Are We to Fill the Pews or Empty Them?

I love it when two divergent views appear on my radar within seconds of each other.

Earlier this week Bishop Will Willimon posted an article that equated clergy effectiveness with numerical growth. He was pushing-back against clergy who protest the emphasis on numerical growth in conference reports about church effectiveness, as well as providing support for church growth as a standard for measuring whether a clergyperson should be reappointed.

How do we Methodists define effective clergy? We do it with one word: growth. Effective clergy know how to grow the church in its membership, witness and mission.

Wesley sent pastors to those areas where, in his estimate, there were the most souls to be saved. He told his traveling preachers not just that they ought to read, but also put a number on it: at least five hours a day. Wesley also kept a close eye (with charts in the annual “Minutes”) on how much money was collected each year — for Kingswood School, for new preaching houses, for the pension fund, for operating expenses. The annual conference was invented, not just as opportunity for worship and fellowship, but mostly for the purpose of everyone rendering account and confessing their numbers.

Read the whole article as Willimon seeks to legitimize number-counting by presenting its history in the UMC.

At nearly the same time as I read this article, my facebook friend LBH linked to an excerpt from a book by Graham Power “Transform Your Work Life” that has this provocative nugget:

Where is the best place to ‘shine your light’ and be ‘the salt of the earth’ (Matt 5:13–15)? You need to shine your light where it is dark of course! For many years I made the mistake of thinking that a church’s success is measured by its seating capacity (how many people are in worship on a Sunday). The truth is that a church’s salt, its real worth, is measured by its sending capacity. God does not care how big the ‘salt shaker’ is, rather what God is concerned about is how much salt is shaken from the salt shaker, and how much light the church shines in the darkest places of society.


Let me ask you another question, if your church were to close its doors this week, who would notice that you are not in ministry any longer? Of course the members who worship in your congregation would care, but would the homeless in your area notice? Would the hungry and the abused of your society realise that you are not operating anymore? Would your closure have an impact on the sick and the elderly people in your community? How about the schools and businesses in your community; would they notice that you are no longer ministering in the community?

When Jesus said that He would build his church and the gates of hell would not overpower it (Matt 16:18), there was a clear assumption that He builds his church at the gates of hell! One of the most loving things we can do with the church is to send it to hell. We need to find the places of suffering, brokenness and need, and be the church in those places so that Jesus can build his church there.

Wow. Boom.

So which of those do you see as more effective? A church that fills its pews with numbers? Or a church that empties them in service to God and neighbor?

Of course, this type of conversation quickly turns to ridicule as people say that of course both are important.  The number-aficionados quickly say either (1) missions leads to growth or (2) only one of the above is countable and thus comparable to other churches.  Both are true but one is troubling.

I wrote the following section before but it bears repeating.  Bryan Stone, a professor at Boston University School of Theology, expands on this debate in his book Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness.

When the mission of the church becomes a mission of numerical growth, quantitative influence, and geographical spread, evangelism is easily reduced to whatever means, method, or gimmick will facilitate that mission. Conversion then becomes a lowest common denominator decision or experience that will allow a church, without too much embarrassment, to claim an individual as its own. (page 272)

The problem for church leaders, of course, is how to gauge “success” without playing the numbers game. Stone continues with something of value to us at Hacking Christianity:

Evangelism can be measured by how fully inclusive is our “reach” and how thoroughly we refuse to allow that “reach” to be domesticated by the political boundaries and economic disciplines of the [world]…the measure of Christian evangelistic reach is its openness and hospitality to the poor, the stranger, and the socially ostracized. (pp. 273-274)

But of course, evangelistic openness is not quantitatively evaluated, and church growth with Gospel integrity lacks a checkbox in any church report.  Numbers are absolutely not evidence of fruits of the spirit.  I could put on a dog and pony show with laser lights and Justin Bieber as the singer and my numbers would go up as fast as my integrity to the Gospel goes down. Conversely, I could close the church doors and say that we ought to go out and help our neighbors one Sunday morning and there’s not a single place for that type of outreach on my conference reports. None.

Perhaps our entire way of judging growth and integrity needs hacking.  Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. johnmeunier says

    I think Guy Kent's recent post – linked at my blog – holds both of these together. Faithful living and embodiment of the gospel leads to growth. That is not really Kent's point, but I think the story he tells makes a perfect illustration.

    Despite his critique of Willimon, I don't think anything he writes would bother the good bishop. His call for tracking numbers is not saying "get butts in the seat at any cost." He's saying that the gospel bears fruit. If there is no fruit, then we may not be as faithful to the gospel as we think we are.

  2. Blake Huggins says

    I found this disappointing and I instantly thought of Bryan too! It is also odd coming from Willimon. It seems to be a bit of a departure from his earlier "resident aliens" position and it irks me that that move happened once he became an episcopal official.

