The numbers don’t tell the story

Many church leaders function as if the primary purpose of the church is to grow the church. I seriously question that.

I received notification from my denomination (The United Methodist Church) this week that our congregation is supposed to set measurable goals for 2012 in 5 areas of discipleship –

  1. Disciples in worship – worship attendance;
  2. Disciples making new disciples – number of professions of faith;
  3. Disciples growing in their faith – number of small groups;
  4. Disciples engaging in mission – number of disciples doing outreach in the community and the world; and
  5. Disciples sharing their resources for mission – amount of money given to mission.

I cannot help but notice that every one of these “goals” is a number, and for the most part not a good metric of discipleship. As a guy who, back in the dark ages of monochrome monitors used to write Lotus macros that calculated the commissions of a sales staff, these “goals” sound similar to the targets we set that when exceeded would earn a salesperson an extra percentage point or two of commission. This is not the “Great Commission” Jesus was talking about in Matthew 28:16-20.

The very first “church” was far less concerned with generating numbers than they were with sharing a message they knew had the power to change the world. My fear is that we have become so enamored with maintaining an organization that we have forgotten the love we had at first (Revelation 2:4). Are we willing to risk the institution for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

I am tired of working to build numbers of an organization that is seen as increasingly arcane and irrelevant to so many in the world. I am frustrated by the church as a “community of saints” seeking to separate from the grit of the real world – being so heavenly minded we are of no earthly use. One of the most jarring images I received from the Barna Group’s study published as David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons’ UnChristian, is that those who are not connected with the church see the church as disinterested in the things that matter the most to them and most interested in things that don’t matter to them at all.

I am convinced my denomination, and the church in general, is addressing a symptom rather than the cause. Our numbers are not decreasing because we have failed to set numerical goals for attendance, membership, small groups, etc. Our numbers are declining because we have ceased to be the church we were created to be. We are building fewer hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, but more auditoriums for worship. We are investing more in Certificates of Deposit and Mutual Funds and less in programs that feed, clothe, and house the community. We add nursery schools, youth programs, and senior ministries in hopes they will build our budgets and attendance averages when they should be viewed as missional outreaches to the communities in which we reside. In many instances we have become an insular institution working diligently for self-survival.

Let me clearly state that I am proud of my denomination that is on the forefront of social justice and has one of the most efficient missional organizations on the planet – the United Methodist Committee on Relief. What our denomination has forgotten though is that these large organizations are only part of our mission. Our primary mission should be the local church serving the community in which it resides. Our denomination would do well to stop asking “how many have come” and start asking “how many have been served.”