It’s all about the numbers: changing how we measure success in the church

Via Wylio: "numbers" | Matthew Harrigan |

It’s all about the numbers…

I remember it well. It was the second month at my first full-time youth ministry job. I had inherited a ministry of about 20 students that had gone through turmoil and transition. These students had seen a youth pastor come and go within one year’s time. They then found themselves under the leadership of inexperienced college students. When I took the job I realize that renovating and re-creating a vibrant youth ministry program would take years.

What I didn’t realize was that my superiors didn’t see it that way. From them, there were times when it felt like it was all about the numbers…

I don’t want to come across as harsh or bitter, but I want to tell my story as authentically as possible.

At the age of 22 I took a youth minister job that seemed full of potential. I was entering a situation at a mega church and was given permission to be creative. I had a passion for youth ministry, and a philosophy that holds that relationships with students are more important than “big parties” and fancy programs. I had been reared under the guidance of the experts at events like the National Youth Workers Convention (Youth Specialties), most who were saying that relational youth ministry matters more than programmatic approaches.

My goal, in any ministry environment, is to facilitate relationships so that people grow in authentic community. The program, in as far as it serves to accomplish this end, is helpful but not the point.

Now, back to the second month in this job. At that time, I learned, it’s all about the numbers… success can only be measured by the amount of people showing up to programs because this is the greatest evidence that God is at work.

So I sat in a meeting with my senior pastor and the administrator for the church. During this meeting, I was lectured on principles of church growth that grew out of the Willow Creek movement in the 1980s and 90s. I saw a funnel with various levels of entry points and at the narrow end of such a funnel: “a fully devoted follower of Jesus” would be produced. Start with A, add B and C, and you’ll get D for disciple.

Rather than telling me that the journey ahead would be a long one and assuring me that healthy growth takes time, my senior pastor wanted to know why the numbers had not increased in my first month on the job. That night, I went home and cried in the arms of my then fiancée and now wife. The pressure of quotas and the subtle hints that I was to become a party planner and a sales person was just too much to bear. It not only went against what I believed about the kingdom but it went against my own personal set of values. This was party planning and not relational youth ministry. In this way I quickly learned –  it’s all about the numbers…

I’m now years past that initial meeting and I no longer work in such a corporate church setting. I’m happy for the many things I did learn working at that church, and many of the people including my senior pastor are still folks that I look up to as godly models of Christian character. However, I’m convinced that day and I operate out of a different paradigm. One focuses more on quotas and business models another focuses more on signs of the kingdom.

Many people ask me what we should measure if it’s not numbers and attendance. I think I’ve finally begun to figure this out. I recently took a course on church planting. In this class, one of the things we talked about was the need to change the ministry scorecard (to borrow Reggie McNeil’s language). Instead of measuring success by numbers and quotas, what if we measure success by stories of how God is at work through various signs of the kingdom that we see in our context? In other words, in ministry and in any church function, what is our primary goal? Is it to meet quotas? Is it you rant and rave about how many showed up? Nope, it’s not all about the numbers! It’s all about the kingdom!

If we want to know if a particular ministry is being “successful” we should ask the following question: What signs of the kingdom have we seen or experienced during the past week? All other measurements of success fall subservient to that single question.

How has the “numbers game” negatively affected you or someone you know?

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  • Kelly

    You know, I recently was charged with leading a committee to find a new pastor for our Presbyterian church. One of the questions we asked references for our candidates was about church growth and most people responded with ways in which the pastor had, in the past, grown the numbers of people at a program, service, etc. One reference, though, interpreted the question as one of spiritual growth and answered thusly. 

  • sounds similar to my first experience.

  • So good! If numbers truly mattered, the Gospels would be completely different. Jesus never taught to bring large numbers. Most of the time, when he taught, many people would find it was hard to follow and would choose to leave.

    • Jorge

      Jesus was just a man with a good story about human values.

