09 April 2014

The Numbers Leash

Starting from the small church of my youth, winding through my last 20 years of vocational pastoring, I have had a decent vantage point on the church growth narrative.

When I was in a booming attractional church, we took pride in our voluminous felt-needs programs. When I was in a liturgical church, there was a palatable panic around when our numbers of people dropped. No matter what our style was, we were numbers conscience.
We’d hear about the metrics over and over; how many campuses we have, how many people attend, how many got saved, how much money we raised etc. Honestly I came to dread church conferences because of the onslaught of that single question “so how many…” Even when I pastored at a megachurch, I was embarrassed to answer.
The question itself exposes our ambitions.
As a church planter, the volume of resources for church planting stresses this anxiety. Supposedly, after you’re first Sunday Launch the race is on to get to 100 people in order to survive. This is the goal. I was just reading a church planting book published last year that suggested borrowing people from another church to create the illusion of numerical energy so that church shoppers feel you’re a big deal in town. This feels awfully disingenuous.

Weighing Our Impact
Every church I’ve served has been led around by the numbers leash, creating a producer-consumer relationship with parishioners. Whether spoken or unspoken, it is how we weighed our impact. Simultaneously we always had angst about a lack of involvement, spiritual maturity and genuine care for mission.
Despite this angst, we did not change our matrix. We still emotionally and pragmatically were yanked about by numbers. The unnerving truth is God gets heated when leaders survey the success of their organizations using numerical size.
“David took a census of the people of Israel commissioning Joab to count the inhabitants of Israel. ‘Take a census of all the people of Israel—from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north—and bring me a report    so I may know how many there are.
But Joab replied, ‘May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this?’
But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab traveled throughout all Israel to count the people… God was very displeased with the census.
Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt for doing this foolish thing.’” - 1 Chronicles 21

A Paradigm Shift
This leads me to believe that we need a major paradigm shift. We need to stop emphasizing the most obvious, simplistic cultural sign of success and instead use a more Kingdom-oriented pattern. What we measure is what will eventually matter the most.
Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.”
I’ve found this to be true.
Missional Churches are going to have to wrestle with resisting the numbers template. Numbers tell us very little about the DNA of Discipleship, Neighborhood Rootedness and Relational Tethering. These are qualities that mattered in the 1st Century Church. What if we reoriented around their vitality?
We need a new fresh metaphor, one that has little do with numbers and a whole lot to do with rich soil and earth under our fingernails. The metaphor I find most helpful is The Garden, The Gardeners and The Gardening.

The Garden – Seeing Neighborhoods

God got really clear about his love for the world by moving into the Nazareth neighborhood. We need to get clear about locality. Like a raised bed in a garden box, we need to define size, shape and contents of our garden.
Your garden may be a section of your city or include several small towns in your county. If the language you use in your church is always connected to the brick-and-mortar of your Sunday gathering place, then you will naturally count heads as the means to measuring.
Talk about the neighborhood more than you talk about your little church empire. Direct eyes outward. Pull people into the garden to explore, to behold, to understand where they live. Release into the air imagination for the particular province God has situated your community in. Make it obvious over-and-over that the energy is outside the building in the neighborhood. This takes a lot of bandwidth, but it is the most foundational missional shift.
Moving people’s affections beyond the spiritual goods-n-services they consume to the needs in their neighborhood, is moving from a “me-orientation” to “mission-orientation.” Honestly there is probably nothing more vital or volatile than this dirty work.
Focus on questions like:
  • Who is our city?
  • Who are our neighbors?
  • Where do we live?
  • Who is already doing good work in this garden?
  • What is beauty in our place?
  • What is the brokenness in our place?

The Gardening – Seeding Relationships

It’s not enough to have better intelligence on a neighborhood, now we need better relational attachment.
Cultivating a garden is more than raising money for an initiative or throwing in some skilled leaders. The Garden needs us to get on our hands and knees and enjoy the soil. Is your church relationally investing in a region?
We need to move beyond an event-mindset to a rhythm-mindset. Having events that catalyze missional serving in our city can cause good sparks. Those sparks can easily be compartmentalized. Our passion must be sustainability.
We must cross and close the relationship gap. You must push for tangibility about how to foster connectivity with a place. This is the labor of incarnation.
Create spaces for clusters within your church to brainstorm the pathways into a particular place. Let people verbalize their challenges, ideals, fears and hurdles to bridging the relational disparities with their neighbors.
Some helpful questions for these clusters to wrestle through are:
  • How are we going get dirty in our place?
  • On a daily basis?
  • On a weekly basis?
  • On a monthly basis?
  • On a yearly basis?
  • How can we do this in micro-groups?
  • With other families?
  • With our friends?

The Gardeners – Shaping Disciples

An agriculturist understands the challenge, the fine art and backbreaking work found in the garden.
I’ve had a literal urban garden for a few years. My wife is the expert and must continually teach me how to plant seed and nurture them to life. She understands the conditions of the soil and the variables of gardening. I’ve got a lot to learn.
Every Spring, that garden needs fresh work and focus. If you’re inviting people to into the garden how will you equip them? How will you foster their intelligence and their perseverance?
Gardeners burn out without water, nourishment and best practices. How do we build a disciple culture? Tilling-and-toiling requires tools. What tools are you putting in the hands of your Gardeners?
Gardeners who inhabit a relational-ecosystem will need water and sustenance to continue. Jesus will build the church if we make disciples. Shaping disciples is not directed at more service to the church infrastructure but more service to the labyrinth outside our church doors.
  • How are we cultivating disciples?
  • How are we training for the hands-on work of missional dwelling?
  • How are we clearing out space on our church calendars for this pivotal work?


  1. This blog is right on time! I was asking the Lord for a response to those who ask, "So, how many members do you have?". Now I have a scriptural and missional response. Our 9 year old church plant in a major urban city is growing, internally first as we become better disciples, and now we are seeking to grow externally by becoming disciple makers. thank you for your insight!

    1. So glad it was helpful. Blessings on your work in the city.

  2. It seems to me, this metaphor will help us direct activities and our focus in such a way that we measure the things we can truly influence. When we garden, we can influence the soil, the seeds, the watering patterns, the fertilization, and even cultivation. What we cannot influence are how fruitful a particular plant or garden is. We can create an environment for fruitfulness, but ultimately, that is outside our direct influence.