Do numbers matter?

Crowd11There is a great game you can play as an Anglican clergyman—I call it ‘numbers bingo’. You can play it whenever you are in a meeting with other Anglican clergyman, though it might work for other denominations too. You need to join in the conversation, and time how long it takes for someone to mention the numbers attending their church. Bingo! The time will vary depending on the dominant theological tradition in the gathering—but it is never very long.

Recent reports from the Church of England have suggested that it wants to focus on numbers and growth, and there are a good many voices arguing that this is a serious mistake, especially at Easter. For Giles Fraser, ‘Christianity, when properly understood, is a religion of losers… A church that successfully proclaims the message of the cross–death first, then resurrection–is likely to be empty and not full’. Fraser has no time for those churches which appear to be growing.

The worst of them judge their success in entirely worldly terms, by counting their followers. Their websites show images of happy, uncomplicated people doing good improving stuff in the big community. But if I am right about the meaning of Christ’s passion [and Fraser is in no doubt that he is!] then a church is at its best when it fails.

In other words, not only is an interest in numbers misguided, it represents a complete failure to understand the central message of Christianity—and is a contradiction of it.

This view appears to be quite widespread among certain commentators. Rachel Held Evans, the US blogger and author, has finally said good bye to the evangelical tradition and joined the Episcopal Church. Isn’t she worried that it is a denomination in apparently terminal decline? Not at all.

Lately I’ve been wondering if a little death and resurrection is exactly what the American church needs. What if all this talk of waning numbers and shrinking influence means our empire-building days are over and it’s a good thing? As the religious landscape in the U.S. changes, Christians are going to have to learn to measure our success by something other than money and power.

Amongst some proponents of fresh expressions of church in Britain, it can sound as though their small size is actually a mark of success, since new things always start as small seeds.

All this does have some good theological support. After all, it was because Israel was small, not large and successful, that God chose the nation (Deut 7.7). And at key moments in Jesus’ ministry, the followers are few, not many (John 6.66)—though Fraser makes the same mistake as many men in suggesting that at the cross Jesus ‘had no followers left’, which is only true if you ignore the women. But more fundamentally, the inversion of power and success is central to the New Testament, from the Magnificat’s scattering of the proud ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ (Luke 1.51) all the way through to the judgement of imperial power in Revelation 18. And all too often, the Church has been on the side of empire, particularly in its Christendom form. Perhaps the best expression of this can be found in the apocryphal story of the meeting of Francis of Assisi and the Pope. ‘Look’, says the Pope, ‘No longer do we say with Peter and John “Silver and gold have I none!”’. ‘No’, replied Francis, ‘and neither can you say “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”’

Yet failure and smallness is only one part of the story. In contrast to John’s depiction of Jesus as lonely hero, the synoptic gospels frequently emphasise the size of the crowds that follow him and hang on his every word. And the account in Acts is punctuated by summary statements showing how much the message has spread and how many have come to follow ‘The Way.’ A recent critique of Church of England statements dismissed the language of discipleship and growth as belonging to ‘only one section of the New Testament’. But when that section is the synoptic gospels and Acts, I think we need to take notice of it! Even today, this fondness for failure is in marked contrast to the vibrant growth of Christian faith seen in many parts of the world.

Rye earsAnd the focus on failure doesn’t actually make much sense. Fraser comments that, on the cross, ‘failure is redeemed’. But redeemed into what exactly? More failure? Held Evans notes that ‘the New Testament church grew when Christians were in the minority’ but that very growth changed the church’s minority status. This highlights a basic misunderstanding of a key saying of Jesus in which he explains in advance the meaning of Easter:

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (John 12.24)

The ‘failure’ here is not about lack of growth or fruitfulness; the death of the grain of wheat is about rejecting self-interest and turning from attempts at self-preservation. As we let go of our own agenda and focus on God’s agenda in the kingdom (Matt 6.33), the result will be fruitfulness. And the whole purpose of fruit is the production of more seeds, more plants and further fruitfulness. Dying to self, according to Jesus’ teaching, should not lead to empty churches, but to a crop of thirty-, sixty- or a hundred-fold (Mark 4.8). If we are ‘failing’, that perhaps that should be a prompt, not to celebration, but to asking whether we have yet experienced the death to self that Jesus invites us to.

