The Reformed Life

Equipping followers of Christ to live in a manner worthy of their calling

Do Numbers Matter?

What determines success in ministry? Is it faithfulness? Or is it fruitfulness? Should these two camps be thought of exclusively? I don’t think so. To be transparent, I have written, deleted, and re-written a variation of a post like this numerous times through the years, yet I’ve never pieced it together nor put it out for publication. However, I think it’s time. 

As a pastor, I am constantly bombarded with the idea(s) of church growth. Yes, I know, numerous blog posts and books have been written on the subject as have conferences been shaped by the idea. Again, to be transparent, I am not anti-church growth. Please hear me when you read that, I am not anti-church growth. In fact, I desire church growth. Yet, the growth I have in mind may be different than what is often advocated from those in the blogosphere and Twitterverse

I was once approached by an entity asking for ministry numbers within our church. It was told to me that the numbers reported would help them better understand how they could help us as a church. But do numbers necessarily warrant a need for help? Do low attendance numbers in various ministries indicate a lack of church health? Are robust numbers an indication of health? I don’t think so. They could be an indication, but not necessarily. Let me explain. 

Numbers are neutral. 

I have been a part of entities that counted hands (Let the reader understand). However, the counting often stopped there—with the counting. There was no follow-up to professions of faith. That doesn’t seem right, right? I think we should all agree that merely counting hands isn’t enough. 

I agree with Jared Wilson’s thoughts on putting our faith in large attendance numbers. In his book The Gospel-Driven Church, he writes, “Having a lot of people coming to your church is not a sign of faithfulness. It is a neutral sign. A lot of people coming to a church can be a good thing, of course. There is nothing inherently wrong with a big church! But there is nothing inherently right about it either. Some of the largest churches in North America are churches where you rarely hear the message of Christ crucified preached. The Mormons have big churches, but they do not adhere to Christian doctrine. We need only to look to the political realm to know that a lot of people supporting something does not mean they’re all heading in the right direction.”

Numerically speaking, attendance numbers could be an indication of health, or a lack thereof, but are best to be regarded as neutral. For example, Wilson argues, “It’s not always true that healthy things grow bigger. Sometimes healthy things shrink [think losing weight]. And sometimes unhealthy things grow (like cancer).” He adds, “So more important than measuring a church’s size is measuring its health—its fruitfulness. 

If we wish to not burn ourselves out, we must stop thinking of fruitfulness and faithfulness as being dichotomous, and instead realize that a faithful ministry (whatever that may be) will be fruitful. But what does fruitfulness look like?  Below, I offer four metrics for gauging church health. To be clear, these are not the only four metrics, but could help!

Word-Centered Worship 

The Word of God is to be central in our gathering(s) together. Christians ought to sing, pray, read, preach, and see the Word through the ordinances in their Lord’s Day gathering. Again, Wilson is helpful here. Quoting Jonathan Edwards, Wilson writes, “The Spirit that operates in such a manner as to cause in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity is certainly the Spirit of God.” He adds, “In other words, Edwards said that a mark of a true move of God is a high esteem of the Scriptures.” 

In the words of David Wells, we must recover the lost word of God. No, the Word of God isn’t lost per se, but the thought of its sufficiency has been lost (generally speaking), around the world. We must recover the understanding of the Scripture’s sufficiency. As one pastor once remarked, “Affirming inerrancy in principle, while rejecting its sufficiency in practice, is like saying your wife’s perfect while having an affair.” 

The Word is to be central in the church. The Scriptures are not to play an “extra” role in the service. They are to be foundational. Do we agree with the psalmist that the Word of God is to be desired more than gold? Is the Word of God sweeter than honey to our mouths? If you’re growing in Christ, the Word of God will be sweeter than honey and more desirable than gold. 

An Inflation in Our Love for Theology and Doctrine 

The Apostle Peter writes, “Knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” In his letter, Jude speaks similarly. Commanding his readers to keep themselves in the love of God, he commands them to build themselves up in their most holy faith (Jude 20). 

