The Church, Counting Numbers, & You


I recently filled out the census report (thankfully I received the short form) and returned it to the government. All over my city advertisements listed the various reasons why one should take the time to complete the census, the most notable reason being that our own community could benefit (i.e. all tax dollars go to the federal government for re-distribution to the neediest parts of the country). This made sense to me and so I was inclined to participate, besides the obvious fact that participation is the law.

Every year, my church is given a “census” of a sort, and asked to report numbers for items such as resident membership, out-of-town membership, baptisms, Sunday School attendance, and worship attendance. We report these numbers to our local association, which then forwards them to the state convention which, in turn, reports the numbers to the Southern Baptist Convention. For nearly ten years now my church has failed to turn in its numbers – first, I think, out of embarrassment because our church was not prospering numerically, then out of conviction. For ten years I’ve looked at the annual state convention reports, and the string of zeros beside the name of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

Also for ten years now, I have visited and participated in some of the largest Protestant evangelical churches in America. Such experiences have been new for me. I grew up Roman Catholic and was saved in a small, non-denominational church where I spent the first seven years of my Christian life being discipled. Needless to say, when it came to large evangelical churches and denominations, I was a relative newcomer.

When I first started going to denominational conventions I quickly learned the lingo of “Conventioneers” and the relative importance they place on numbers. The routine goes something like this: “Good to meet you, Matt. Where’s home for you? What church do you attend? Whachyourunnin?” And I would say, “I’m sorry?” And they would repeat, “Whachyourunnin?” I would turn to my pastor with a blank look on my face and he would say, “The man wants to know your attendance in Sunday School, you know, ‘What are you running in Sunday School?'” I could only guess “what we were running,” given that we never counted and never thought it was particularly important to do so.

Since those earlier days, I’ve come to understand why churches give careful attention to “their numbers,” but am no closer to being convinced of the importance of such a practice. I was in a church recently that posted their numbers on a board in the Sunday School Auditorium on a weekly basis. They had a sanctuary that could seat at least 500, boasted 1,200 members, but only had 50 in attendance. I counted! All over America, every Sunday morning, churches repeat this scenario. What has happened to our understanding of evangelism, conversion, church discipline, and discipleship that allows people to remain on the roles of a Christian church, but not attend and sit under the preaching of the Word of God and fellowship with the people of God?

In Galatians, we see a situation where false teachers called Judaizers were teaching Gentile Christians that they were not really saved unless they obeyed the Mosaic Law. Paul writes of their motivation:

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh.  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. (Galatians 6:12-15)

To put this in another way, Paul criticized these teachers for their wrong focus. They looked to the law and an outward appearance rather than looking to the heart, the spirit, and the “new creation” – that which they could not see. What about us? Are we focused on that which we can see, like numbers, or are we focused on the spirit, the new creation? Are we reporting our church attendance and baptisms because we “want to make a good impression outwardly”? Are we guilty of inflating the numbers to put off embarrassment? To paraphrase Paul: neither counting nor not counting means anything; what counts is the new creation! That number only God knows.

Can you imagine a modern evangelical encountering Jesus at a convention? “Good to meet you, Jesus. Where’s home?” Answer: “Nazareth.” “What church are you a member of?” Answer:  “It’s still being built.” “Whachyourunnin?” In regard to numbers Jesus replies, “Evangelistic events about 5,000, but regular attendance about a dozen.” Would he be laughed out of the convention?

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said this,

My friends, our business, our work, our first call is to declare in a certain and unequivocal manner the sovereignty, the majesty, the holiness of God; the sinfulness and the utter depravity of man, his total inability to save and to rescue himself; and the sacrificial, expiatory, atoning death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on that Cross on Calvary’s hill, and His glorious resurrection, as the only means and the only hope of human salvation. (The First Forty Years, p. 302)

If, after faithfully doing all that Lloyd-Jones suggests, you still have time to count, then I would suggest you count your blessings rather than your flock. It will surely take longer and be far more profitable.

Matt Schmucker

Matt Schmucker was the founding executive director of 9Marks. He now organizes several conferences, including Together for the Gospel and CROSS, while serving as member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

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