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.
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.
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.