It doesn’t take long of being in the UMC to realize that we have a strong focus and obession on numbers, though, I’m confident we are not the only denomination. So here are a few reflections that I keep thinking about in this never ending debate.
On the author bio of many books we often find the number of how many church attenders said writer has in their church, especially the ones who grew it from 1 person to thousands. I hate this. Why do pastors need to brag about how big their church is? Honestly, most of us don’t care. I feel if Jesus had a bio it would probably say that his church grew smaller during his tenure because people turned away due to his really high demands and expectations. Or that a lot of people left his church, because we welcomed those that made the comfortable and affluent people nervous.
We love our numbers and they become the defining factor of all that we do. It feels that questions about the effectiveness of a ministry program are never: how are your people engaging more deeply in prayer, and scripture study; or how is authentic community being formed; how are people engaging in social activism that reflects the heart of God; how are people encountering God through communal worship; how are the sacraments shaping our ministry; how are people feeling welcome and know they can share their full lives with the leaders and one another? Instead we ask: how many people came to your ministry gathering last night? Talk about a slap in the face of the theological foundations of ministry!
One of the hardest parts about this is that our ministries and our own selves become defined and valued by how many people come. It often feels that our whole ministry and practice of ministry (meaning who we are as people and ministry practitioners) is completely defined by how many people come. It might be seen as nice that we help people pray, and create space to ask honest questions, and show up in their life events, but at the end of the day, we become valued and defined as a person and a ministry by how many walk through the doors in our weekly gathering. It is incredibly burdensome and exhausting, because at the end of the day we can’t really control who comes or doesn’t come.
The argument for numbers is often said that each number represents a person and a story. And while that is technically true, how it feels to me is that a person and their story get reduced to a number on a sheet. And that number determines how we feel about ourselves and our ministry and how others judge and perceive our ministry.
I remember coming back from a youth mission trip and when talking about the trip with several people in the church, their immediate response was “it looked like a smaller group than last year.” No questions about any transformation that happened, no questions about meaningful encounters, joyful moments, or community being strengthened and formed more deeply, but only that it’s a smaller group. We don’t look to celebrate what did happen but get sad that the group is smaller, discounting the multiple of reasons of why the group is smaller.
To me it seems that we love to idolize numbers. They are the primary way we judge whether a ministry is good or not. It creates an enormous amount of pressure on those leading ministries. And I would not be surprised if it is a contributing factor as to why some people leave the ministry. The business world loves its numbers and it’s focus on the bottom line. But the church is supposed to be different and model a different reality and different way of being.