This says nothing about the relative merits of large and small churches. It is well-documented that small churches often see more growth, and large churches can function as the back door through which the disillusioned exit more easily. But it does mean that the decline of the national church is nothing to be celebrated—and is certainly not a sign of Easter spirituality. If anything, it shows our desperate need to experience more of the resurrection.

We need to be constantly alert to the temptation to misuse power and find our self-esteem in the trappings of ‘success’, whatever that looks like. But in the end, numbers matter because people matter. Every statistic on church attendance is comprised of actual people, people for whom Jesus died and people who need to know about the truth of the Easter story and the difference Jesus can make in their life today. To believe that failure is the goal of the church is to believe that these people don’t matter.

(This article was first published in Christian Today.)

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19 thoughts on “Do numbers matter?”

  1. Thanks Ian, I found this helpful. One thing I would say is that I think Giles Fraser and RHE do have a point in that there *is* something unhelpful about the way that some churches have clung to money and power – but not because a small church is inherently ‘better’, but because a large church tends to get distracted from its core mission of making disciples. I think this is exactly what’s happened in the CofE – the fact of its establishment and its ‘success’ (if you can call it that) means that the church has been able to rest on its laurels and become somewhat institutionalised while the country around it moves further and further away from the Christian message.

    In fact, I wonder if one could argue that small numbers are in fact God’s judgement on the church for failing to proclaim the gospel.

    But to say that a church is really a proper church when it is struggling with numbers – seems to fly in the face of all the evidence. You’d have to say that in Acts 2:47 when ‘the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved’, that was a terrible thing. And presumably the growth of the church in China (to name one example) is also a terrible thing.

    I wonder if this line of thinking draws on the idea that being poor and marginalised is a good thing, to the point that it almost becomes a virtue. I’ve heard this a few times – Jesus came for the poor and marginalised, therefore the more poor and marginalised you are the more Christ-like you’re being. I don’t agree with this reading of the NT, but it’s one I hear from time to time.

    • Thanks Phill…though there are several issues to be teased out here.

      I think it would be possible to characterise the C of E as established as ‘clinging to money and power.’ But many people would apply that to evangelical churches in the UK; in fact, there is a good argument along the lines that these churches have money not simply because they have wealthier members, but because they take teaching on giving and on mission seriously.

      Again, the idea of small numbers expressing judgement needs to be carefully qualified. For one, does this mean that God’s judgement lies more heavily on the cultures in our context where the church has never been very effective e.g. in working class and urban areas?

      And does it mean that when the C of E was large, but (arguably) largely nominal/liberal in the 1950s and 60s, that God’s favour was being experienced?

      • Hi Ian,

        Indeed, I wasn’t trying to claim that “money and power” were a bad thing in and of themselves – there are many big churches which use their money and influence well, they are good stewards.

        I also didn’t intend to draw a line between small numbers = God’s judgement, large numbers = God’s blessing. Clearly this is not the case – churches which preach the prosperity gospel in Uganda, for example, are full, whereas churches which preach the true gospel are pretty small. The key is faithfulness, regardless of size of the church.

        I just wanted to highlight that, in my experience (and from what others have said to me), in the UK the churches which focus on preaching the gospel – i.e. a focus on the ministry of the Word, preaching, discipleship, evangelism – these are the churches which are doing reasonably well, whereas the churches that are struggling tend not to focus on those things. The most liberal churches and denominations, e.g. ECUSA, tend not to be the flourishing ones. But that’s not to say there aren’t examples of liberal churches with large numbers or of evangelical churches with small numbers!

