Numbering the Sheep on the Ranch

Counting Sheep

Blogger Tim Challies is at the Together for the Gospel Conference, surrounded by other church leaders.  No surprise then that he is hearing this common question all around him: “How many people go to your church?”  And apparently Challies, whose primary vocation is writer not pastor, has some concerns about this question:

I’d like to make the same two-part proposal I made a few years back: Let’s stop asking, “How many people go to your church?” And when someone asks us that question, let’s not feel obliged to give a direct answer.

Challies understands the heart challenge for the pastor in those moments when that question is posed:

For the pastor this can be a moment of pride or humility, freedom or shame…

While not presently prone to the tugs toward embellishment, I am not sure whether it is because of personal growth or just that my external circumstances have changed.  I serve a good-sized congregation, with an excellent staff, in a desirable locale.  But I know those feelings well.  On occasions in the past I’ve felt the temptation to exaggerate, such as to cite Easter attendance as if that were the norm. (I know others who have also considered that one.)  The obvious reason for the temptation is embarrassment about the reality, as if the number in attendance is somehow a precise indicator of the abilities or worth of a pastor or congregation, or of God’s pleasure in either.

Challies writes:

We all pay lip service to the reality that we cannot necessarily measure the health of a church by its size. We all know that some of the biggest churches in the world are also some of the unhealthiest churches in the world. The history of Christianity has long-since shown that it is not all that difficult to fill a building with unbelievers by just tickling their ears with what they want to hear. We also know that the Lord is sovereign and that he determines how big each church should be and we know that in some areas even a very small church is an absolute triumph of light over darkness. And yet “How big is your church?” is one of the first questions we ask.

Why is this?

I don’t know all the reasons but I’d suggest at least two. First, I think our question betrays us and shows that in the back of our minds we equate size and health. Somewhere we make the connection between big and healthy, between big and blessing. We exacerbate the problem when we ask and answer this too-easy question. Second, we just haven’t taken the time and made the effort to form better questions. Instead, we gravitate to the easy one.

So what might be some better questions to ask?  I appreciate Challies’ suggestions:

  • How have you seen the Lord working in the lives of the people in your church?
  • What evidences of the Lord’s grace has your church experienced in the last few months?
  • What are you excited about in your church right now?
  • Who are you excited about in your church right now?
  • What has the Lord been teaching you?
  • Who have you been discipling recently?
  • Tell me about some of the future leaders at your church.

These are much better to get a sense of the story in any congregation.

And inevitably when asked: “How many people go to your church?” Challies suggests answering something like this:

  • As many as the Lord has determined we can care for at this time.
  • Enough that we are actively working toward planting a church.
  • I don’t know, but let me tell you about a few of them…

Interest in numbers is not wrong.  Numbers tell us things.  But just what numbers tell us is not always readily clear.  Numbers are not wrong, it is the fascination with numbers that is problematic.  Numbers just do not tell a story.  Much more valuable is the number of stories of how God is at work in any congregation.

To read Challies’ post, click: How Many People?

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