(Editor’s note: This post has had a significant update. It occurs in the final section.)
It’s a moment that can only happen because of the internet.
Yesterday I clicked on my RSS feed (a list of the blogs I monitor) and the first two headlines I saw struck me like a blow to the head. It was as if a cross-generational theological argument had erupted in some weird ecclesiastical, time-travel Twilight Zone.
The first headline was, “Packer: Too Many Churches in North America Are Playing the Number Game.” In the article, noted theologian J.I. Packer was cited as opposing our obsession with numbers in the church. I smiled and clicked “save to read later”.
Then I saw the headline for the next article. It was “Why Church Numbers Matter”. In it, Charles Spurgeon, perhaps the most celebrated sermonizer since the Apostle Paul, was being quoted about how important it is to use numbers to measure church success.
My first thought? Sometimes my posts just write themselves.
This juxtaposition was purely coincidental. Obviously, Spurgeon and Packer weren’t actually having a dispute (hard to do, since Spurgeon died in 1892). And the authors who quoted them weren’t intending on going head-to-head either. The articles appeared on different websites and it was purely random chance that they came out on the same day and appeared next to each other on my RSS amalgamation.
Nevertheless, they did appear that way, so let’s have some fun and see what happens when we line them up, shall we?
Packer vs. Spurgeon: How Much Do Church Attendance Numbers Matter?
The first article, posted by Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition blog, featured these words from J. I. Packer:
I have found that churches, pastors, seminaries, and parachurch agencies throughout North America are mostly playing the numbers game—that is, defining success in terms of numbers of heads counted or added to those that were there before. Church-growth theorists, evangelists, pastors, missionaries, news reporters, and others all speak as if
(1) numerical increase is what matters most;
(2) numerical increase will surely come if our techniques and procedures are right;
(3) numerical increase validates ministries as nothing else does;
(4) numerical increase must be everyone’s main goal.
I detect four unhappy consequences of this.
First, big and growing churches are viewed as far more significant than others.
Second, parachurch specialists who pull in large numbers are venerated, while hard-working pastors are treated as near-nonentities.
Third, lively laymen and clergy too are constantly being creamed off from the churches to run parachurch ministries, in which, just because they specialize on a relatively narrow front, quicker and more striking results can be expected.
Fourth, many ministers of not-so-bouncy temperament and not-so-flashy gifts return to secular employment in disillusionment and bitterness, concluding that the pastoral life of steady service is a game not worth playing.
In all of this I seem to see a great deal of unmortified pride, either massaged, indulged, and gratified, or wounded, nursed, and mollycoddled. Where quantifiable success is god, pride always grows strong and spreads through the soul as cancer sometimes gallops through the body.
Shrinking spiritual stature and growing moral weakness thence result, and in pastoral leaders, especially those who have become sure they are succeeding, the various forms of abuse and exploitation that follow can be horrific.
Orienting all Christian action to visible success as its goal, a move which to many moderns seems supremely sensible and businesslike, is thus more a weakness in the church than its strength; it is a seedbed both of unspiritual vainglory for the self-rated succeeders and of unspiritual despair for the self-rated failures, and a source of shallowness and superficiality all round.
The way of health and humility is for us to admit to ourselves that in the final analysis we do not and cannot know the measure of our success the way God sees it. Wisdom says: leave success ratings to God, and live your Christianity as a religion of faithfulness rather than an idolatry of achievement.
- J.I. Packer
Thank you, Dr. Packer. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Seriously, I’ve tried and I haven’t been able to say it better myself.
The second article, posted by Chuck Lawless on Thom Rainer’s blog, featured this quote from Charles Spurgeon:
I am not among those who decry statistics, nor do I consider that they are productive of all manner of evil; for they do much good if they are accurate, and if men use them lawfully. It is a good thing for people to see the nakedness of the land through statistics of decrease, that they may be driven on their knees before the Lord to seek prosperity; and, on the other hand, it is by no means an evil thing for workers to be encouraged by having some account of results set before them. I should be very sorry if the practice of adding up, and deducting, and giving in the net result were to be abandoned, for it must be right to know our numerical condition. It has been noticed that those who object to the process are often brethren whose unsatisfactory reports should somewhat humiliate them ….
The fact is, you can reckon very correctly if the figures are honest, and if all circumstances are taken into consideration if there is no increase, you may calculate with considerable accuracy that there is not much being done; and if there is a clear decrease among a growing population, you may reckon that the prayers of the people and the preaching of the minister are not of the most powerful kind.
- Charles H. Spurgeon
From this short statement, Lawless gleaned the following five points (I’ll let you check out the entire post to find out how he fills each of these in):
- Numbers are one means of evaluation
- Decreased numbers should drive us to prayer
- Increased numbers should lead to rejoicing and encouragement
- Numbers require us to ask hard questions
- Numbers help us evaluate the type of growth a church experiences
Where Packer & Spurgeon Agree
So who’s right in this clash of ecclesiastical titans?
Actually, I was struck more by what they had in common than where they disagreed.
As expected from such thoughtful Christian leaders, Packer and Spurgeon both stayed away from the unreasonable fringes of this issue. Neither one believes numbers are an end-all-other-arguments measurement for church health. Likewise, neither believes that numbers have nothing to tell us about church health.
Numbers have some value. No one argues that. The separation between them, such as it is, comes from where each person draws the line about exactly how valuable numbers are.
A Difference of Emphasis, More than a Disagreement
What struck me about each of the quotes was that I found myself agreeing with both of them. Their “disagreement”, such as it is, wasn’t on the facts, but a difference in what each man emphasized.
(Correction by addition: In the rush of writing and editing three posts every week, sometimes critical issues get overlooked. That happened with this post. There are aspects of Spurgeon’s statement that I disagree with. This was pointed put by an alert reader’s comment, which I responded to with thanks. You can read that exchange in the comment section, below. Click here to go directly to it.)
Spurgeon emphasized that there are places in church life where numbers have value. Decreasing numbers should wave a caution flag, while an increase in salvations is cause for rejoicing.
Packer emphasized that our current obsession with numbers in the North American church has given us a skewed value system. When we obsess over butts-in-the-seats growth, we produce pride in the “winners” and a de-valuing of the “losers”.
Spurgeon and Packer are both right.
Wow. Using the internet across the generations to bring great minds together, not tear us apart.
Maybe my RSS feed wasn’t so “random” after all.
So what do you think? What do you tend to emphasize about church numbers? And why?
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