Lord won't be looking at us in the face and saying, ‘your numbers were a bit disappointing.' Instead, if we remain resolute and steadfast, he will say, ‘well done, good and faithful servant.'

We're always expanding our library of resources. New this week we have an extract of Peter Hicks' book What Could I Say? on the topic of Rape and Sexual Assault.


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