        When you mention the liberalism of the 50s and 60s – I wonder if what’s happened to the church in terms of numbers since then has large been a result of it, decline almost always doesn’t happen overnight. The small numbers today are a result of decisions made back then.

  2. The comment above asks if it is a terrible thing that in the first church God added to their number by the thousands. How long did it stay that way before God scattered them to the four winds? I would trade a mega church for a dozen or a hundred small local churches that connect with their local community and which, because of its size, requires people to serve God because they’re the only ones there to do it! Big Church is breeding a generation of Christians who don’t know the need to serve. You may disagree because you know Big Churches that are engaging with the local community through every lay person that attends. I hope you do! However, my experience is different.

  3. Ian,

    I do think that we should remember that at the same time that the early church was growing numerically, the Holy Spirit repeatedly warned of future defection. St. Paul’s impassioned farewell to the Ephesian elders that he summoned to Miletus highlights this concern: ‘I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.’ (Acts 20:29 – 31)

    In respect of the parable of the sower, I am reminded that Christ employed the illustration to explain why He resorted to parables among the multitudes.

    The gospel in parabolic form contains latent potential for spiritual growth and understanding. The same can be said of emblems used in the Lord’s Supper, whereby we proclaim the Lord’s death until His glory is unveiled.

    That potential for fruitfulness can only be unlocked by diligently seeking God (Heb. 11:6). The parable of the sower shows that diligence is hindered by worldly distractions and superficial adherence.

    Christ’s ministry attracted crowds because His powers made a practical difference to human lives and dispensed with the onerous and restrictive demands of the oral tradition. Yet, the symbolic language and earthly comparisons tested the diligence of His hearers. Those who saw His works as signposting someone far greater would crave more understanding, while those dismissive of their significance to his messiahship would judge themselves unworthy of making further sense of His sayings.

    Perhaps, we should ask how a modern sermon might test the tenacity of its audience. Certainly, Christ had no problem with viewing a lack of tenacity as demonstrable proof of reprobation. He was reminded (as we should be) of Isaiah’s often inscrutable revelations that were destined to be rejected as incomprehensible by most of his generation until their destitution and exile gave them meaning:

    ‘In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

    “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
    For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
    Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
    and turn, and I would heal them.’

    Following Christ’s lead in this way remains a worrying prospect. Yet, might this spiritual discernment of a hearer’s readiness for further insight into whole counsel of God be what Christ meant by granting the church the keys of His Kingdom?

    • Thank David. I guess the key question here is: in what ways do we test people’s tenacity? I don’t remember Jesus every being boring, irrelevant, institutional or hierarchical…yet these are the ways in which the church has often tested tenacity.

      • Yes, that’s a very good point. Although, I think that the ethos that you’ve described can also test our will to live!

        1. Cure for boredom:
        Take it to the streets – impromptu open-air concert with no ‘hard-sell’ message. Looking up the aged ‘shut-ins’ and making sure they have everything.
        Helping to complete council forms for immigrant families.
        Dorcas Facebook group: sharing knitting tips and mending, exchanging and updating unwanted clothes for free;
        Prayer and prayer requests FB group: We post up about friends and family in hospital or facing difficulties; people respond with promises to pray and offers of practical help.
        Invite Ian Paul to write a small post to the group for later this year.

        Regular pub night: pitch up, grab a pint and start listening to the regulars. One invited me to his house to chat in private about his impending divorce
        Make friends with socially excluded races: Nepalese praise and worship. Don’t understand one word except we all get animated in saying ‘Jesus’.

        2. Cure for irrelevance:
        Help to mend long-standing family grievances (Mal. 4:6);
        Identify skills base and lead a team to fix up delapidated houses in the parish (e.g. ex-servicemen accommodation)
        Clear snow on drives of all OAPs homes when distributing Christmas services leaflets.
        Create a £50 seed fund for a chronically sick person’s treatment that doesn’t attract NHS funding;
        Run a 10k for …;
        Run a clothing exchange;
        Form a monthly non-denominational prayer and share group with Christian work colleagues.