    I get the push to measure "effectiveness" through a common calculus even if I don't like it. But the problem with numerical and quantitative measurements — to put it a bit baldly — is that we find ourselves deferring to the same capitalistic logic as our corporations. It seems to me that the church should stand in stark contrast to that.

    The gospel bears fruit, to be sure, but it is dangerous to assume that its fruits can and should be measured quantitatively, indeed it might be the opposite! More and more I am thinking that Stone's book should be required reading for United Methodist clergy and our bishops especially.

  3. josh says

    I wonder why we're even bothering to try to quantify growth at all? It seems to me that if we were actively following Christ, we would be too busy to waste time with score-keeping.

    My assumption is that if we were to actually position our churches at the gates of hell, most people who are currently in them would leave for balmier climes and they would re-fill… but this time with actual Christians.

    My cynical guess would be that the numbers would be far fewer, but my hopeful, faith-filled dream would be that instead, the churches would split at the seams, burst open, and become what they ought to be.

  4. Kevin says

    I think you are offering a ridiculous choice, overthinking something that should be obvious, and offering excuses for ineffectiveness. I agree with Willimon and Wesley numbers matter. I prefer to believe Acts 2:47, "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." When the Spirit is present people are drawn to it. I have served such a church that took off in growth and have watched other churches do they same. Some of the most amazing things happen when hearts get changed and they are turned out for service. I'd rather have front row seats to watch God work, then watch churches die because they don't think numbers matter.

  5. Rev. Jeremy Smith says

    @Kevin, I completely agree that when the Spirit is present people will be drawn to it, but I differ that those draw to the Spirit are able to be counted in the ways that our system currently does. I also have a strong trust in the slow work of God that may or may not work on the schedule of annual reports.

    It seems in your writing that ministries who do not result in conversions and growth are not what the church should be doing. Is that a correct assumption?

  6. Blake Huggins says

    What of those that prefer to believe John 6:60-66? As in most cases, the rabbit hole of biblical citation can run both ways here. Our friend Mr. Wesley can be used against himself as well. Again, this is a matter of core logic. Does the market logic drive the church or does the logic of the reign of God made present among the least of these?

    I fear that when we place numbers as the common calculus and the bottom line we are operating on a model eerily close to our corporations who accept the profit margin as the bottom line. Perhaps the market logic has shaped our collective social imagination such that it is hard to imagine something different from visible quantification and immediate results. The American church could use some healthy distance from that mode of thinking. I don't think numerical growth is inherently bad but I do think it is dangerous to quantify the gospel and church efficacy through such a calculus. The gospel is more multi-dimensional than that. It surely demands more than mere numerical growth. If we are serious about forming disciples as our mission statement suggests then it seems to me that we ought to be concerned primarily with shaping persons as such over time and not simply filling pews for an instant on a Sunday morning or for other programming. That requires a shift in thinking from the immediacy of sheer numbers, to a understanding of the church as a living organism which pours itself out among those on the underside of its context in perhaps intangible and seemingly ineffective ways which don't lend themselves to the cut and dry demands of an institutional system. More than anything perhaps we need a bit more freedom and faith in the local church's ability to engage its context rather than relying on an acontextual calculus.

  7. John Nash says

    I actually heard Bishop Willimon give both sides in the same speach in January at the Congress on Evangelism. He first said that simply looking at numbers could not tell us whether the church was bringing people into relationship with Christ, which is the church's goal. Then later, while dismissing Joel Osteen and his ilk, he said they were getting people to follow them so they have to be doing something correctly and that is a sign that God is blessing their ministry. It was rather strange to hear him speak out of both sides of his mouth less than 5 minutes apart.

    The big problem is what if you are bringing people into relationship with Christ, but they end up attending another church? Certainly not what you want to happen, but happen it does. So some church's numbers go up without doing any work, and another church does not see the growth, but the work is still accomplished. Just completed a very tense meeting with our youth group leaders about success in which we discussed these very things, and didn't come to any satisfactory answer.

  8. cspogue says

    When those of you who are clergy start working for free or even a love offering each week and figure out how to get the utilities for free, then you can ignore numbers all you want in favor of non-accountable criteria. You can't say "keep the guaranteed appointment, keep the minimum salaries, keep the health and pension benefits" while ignoring the money it takes to do that.

  9. Stephen Lingwood says

    I think the criteria has to be how many lives the church changes, rather than necessarily how many people become members/attenders. Clearly one of the ways in which churches change lives is by inviting and successfully retaining new people into the community. But it is not the only way.

    Church growth may be a sign of successfully reaching out to people and changing lives, but it may not. At the same time church decline may be a sign of integrity and witness in a hostile culture, or it may be a sign that you're failing in your mission of outreach and hospitality.

    Numbers are one measure of success, but they have to be taken in the context of the whole ministry of the church.

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