Yes, pastors need to keep accurate records of church attendance, offering, salvations, baptisms, small groups and anything else that has a numerical component. Those numbers are an essential ingredient in having a clear understanding of what we’re doing and how to do it better.
And yes, church growth is a good thing. For the body of Christ as a whole and for individual churches and ministries.
But we need to be wary about chasing the crowd.
Numbers cannot measure ministry success.
When you’re in business to make widgets, you live and die by the numbers. But we’re pastors. We’re not in business. And we’re not making widgets. As John Piper reminds us, “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals”.
So yes, we need to count people. But people aren’t numbers. And numbers aren’t people.
People matter more than numbers. And people, unlike crowds, can’t be measured.
When we overemphasize the size of the crowd that came to church, we run the risk of devaluing the unique gifts and needs of the individuals who made up the crowd.
Jesus never did that.
The Feeding of the 5,000 – I Do Not Thinks It Means What You Think It Means
The biggest recorded crowd in Jesus’ ministry was when he fed the 5,000. Church growth proponents like to remind us that someone must have counted the crowd. This has been used to bolster the idea that crowd numbers mattered to Jesus and should matter to us.
But has anyone examined that claim seriously? Because there are issues with it and the implications we’re drawing from it.
First, Jesus wasn’t trying to draw a crowd. As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth, “Jesus actually spent more time trying to avoid crowds than trying to draw them. …The reason Jesus had to perform a miracle to feed the 5,000 was because they were in a ‘remote place‘ where Jesus had gone to escape the crowds.” (Chapter 11 – A New Way to Define Success)
Second, whoever did the counting, only counted adult men, marginalizing the women and children.
How would that method of counting have happened? Did the disciples of Jesus walk through a crowd of men, women and children marking them off, “2111, 2112, child, woman, child, child, 2113, 2114…”? And if they did, is there any possible way that Jesus would not have come down on that kind of exclusionary record-keeping with spectacularly righteous indignation ?
Third, 5,000 was an approximation, which means no one really counted the crowd. Here’s the verse. “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.” (Matthew 14:21). 5,000 is an accurate estimate (it’s in the bible, after all), but an estimate, nonetheless. And it still doesn’t excuse whoever made the estimate from leaving the women and children out.
Fourth, crowd numbers were never mentioned by Jesus. Not in this instance. Not ever. (Editoral Note: Well, he did once. See the update below).
Can anyone even imagine Jesus addressing his disciples after this miracle in the following all-too-familiar, church-staff-meeting manner?
“Great work today, guys. We’ve crunched the numbers and there were 5,000 men, making it our biggest weekday crowd ever! 2,235 made decisions to follow me, 870 were healed and 3 had demons exorcised. Plus, a whole bunch of women and kids were saved and healed too. And how about that miraculous feeding! That went really well, for a last-minute audible. And we’ve got 3, 6, 9… 12 baskets left over. Let’s use that food as a seed for the next meeting. If we fed 5,000 with one basket of food, let’s enlarge our vision and feed 60,000 next time!”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the thought.
UPDATE: A helpful, alert reader named James pointed out that Jesus did reference this incident and the feeding of the 4,000 at a later time. Click here for James’ comment and my reply.
The Risk of Valuing Crowds
No, Jesus didn’t abandon the crowds who needed him. Even though the disciples encouraged him to do so. But he didn’t go chasing them, either.
There’s nothing wrong with big crowds or big churches. In fact, there’s a lot that’s right when massive numbers of people want to gather to worship Jesus. And I’ve learned a lot from megachurches and their leaders.
But, as I’ve mentioned previously, there’s no evidence that thousands of people meeting in one healthy big church is any better (or worse) than the same number of people meeting in hundreds of healthy Small Churches.
The value of what God is doing in people’s lives cannot be accurately measured by how many sat in a weekend church service, in a discipleship class, or on a hillside in Galilee.
When we try to calculate the value of spiritual things primarily or exclusively through numerical means, we often end up with too low a view of the people, too high a view of the crowd and a great deal of pride about ourselves and our programs. And we can deceive ourselves that we have more control than we actually do.
Jesus never told us to gather a crowd. He told us to make disciples. Whether in large groups, small groups or one-on-one. That’s what Jesus did and that’s what we’re supposed to do.
So keep counting people, because people count.
But never forget that what’s most important about people is beyond measure.
So what do you think? Do pastors pay too much attention to the size of the crowd?
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