One census was ordered by God. The other was instigated by Satan.
God said that numbers do matter. He ordered a counting of all the people of Israel shortly after the people fled Egypt. You can see the specific mandate in Exodus 30:12-14. An entire book of the Bible is devoted to the progress and results of the census. The book is aptly named Numbers.
But another census of the people of Israel was clearly instigated by Satan. The Bible is straightforward on that matter in 1 Chronicles 21:1: “Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel.” Apparently, David ordered the count for his own self-aggrandizement.
The point is simple. Numbers and counting are either good or evil according to the motivation of those counting.
We are in a historical cycle in the evangelical world where the mood is to disparage counting, attendance, and other numerical metrics. Consequently, we are in danger of losing accountability that is inherent with following numbers.
How are we able to discern the growing disdain for numbers and counting? Here are ten issues that are indicative of the movement to disparage metrics.
1. An increasing number of comments that the church is the people, not the building. Of course, the church is not a building. Of course, the church is the people of God. But those people are commanded to gather somewhere. That gathering place is usually a building. This issue is often expressed as a reason not to count our worship attendance. It’s a poor excuse.
2. An increasing number of comments that the church should focus on sending not attending. This argument is fallacious. It puts missionary sending to the community and beyond in opposition to gathering for worship. It’s both/and, not either/or.
3. Numbers for bragging rights. Again, the issue is one of motive. David obviously wanted to brag about the size of his kingdom. The problem was his heart, not counting people.
4. Failure to count group attendance. If you want to gauge the health of your church, a good metric is weekly group attendance. If you are not counting weekly group attendance, you are missing the opportunity to determine the commitment of your core members.
5. The priority of ministry over numbers. Again, this argument is fallacious. It suggests that a church should do ministry instead of counting, for example, worship attendance. This argument was used by a number of mainline churches for around 50 years. They maintained the argument until there were no members left to do ministry.
6. Counting is legalistic. Anything can turn legalistic without the right motive: reading the Bible, sharing your faith, giving, and others. At the risk of redundancy, it is a question of motive and the heart.
7. COVID! While I do not want to minimize the tragedy of COVID, I fear we will begin to use it as an excuse for waning commitment to the church. Those church leaders (and other organizational leaders) who learn to pivot and adjust to a new reality will see the greatest fruit.
8. It’s about the core. Those articulating this argument communicate that fewer is better. Those who are committed will attend regularly. We should not worry about the others, the argument goes. But we need the less committed to attend church to become more committed. We need the non-Christians to attend church to hear the gospel.
9. Waning and unreported conversions. Most North American congregations are seeing fewer conversions. Most of them have no accountability because they fail to report the number of conversions.
10. No published worship and small group attendance. That which is reported gets noticed. That which is noticed gets attention. That which gets attention gets better.
Evangelical churches are repeating the history of mainline churches. They are devising reasons to excuse declining attendance. In doing so, they are implicitly saying the gathered church is not important.
Robert Hudnut, a mainline writer from 1975, argued that it is a good sign that people are leaving churches. In his book, Church Growth Is Not the Point, he said, “the loss of growth statistics has meant increase in the growth of the gospel.”
His argument was symptomatic of dying mainline churches 50 years ago. A half-century later, evangelical churches are dying and using the same rationale.
Numbers do matter. Especially when the motive is right, and the heart is pure.