        Cure for hierarchies and institutionalism:
        Informally train more lay people and provide start-up guidance for above proposals to alleviate boredom.

        Predicted outcome: Restored tenacity and will to live!

  4. Unless you are an out and out universalist or you think church membership is completely unrelated to discipleship or to those who will be with God for eternity, I can’t see how you can celebrate the church dying. Rick Warren says he counts people cos people count. A shrinking church it seems will have eternal ramifications.

  5. Os Guinness has some provocative things to say about metrics as evidence of the secularisation and cultural absorption of the church in his recent book ‘Renaissance’ (pages 38-45 if my Kindle is correct). His comments have a fairly American perspective but his point (using numbers as measures of anything other than quantity is a sell-out to modernist assumptions) seems cogently made. Numbers cannot be indicators of, for example, success, failure, victory or defeat – except in a contest the purpose of which is to amass the biggest number of something.

    For me the first couple of chapters of 1 Corinthians are helpful, summed up in 3:7 – ‘So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.’ I see no need to assume that that means the Church of England (or any other church or group) will grow in numbers. Our role as individuals and churches is faithfulness to his call where we are, which needs discernment and day to day two way responsive relationship with God. My sense is that these are both things that the early church learned through experience and necessity as a marginalised and misunderstood minority in a society where communication and movement were by comparison with today virtually non-existent, but which Christendom its thought frameworks and institutions took away, so we now have to relearn pretty much from scratch – or at least I do. The large numbers that followed Jesus, as David points out, did evaporate as the true nature of discipleship became clearer, so perhaps numerical decline is to be expected in the West at the current cultural juncture.

    That doesn’t mean that Giles Fraser is right, of course – the cross was actual victory cloaked as apparent failure, as you point out. Pruning is for the purpose of fruitfulness not to kill the plant. But it does make the plant smaller for a time – and Jesus is the plant that grows again, not any particular form of church.

    • Thanks Greg…interesting. As you say, Guiness is working in a different context, and in particular one where pastors are paid in proportion to congregation size. I would want to say numbers should not be the *only* metric.

      But I wouldn’t agree with your reading of 1 Cor 3.7. Paul is making the point that it is not down to individuals but God—though at the same time he is making the converse point, that growth will surely happen because God is a God of life. This connects with one way of reading Jesus’ comment in Mark 10: ‘With God, nothing is impossible.’ If it is true that God gives the growth, then it is impossible that nothing is happening. Where God is present, we should expect that life and growth would be present.

      As I point out in the post, the John 6 perspective is part of John’s distinctive depiction of who Jesus is…but probably not a good indicator of historical reality, which we see more clearly in Acts. Even when (because of?) persecution, numbers grow.

      I agree with you that pruning leads to growth. But my observation in the C of E is that there is a lot of dead wood being cut off, rather than living wood being cut back.

      • Phil/Ian,

        I think that you’ve both made useful and relevant observations.

        I think that it might help to re-visit the socio-political dynamics of the first century Palestine and discuss how much our modern context differs from it. Here’s another pre-emptive apology for my insomniac cacoethes scribendi complaint!

        Suppose Germany had won the war and established its rule in England, while exiling the Royal Family to Switzerland.

        Let’s say that, in their place, the Third Reich had established a new nobility of high-ranking fifth column sympathisers.

        Imagine the heavy taxes raised to sustain the military might of the Third Reich across Europe and beyond. Yet, even the slightest hint of dissent here would trigger the UK arm of the SS into severe brutality.

        Official religions are tolerated, but all church official priests make an oath of loyalty to support and defend the Third Reich. They all know what happened to Bonhoeffer and many others.

        Aryan occultism also abounds and is officially endorsed to reinforce racial order and notions of inherent superiority.