  • Crispin

    I read The Pastor by Eugene Peterson last year.  I love reading how he wrestled with the ever increasing influence of American business principles that were being embraced by the church (40 years ago).  He makes the point that one of the reasons pastoring is so difficult is because there aren’t a lot of immediate results.  At the end of the day a pastor can’t necessarily look at anything that was built or produced that day.  Peterson not only had to struggle against the temptations of running church like a business but also with his own desire to do something that brought quicker results in people.  He remembered a time when he was very tempted to become a therapist rather than a pastor because counseling people was a little less mysterious.  

    I think Peterson is on to something there.  It’s not just about embracing business models, I think there is something within all of us that wants to see quicker results.  Maybe it has something to do with getting our egos too wrapped up in our vocation.  I have often noticed that for all the church says about the need for folks to have a personal relationship with God, we don’t tend to embrace relational approaches to church very well.  Relational growth takes time, intentionality, and commitment.  And the truth is that authentic relationship is not all that sexy most of the time.  Authentic relationships don’t do anything for our egos either.  But in the long run a relational approach yields fruit.

  • Ouch…struck a nerve… I know I’ve been guilty at times in stressing numbers, but lately I’ve looked at numbers, not as a goal, but as a symptom or a by product. The goal is not to bring more people in. The goal is to bring the people that are in closer to an authentic expression of the faith (see for my recent reflections on this). As stories are told of Kingdom work, growth in numbers will happen…but that growth should not be the desired end product and should not be seen as a failure if it doesn’t happen.

    A small church can stagnate on numerical growth but still be successful in Kingdom growth.

  • There are many of us who have felt this kind of pressure at different times in our ministry. Thank you for addressing it openly and honestly. I’ve felt it a lot in music/worship ministry. The pressure is often on us to do what gets butts in the seats, even if that means making compromises in substance.

    The truth is, the numbers game just doesn’t work in God’s economy, and we can’t judge our ministry by attendees or membership roles. Those numbers just aren’t a part of God’s economy, and it’s so hard for us to understand this in a culture that emphasizes large numbers. But we have to remember that, in the corporate world, large numbers mean more money, and that has no real parallel in Kingdom work.

    It’s so hard to quantify the “Kingdom” stories you’re talking about, but I know of no better way to judge it.

  • John Santic


    thanks for sharing your story. The one major problem in my mind with the corporatism that influences church metrics with a  numerical paradigm is the whole notion of control. In business this is fine because the desired end of a corporation is to turn a financial profit. Businesses deal in commodities, the kingdom deals in God-image bearers. In a business, breaking down complex processes into automated ones will reduce costs and streamline production to achieve the desired end. In naturally comodifies resources to achieve this…including people. they become worth only what they produce. Genesis tells us a different story about what it means to be human. God’s economy is so opposite to this (see sermon on the mount) that it in fact cries out against it. It’s quite baffling how ‘generally’ the church in the west has allowed this dehumanisation to occur with it’s adoption of business tactics. This is all about controlling outcomes and for me, this mimics reaching for the forbidden apple in the garden. It puts us in control and the empire building begins. Do we throw metrics out altogether? Perhaps not…. I like what you say about Reggie M’s idea about telling stories. The kingdom can only be discerned in narrative, so it makes sense. The one thing i see in scripture is the fact that Faithfulness is the goal and numerical growth is a by-product of that faithfulness if God wills it. In fact, better logic would/should suggest the church would get a lot smaller if greater faithfulness overtook cultural and corporate capitulation. 

    What might other qualitative indicators about ecclesial health look like? 

  • Well, it’s one big reason why I as a prospective pastor am looking at switching denominations.  The current one is proposing that pastoral effectiveness, which also affects whether one will be allowed to continue pastoring, be measured by a set of 
    metrics.  Call it “No Church Left Behind”, if you will.  There are a lot of congregations that need shepherding and care, not ranching and breeding.

  • ellie_1

    Numbers are people. People matter. I can see how the line can become blurred for some. It’s very difficult and painful when people don’t seem to be responding to the gospel because their lives matter.  Pastors have a task to interface with the world’s system while maintaining a kingdom perspective and approach. Having a type A personality wouldn’t help either.

