Monday, April 19, 2010

Can we please talk about numbers?

I was once asked:

If your church was given a million dollars with the stipulation that it was to be used for "missional outreach" how would your church spend it? Or a similar question: If God had suddenly sent 500 new members to your church, would you have the ministry infrastructure to integrate them into the life of the congregation?

Both of these questions were asked under the heading: "Be careful what you pray for."


For all my sound and fury about the need for more missional thinking and acting in the church, these questions made me realize that they signify nothing. I would have no idea what to do with a million dollars. 500 new members walking through the doors on one Sunday would be a ministry nightmare. 

But if you read the Book of Acts, you'll see that it's not as if such an event is without precedent.

It makes me wonder if our churches are designed NOT to grow. That they're designed for efficiency rather than growth. It's a truism in organizational theory that organizations are perfectly designed to achieve the results they're getting. And if churches are fighting off decline and losing, then maybe it's time to think about how we organize ourselves. We are declining, but we're very efficient about it.

I know, I know, we shouldn't even be talking about growing churches. I know the arguments: It's a surrender to the culture's consumerist ideology. Growth turns people into pawns. Ministry into a business. Pastors into CEOs. We follow Christ crucified, not corporate titans. Our job is to run the race, not to win it. We don't count noses, we bear fruit. We don't take attendance, we care for others. We are a prophetic people. A disciple community. A royal priesthood. A holy nation. We are in this world, but not of this world.

That true. As far as it goes.

And while numbers don't tell us everything, they do tell us something. Numbers tell us who is contributing to Christ's church. They tell us who God is calling into community. They tell us that all these unique, gifted, children of God have encountered the gospel, and that God is doing something in their lives, and using them for the growth of God's kingdom of justice, mercy, forgiveness, and peace.

Numbers = people. 

People = God's beloved children. Fellow workers in God's vineyard.

If churches are growing simply to build a "successful" ministry, then I want no part of it. But if churches are growing because they are making devoted followers of Jesus, fellow kingdom builders, co-workers with God in the New Creation, then count me in. And I say, the more the merrier.

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