        In this nightmare world, the Jews have fared much, much worse than the first-century Samaritans.

        There’s an air of tacit resentment over taxation and suppression of the British identity. The newspapers are compelled to devote a page to the gruesome post-execution gallery of the ‘disappeared’ who were previously detained with due process for overt dissent.

        Into this scenario comes a child prodigy of humble birth. Despite his genius, by his thirties, he pulls together a team of mechanics, electricians and electronics hobbyists. With the aid of wealthy donors, the team follow his guidance to build a prototype of equipment that is eventually tested through free clinical trials. They announced that the machine is capable of detecting cancer far early than any other using current medical knowledge.

        Now, you can probably come up with what happens next.

        He criticises the costs of healthcare industry and compares their charges with his string of free clinics.

        Rivals claimed that he stole the idea and that the test results were fraudulent. He calmly stated that he was inspired to build it by the God of his ancestors and that he had plans drawn up for many more similar inventions.

        And eventually the authorities did a deal with industry. They stepped in to confiscate the life-saving equipment that was built on a shoestring and all of the carefully drawn blueprints. They threw the young leader into prison, declaring his denunciation to be treason. His is another face for the newspaper’s picture gallery of executed nationalist rebels. On seeing this, his motley team quickly disband and go into hiding.

        A few weeks later, the team held a press conference. There, they claimed that the murdered genius was somehow still alive and was of royal descent despite his humble beginnings; that, one day, the many terrible injustices of that era would be corrected.

        There also one other curious fact. Each of the team can now draw up the entire set of confiscated blueprints from memory…and they claim that they’ve had other visions explaining how they can build many other life-saving inventions.

        Our gospel is a bit like that. Yes, we need apologetics and charitable deeds, but what drew people to the gospel was ordinary people capable of doing uniquely extraordinary things.

        Some will be drawn with sincere motives and some won’t, but when fear is dispelled, amazing things will happen.

        Let’s ask God to help us to be faithful and to use ordinary people to do things far beyond their natural powers: amazing and unplanned things! And let Him worry about the numbers.

        Good night!

    • Oh, and I should add that your comment about lack of communication and movement is now known to be incorrect. See Richard Bauckham (ed) The Gospel for All Christians.

  6. What is it with “liberal” clergy (the theological label ill-fits Fraser, a dyed-in-the-red socialist who loathes political liberalism as so much free market excess, but it’s the best we have) who take a perverse joy in failure? Some nihilistic streak? A coping mechanism? Whatever, it’s self-defeating to the point of farce.

    The whole point of Christianity is the triumph over death and despair through Christ. Evangelicals tend to be a lot better at articulating this. If the evangelical perma-smile is unhealthy, surely the liberal perma-frown is worse.

  7. Thanks for this Ian, much food for thought. Numbers count because people count, but ultimately what I perceive we should be praying and aiming for in our churches is: health (organic metaphor); authenticity (ethical metaphor) and depth (geological metaphor). These lend themselves to subjectivity, which means we may of course differ on exactly what they may mean, but I’m sure you get my point; ultimately they mean spiritual growth. I want to say that where these qualities are found, then so is numerical growth, but I guess that isn’t always the case.
    I’ve been thinking lately about the comparison between the natural seasons (in the UK) and the local church. I’ve been involved in numerous local churches over the years and some appear retrospectively to have been experiencing growth (spring and summer) whilst others appear (again with hindsight) to have been experiencing decline (autumn and winter). There will be many reason for these different seasons and contexts, but just one point to highlight (there are many more), following Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches (John 15: 1-8) decline and contraction in a church (autumn/winter) is not necessarily a harbinger of death; indeed the reverse may well be true!!!

  8. Numbers matter, but having just completed the annual statistical return for my diocese, are we counting the right numbers? Stacks of stats about attendance, but nowhere did it ask me how many people came to faith.


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