    It’s incredibly difficult to grow people to being a productive part of the solution.  I have a few people in my immediate family who have extensive issues. Because they are where they are in their thinking, and I’m exhausted with the physical demands of daily life; my heart is grieved for them. I don’t know how to help them. It’s been years for many of them. To me, that’s just crazy.  One has accepted Christ, but lives as though they haven’t and the others have never made a decision for Christ. They take up a lot of time with what I consider nonsense. I hate it. My husband is so much better at dealing with people than me.  I tend to hurt people’s feelings. I endeavor to be more like him in how he is sensitive to people’s feelings.

    I would imagine that some Pastors and church leaders lose touch with the fact that just because someone is taking up a seat, doesn’t mean they are growing, and may even be hindering growth in some way.  Leadership may figure that at least they are there and a part of the conversation and that counts for something which may indicate a misdirected gifting (they may be more of an evangelist rather than a pastor, etc.). Some probably give in to pressure for numbers because they do need the money from the congregation to make ends meet. And, it’s great when people come to Christ and the more the better. That means people are receiving eternal life. It makes us feel better to see lots of people because wouldn’t that mean that people are coming to Christ. Why wouldn’t we be happy about that. 

    When growth in decisions is low, leaders must take their sadness about that to the Lord rather than pressing people to get people in to the church (which again, they see as a good thing and it is. it’s just not always the way it is and it’s all right to be sad about it).  Accept that God calls in His time and people can accept Christ and just seem not to grow at all and may even not understand that they are even saved especially if they were children when they said the Lord’s prayer. It may take some time for them to get to a point where they experience a conscious  understanding of there salvation. They then find their way to a church and begin to grow or watch church on Television until they understand community, etc. 

    We are quite an isolated society in many ways and people don’t live as intimately as they used to in bible days.  It’s not the same type of communal living. It’s easier to isolate oneself. Having faith in what God is doing is important. And, of course, we all can ask God if we’re doing our part. I think I need to be constantly reminded to abide.  Abiding is a learned behavior that I suppose takes some practice.


  • This is one of the problems with the megachurch movement.  We want 100 in the youth group! (But what if God sends us 10?)  We want to target young families because they are the future! (But what if the people God adds to our numbers are elderly, single folks?)  The truth is, that if our numbers don’t see a great increase, it may very well mean that we aren’t entertaining enough and we arent’ putting on a good enough show.   Maybe we should take this as a compliment.

  • I have grown tired for the numbers game. I have been in a church with 2000 people and felt empty, and then went to a church with 80 and felt needed and cared for. My home church fluctuates between 60 and 120 members. It’s hard to get past that top level, and as much as some people want it, I am fine if it stays there. Because they are a family. They serve, care, love, and are active. Just because they can’t get more than 120 people doesn’t mean thy are worthless, in fact they are far from worthless.

  • Susan St. Laurent

    The focus on numbers kind of permeates the life of my church because of the “B” word…budget.

  • Great insight and I will be posting this fundamental question on the Serving Strong LinkedIn group (as well as the Pastors group and XPastor group (assuming their moderators allow it). This misunderstanding about numbers can create a lot of unnecessary burnout and stress on a ministry leader (which I aim to help eliminate in my lifetime –
    Here’s a link to the LinkedIn group if you’re interested. I will ping this post in the discussion starters.

  • Jerry

    I totally understand the tension of the “numbers game” that is played from the pastor, staff, and board/elders perspective. Numbers do tell a story though about the health of your ministry. What do we do with Acts 2:46-47, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Who was counting “those who were being saved?”

  • Stacey Smith

    I attend a church of about 1500 people. I have noticed a huge focus on the numbers in the past few months. It makes me feel like I am a number and not a person. This is not how Jesus wants us to be treated. I am a child of God, I have a name and it is engraved on the palm of his hand (See Isaiah). I am more than my weekly offering check and the chair I keep warm every Sunday. We hired a new Children’s pastor a few months ago and he basically told me my job as a volunteer was to help “increase the numbers”. He told me I do a fantastic job, but then gave me a list of suggestions on how to make it better. The ministry seems to be more about making church “fun” and less about worshiping and learning about God. This mentality makes me feel like I am working an unpaid part time job instead of serving a loving God. The “number” mentality really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.