The people of God will love to know the things of God. Our sanctification is closely related to our knowledge of God’s character and works as revealed in His Word. Everything we need for faith and godliness is necessarily contained within the pages of Scripture. Jesus, in His High Priestly Prayer, prayed, “Sanctify them in truth. Your word is truth.” 

Again, hear the words of Peter. He writes, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Commenting on this passage, Wilson argues, “Loving God with all our minds means more than theological study, but it does not mean less than that.” 

Are we growing in our love for theology and doctrine? If not, why? An increase in love for the things of God will mark a growing, healthy member and congregation. 

A Recovery of Loving Church Discipline 

Church discipline was a topic that I rarely heard taught until I entered seminary. I believe that church discipline is rarely taught or practiced because many have bought into the stigma that church discipline is harsh and unloving. But if one cares about the overall health and purity of the local church, discipline will not be omitted; rather, it will be practiced faithfully and lovingly. 

Why is church discipline seemingly lacking (in preaching or in practice) within local congregations today? Could it be that churches have sought to sweep under the rug the countless commands to holiness and the necessity of maintaining the purity of the church? The Bible is clear, “the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23),” and “as obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy (1 Pet. 1:14-16).’”

If our churches are to be healthy and growing, we must recover a spirit of repentance and transparency amongst the members. A healthy church confronts sin within its body. A church that is consumer-driven, rather than gospel-driven will be tempted to sweep any call to holiness and repentance to the side. Why? because the gospel is inherently offensive to the unnatural man. In addition, if one is concerned with not “rocking the boat” and maintaining peace at all costs, church discipline may go out the window, and it’s to the church’s detriment to do so. 

Failure to warn people about God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice is one of the most unloving things we can do. If we cared about one another, we lovingly and faithfully confront sin in their lives. We need each other. The church is to be made up of interdependent members, working together for the good of the body and for the glory of God. We all have blind spots, and we need one another to help us discover them, so that we can put them to death. John Owen once said, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” We could adapt that phrase to the local church: If we fail to purge the wickedness among us, we will die a slow and painful death as a church. 

A Love for God and Neighbor 

A lawyer once confronted Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law? And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-39).” 

Fruitfulness is evident in obedience to God’s commands. Wilson states, “Fruitful churches may or may not see steady conversions, but they will steadily have a heart of service and compassion for the world outside their doors.” A healthy, fruitful church grows not only in its love for God, but also for its neighbor, and our neighbors are all around us. Wilson writes, “if your church does not have relationships with those outside the church body and leaves little mark in the community, it may not be a fruitful church.”

Again, we must caveat this statement with the truth that a love for neighbor does not necessarily mean that there will be an increase in salvations, baptisms, or “church attendance.” Too often I hear reports from others that a ministry is a failure because a lack of attendance or “results.” However, listen and heed the words of Pastor Mark Dever. He states, “we don’t fail in our evangelism if we faithfully tell the gospel to someone who is not converted; we fail only if we don’t faithfully tell the gospel at all.” 

The 6th chapter of John begins with a large crowd following Jesus. However, it ends with many of his disciples turning back and no longer walking with him. Surely, we wouldn’t consider Jesus a failure! Yet, how often do we view our ministries differently? If Jesus’s ministry was gauged by many of the metrics that churches use to measure health today, I think they’d consider him a failure.

“While external measures like bodies and dollars can help us identify these characteristics or internal qualities, they aren’t sufficient in themselves to tell us if a church is healthy and fruitful. For that, we will need a new scorecard. We will need a different set of measurements,” writes Jared Wilson.  

Is your pastor(s) and church being faithful to what the Word of God requires of them? Then rejoice. If they are not, then confront. But at the end of the day, if they are being faithful, we would all do well to heed the words of the Apostle Paul, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).” As it has been said, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain (Ps. 127:1).” Let the reader understand. 

Soli Deo Gloria,

Josh Chambers

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