As a pastor, leading a church, I recognise all the characterisations that Andrew makes, both good and bad. The “how big is your church?” question is so ubiquitous that it was actually quite noteworthy for me to meet another local pastor for the first time last week and for neither of us to ask it. However, let me give here a short list of my own, in defence of numbers:
- 1. Counting keeps you honest. In my experience most church leaders are consistently optimistic about the size of their congregation, typically claiming an attendance figure something like a third more than is the reality. In contrast to ‘evangelastic’ estimating, a regular, accurate, headcount gives a helpful reality check. This also helps prevent us from using our ‘boasting number’ to describe our church - i.e., the number who came to your carol service rather than the number who normally attend.
- 2. Counting enables you to measure your fringe. Not the length of your One Direction-style haircut (topical allusion there for the sake of my teenage daughter), but those people who are not yet really part of the church, but can be found loitering in your vicinity. A healthy church will have a large fringe, but you won’t know how large unless you count. Of course, this presupposes that you also count how many church members you have, and so can calculate the size of your fringe by subtracting the number of your members from your total numbers.
- 3. Counting enables you to plan. At Gateway we have taken a headcount every Sunday since I came here, which means we now have four years of data to look at. And this means I can reasonably accurately predict which Sundays will have high, average, or low attendance. And this means that I won’t plan to do something I want the maximum number of people to be there for on a Sunday when I can expect lots of people to be missing.
- 4. Counting enables an accurate measurement of growth. I have a conviction that healthy things grow, and in church life that means both a qualitative growth (increasing Christ-like-ness) and quantative growth – so I measure everything that can be measured, of which attendance is an important measure. My growing data set means these measurements become more and more helpful.
- 5. Counting helps you keep track of who is with you. When my family set off on a trip, I don’t simply assume the driving seat in the car and pull away – I do a headcount first: “1 wife, 4 daughters, 2 dogs, yep, we’re ready to go…” Doing a headcount at church is similarly sensible.
The scriptures exhort those of us who are elders to “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet 5:2), and, as any shepherd will tell you, an important part of pastoring the sheep is to count them. Or, as Solomon puts it, “Know well the condition of your flocks” (Pr 27:23). How else would the shepherd have known he had 99 but was missing one?