Our local paper recently reported on the uptick of home sales in our metropolitan area. It is good to see real estate moving again. Hopefully, there is a corresponding increase in employment and social stability. Memphis needs it.
The article charted one of the metrics used to measure real estate trends. It compared home sales to-date by particular areas in 2013 to the same data during the same time period in 2012. There is no consideration for any particular house but only for the total numbers. That provides a fair comparison to determine a trajectory which is a means to an end. Investors and homeowners want to know when and where to invest for the most profitable returns. Homeowners and investors want to find their place on a swelling wave.
While this is certainly a helpful measure for real estate investment, is it for the church? There are many churches who measure their success based on the same principle. What’s the number this year compared to last? Generally speaking, if we’re “up” from the same time last year then we’re doing something right. If we’re “down” then we’re doing something wrong. Churches are tempted to provide ministries that tend to swell the wave and avoid ministries that don’t “produce.” Pragmatism wins at the end of the day.
I don’t suggest numbers and trends are irrelevant to local church ministry But they don’t translate into the same conclusions as they do in real estate, retail or manufacturing. Upward trends don’t necessarily indicate church health. Downward trends don’t necessarily indicate church decline. Jesus simply has different metrics in his kingdom. The marketplace cares about faceless numbers, but the church cares about souls.
There are many churches who shepherd a number. They want the same amount of people or more attending this year than last. There is little consideration given to either the types of people or the amount of turnover among the people. For example, assume a church had 550 people attending now compared to 500 at this time last year. There would be backs-patted, praise offered and smiles would widen. But what if there has been a turnover of 1050 people? What if the same people attending now are not the same people attending last year? While we may rejoice in 50 more people attending, Jesus would be deeply grieved that 500 souls were not shepherded well. I realize this is hyperbolic, but what how much should be considered “acceptable losses”? It’s a slipper slope of soul neglect.
Would we apply the same metrics for and draw the same conclusions about other relational areas of life? I have three children right now. Would it matter that I had four children at this time next year if they were four different children? Of course not. You’d call social services! We will have done something terribly wrong if that is the case.
Or, assume a business owner has 14 employees compared to 12 at the same time last year. Would it matter if seven employees were new? That might be cause for some concern.
What if your church had 8 current staff members compared to 5 last year? That looks like growth but what if four of the five established positions had new people in them? That could indicate something far different.
A cycle of pragmatism is nearly impossible to escape, especially without significant damage or something of a restart. But once in the cycle churches are compelled to ride short-term waves to keep up a number. It’s like a hiker jumping from log to log just to stay afloat in a rushing river.
Again, how the church draws conclusions based on numbers must be different than how the world draws conclusions based on the same data. Jesus was never one to evaluate a congregation on paper.
Jesus calls his own sheep by name (Jn 10.3) and we are called to shepherd like Jesus. Therefore, we don’t shepherd a number. We shepherd sheep by name. Jesus will not look at the bottom line in the end. He will look at the lines. In fact, Jesus’ own earthly ministry demonstrates his commitment to the soul. The Gospels force us to consider the kindness of Christ. Though flanked by hundreds and thousands, Jesus stopped crowds to heal one blind man (Mk 10.46-52). Jesus bypassed all the regalia of Feasts to heal one crippled man (Jn 5.1-9). While crowds pushed and shoved there way around Jesus (Lk 6.19), he halted processions to give peace to one desperate woman who touched him (Lk 8.46).
Imagine a man in your congregation carrying on an affair with his stepmother. Everyone gossips about it, wondering if the pastors know. Most expect the guy to just leave and the church can separate itself from the scandal. He and his mistress would leave and hopefully another family comes to take their place on the roll. That was a situation in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5). And the church’s reluctance to address it was not a reflection of gracious compassion, but high-handed arrogance (1 Cor 5.2).
After Paul’s admonition, it seems apparent the church responded faithfully (2 Cor 2.5-11). In fact, he told him his admonition in 1 Cor 5 was “so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things” (2 Cor 2.9). In other words, a church’s faithfulness is seen more in how they deal with one person than how they attract thousands. The soul, not the number, matters in the Kingdom. God pays little attention to the number in the pews and watches how a church cares for the one soul coming in or leaving through the door.
I make no concession about the benefits of one size church versus another. The metric is faithfulness. Are we being faithful to the souls (however many there are) in our charge (Acts 20.28)? Jesus does not charge us with taking care of a number, but “that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (Heb 3.12). Do we overlook the crowd to focus on the one soul in pain, anguish or sin? Will we resist looking at the bottom number to find the unruly to admonish, the fainthearted to encourage, the weak to help (1 Thess 5.14)?
Though heaven be filled with every nation, tribe and tongue, our Jesus will know all of us by name. He is the Great Shepherd indeed. Our greatest ministry is to:The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake. (John Rippon, 1787)