Numbers represent people who are important
When numbers represent worship attendance, membership, participation in Sunday school, youth involved in UMYF, offering totals or time spent in hands-on mission with the poor, they are more than just numbers. They represent real human beings and their journeys on the way of salvation. Leaders—both laity and clergy, administrative councils, cabinets and bishops—should pay close attention to the numbers that indicate our missional effectiveness.
Sometimes the cabinet members and I hear pastors say the equivalent of, “I don’t pay attention to numbers.” I know that this attitude is widespread among United Methodists in Kansas and around the United States. It is justified in a variety of ways or, more often, just lived out unreflectively.
The case for why it is essential that church leaders pay attention to numbers rests on two basic principles, one of theology and one of mission.
The theological principle is that God is a missionary God who is engaged in saving the world. God’s mission includes the church as the instrument of salvation, and the church’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We United Methodists, based on our Wesleyan doctrine that is our interpretation of scripture, see that process of making disciples as having several significant steps:
When we are clear about our mission, we then ask, “How are we doing at accomplishing the task God has given us?” The answer is that we count how many people are engaged at each stage of the process.
This leads to the principle of leadership. You count what is important to you. If you cannot measure it, you don’t know for sure how well you are doing.
If a business is seeking to make quality cars, they measure the quality of their product by asking customers for feedback and evaluation. If they also are in business to make a profit, they ask the accountants for an annual operating statement that measures profit and loss. If they also seek to have happy, fulfilled employees, they find ways to measure employee satisfaction.
In most human enterprises, there are multiple goals being pursued simultaneously, and the important ones are measured. Good leaders are clear about their goals, apply numerical targets for the important ones and evaluate their success or failure on each count.
For a local church, five key measures of missional effectiveness are adult professions of faith, worship attendance, Sunday school/small group attendance, finances and engagement in hands-on mission.
When a church is engaging in spiritual conversations with adults who are unchurched, they are hoping to lead these people to become disciples and enter the way of salvation. The decision point in that process is a profession of faith and becoming a member of the church. Thus, when a congregation reports zero professions of faith for several years in a row, it is a pretty good indicator that they are not engaging in evangelism with the reachable people in their community.
When average worship attendance is increasing, it is an indication that more and more people are worshiping God, growing in their faith and receiving the grace of God that comes through corporate worship.
When an increasing number of people are attending Sunday school and other small groups for nurture in the faith, we can presume that they are making progress toward becoming the mature disciples God has called them to be.
When a congregation sponsors hands-on mission with the poor, either in their own community or during a mission trip to another place, they are being used by God to accomplish God’s purpose of transforming the world.
When a congregation preaches tithing and challenges people to engage in extravagant generosity, there is more money available to do all of these things for Christ.
I am well aware that numbers have to be used carefully. If a church is in a community that is declining, simply maintaining the same level of worship attendance may be a stunning success. In the midst of economic downturn, financial indicators must be compared to the local economy. Simple comparisons from one church to another using raw numbers should be avoided. But from one year to the next, leaders must pay attention to the trends and develop strategies in all facets of their mission to be more effective this year.
Bishop Schnase’s book, “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” can teach us a great deal about how to think about these matters.
But the bottom line is that God is seeking fruitful congregations. We are counting fruit. Leaders need to pay attention to the count. Why? Numbers are people who are important.