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It's Never Been About the Numbers! Really!

It's Never Been About the Numbers! Really!

I was with a group of church leaders recently reviewing their congregation´s current reality:  where they were and how they got there.  I asked them what they believed were the specific Kingdom differences that God was calling them to make in the next three to five years.  (If a congregation has no sense of what specific differences they are being called to make, the chances are about 100% that they will just continue doing pretty much what they are already doing.)  One younger businessman spoke up:  "It's all about the numbers.  Ours are all heading south and we have to get them turned around.  We have to get our Missional Vital Signs up."  I wanted to roll my eyes, but refrained. Will we ever get the message across that it is not really about the numbers?

Okay, I know our denomination and conference are talking a lot about the numbers; it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusion especially when it doesn’t seem like much of a jump.   So how do we put our focus on number into perspective?  

Counting is just a strategy for getting people to focus on what really matters: the mission of the church to make world-changing disciples.  As many have noted:  Whatever leaders pay attention to, everyone pays attention to.  The Missional Vital Signs are each selected to draw attention to one of the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (Intentional Discipling, Passionate Worship, Extravagant Generosity, Salty Service, Radical Hospitality) and to one of the Five Membership Vows (Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service and Witness).  For example, tracking Average Weekly Worship Attendance is a way of drawing attention to the importance of Passionate Worship and Presence.  This sets up my second point. 
Numbers only refer to what’s really important.  Let's take our example of Average Weekly Worship Attendance.  The point is not just to have "more butts in the pew," as one friend puts it.  The point is to have people encounter the living presence of God afresh and to respond with receptive, joyful obedience.  According to George Barna, over half of those who go to church report that they have not experienced the presence of God in worship in the last year.  (Makes you wonder why they are still going!)  Obviously just showing up isn't really what we are aiming at.   In fact, what we are really aiming at is people living all of life -- every dimension, 24/7 -- as a living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2).   Corporate worship is one of the key ways that we learn about and sustain a life lived in God's presence.  Partly because this is something we can count, we focus on worship attendance.  Few people learn or sustain a Romans 12 lifestyle without showing up at corporate worship; but just showing up is a very long way from what's really important.  
Besides the Missional Vital Signs, other things (both numbers and stories) point to missional vitality.   A friend of mine published in their church e-newsletter a variety of statistics about the congregation.   He shared ways in which their numbers for 2011 were up significantly over those of 2010.  Included were the number of adults who were baptized, the number of persons who went on mission trips, the number of new persons who had taken on leadership roles in small groups and other ministries, the amount given to retire their debt, the amount given to missions and to the budget, the number of visitors, and congregational involvement in several local ministries.  All of these were up -- all indications of missional vitality!  What was also on the increase was the number of life-change stories that people were telling in the congregation. And yet, their Average Weekly Worship Attendance was slightly less than the year before.  Clearly, a local congregation’s balanced missional score card can include many different indicators of faithfulness and fruitfulness. 
All numbers need to be placed within the story of the congregation.  Right now Cape Canaveral is slowing down considerably with the end of the shuttle program.  Any congregation in the area is being impacted by this and their numbers show it; but if you only pay attention to the numbers, you won't understand why.  Another congregation I worked with had a long-standing parking-lot agreement by key leaders not to grow.  Another congregation's story included three pastors in a row that were ill; this deeply affected the long-term focus and practices.  One group of leaders shared how they were growing as a congregation until their previous pastor was arrested and jailed. One congregation's worship attendance made a significant jump last year -- largely because a nearby congregation closed and a whole group of their members moved over.  Another congregation, still worshipping in a school, saw growth in every area of their ministry except worship attendance; then they moved into their new facility and attendance jumped over 100 in one year. The numbers only make sense when you place them in the context of a congregation’s story. 
Still, having shared all these qualifications, there are sadly a lot of congregations who have for years all but ignored their declining Missional Vital Signs– and their missional vitality shows it. Some are large congregations that feel strong, but in reality are experiencing long-term declines in the worship attendance, in their involvement in discipling groups, in their involvement in ministry beyond themselves and in their effectiveness in reaching new persons for Christ. Because of their mass and means, they are able to sustain a declining glide for years without hitting the ground. Another group of much smaller congregations, with considerably less mass and means, are coasting groundward close to crashing. While the stories of each of these congregations is different, they often (not always!) have a common theme involving choosing to keep people happy by continuing to do what they found familiar and comfortable, rather than facing the facts which the numbers made clear enough: if they are going to be missionally faithful and fruitful they are going to have to make different choices. While it has never been about the numbers and while the numbers never tell the whole story, ignoring the numbers long-term usually means we are choosing our own personal preferences (what makes us happy) over what Christ has called us to do. The numbers are not what is ultimately important, but they do point – imperfectly – to what is: our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ that make a Kingdom difference in the world. 
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence