Why Are Leaders So Obsessed With Church Size? image

Why Are Leaders So Obsessed With Church Size?

Why are so many church leaders obsessed with church size? It seems an inescapable reality, at least in the circles I move in, that the number of people who attend a church on Sunday is the most commonly accepted metric for appraising how well a church is doing, even amongst people who openly admit that numbers shouldn't be the main thing. Size of congregation is one of the first things leaders will ask other leaders about, when trying to gauge how things are going; it's one of the first things leaders will say about their own church, when trying to communicate faith or vision; it's an almost indispensable part of the mini-bio for leadership conference speakers ("Mr X leads a church with Y people attending on a Sunday"). Here I am writing about it, yet I still find it hard, when asked "how are things in Eastbourne and Seaford?" by a fellow leader, to stop our weekly attendance number from being part of my answer. Many readers may share my experience. Yet almost nobody I know actually thinks that church attendance figures are the best, or even a particularly helpful, barometer of church health. So why do we do it?

I’ve heard a number of theories, some positive, some negative. On the positive side, some say that it’s because numbers represent people, and people matter to God. Which they do, but that doesn’t explain why I assume a large congregation is more successful than a small number; gather five congregations in a town together and you’d have a much bigger number, but no more people overall, so I don’t think that can be it. Others make a very similar point about unbelievers getting saved, but that involves the assumption that the bigger you are, the more people get converted in your church, which both anecdotally and empirically doesn’t ring true (and why do people so rarely say, “X people have been baptised this year”?) When it comes to introducing leaders, some reason that church size is simply a way of establishing the leadership credentials and gift of the individual; but again, this ignores important dynamics like location and history (seeing a village church grow from 100 to 200 might require more leadership gift than maintaining a city congregation of 300, for instance), not to mention making it sound like Jesus wasn’t a very effective leader (120? Pah!) Not only that, but the sceptic would make the obvious point that there are church leaders who gather thousands by preaching a false gospel, so how can size indicate health? Tricky.
The sceptic’s explanations, however, are equally problematic. For a lot of observers, church size is all about ego: you want to believe that you’re better than others, so you count people (often, with an implicit or explicit “just like King David did, and look what happened to him”). But Luke counted people in the Jerusalem church, which doesn’t seem to have been about ego; lots of pastors of smaller churches quote numbers as a way of lauding pastors of larger churches, rather than their own ministries; and I also can’t help noticing that the people who throw this one around almost always base their accusations on reports of megachurch pastors they don’t know, and aren’t qualified to judge, rather than on interactions with people they do know. Alternatively, there’s the similar view that numbers are just a worldly thing that have crept in with the commercialisation, individualism, celebrity adulation and materialism of the culture (fascinatingly, here’s a rare issue on which many very conservative and very progressive Christians tend to agree). Aside from the awkward counterexample of Luke, though, there is also the (admittedly rather nebulous) point that many leaders of large churches fall over themselves to explain that numbers aren’t the main thing, and that spiritual growth matters much more, which doesn’t fit well with the “infected by worldly values” view. So I don’t think it’s that, either.
My suspicion is that our preoccupation with numbers is driven by four things, and that the fourth of them is the biggest. The first is that, in a group of churches where the size of congregation drives income and hence the staff base (which is not true in many more established denominations), larger congregations provide greater job security and opportunities to specialise for their leaders, two things which many (though by no means all) church leaders aspire to. When a leader first plants a church, their ability to work full time for the church in the first place requires the church to grow to (say) 80 people; if they get to 120, they may be able to take on another pastoral staff member; by the time 500 or more are gathering, a sizeable staff team with specialist skills will be in place, enabling the key leader to focus much more on what they do best. For many, this would be appealing, and would therefore be seen as “successful”.
The second is that a number is one of the most rapid ways of placing your church in some sort of context for people who have never been there. In fact, most church leaders in most denominations will be able to get an intuitive sense of what a church will “feel” like from just two words: the name of the denomination, and the number of people who attend the church. Try it: Methodist, 70. Newfrontiers, 350. Anglican, 1100. Pentecostal, 8000. More than almost any other shorthand, this enables the unacquainted church leader to get an idea for what the church in question is like: its meetings, its leadership challenges, its building(s), its staff, its flavour. In fact, as Tim Keller has argued, the number probably tells you more about what the church “feels” like, and the responsibilities of the leader you’re talking to, than the name of the denomination. But although this may explain why we talk about numbers so much, I doubt it can explain the sense of success that is associated with uttering a larger number rather than a smaller one. I suspect it’s a factor, but it can’t be the main one.
Thirdly, it is hard to argue with the fact that in general, and all other things being equal, more gifted leaders lead larger churches. All other things are often not equal, of course, which makes this statement fraught with risks (not least of which is the danger of suggesting that the guy who leads a church of eleven Muslim converts in Mogadishu is somehow “less gifted” or “less of a leader” than John Hagee or Joel Osteen). But this should not blind us to the fact that, on a level playing field, it probably requires a greater measure of leadership gift to lead a church of 2000 than a church of 20 (although the leader of 20 may well be more gifted in many other areas than the leader of 2000). The two most gifted out-and-out leaders of my acquaintance in Newfrontiers, P-J Smyth and Steve Tibbert, also lead our two largest churches, and those two facts are surely connected. So it is understandably tempting for church leaders to appraise the success of their leadership ministry by the number of people in their congregation. (Whether they should or not, of course, is an entirely different question!)
But I suspect that the main reason we are tempted to measure leadership success by church size is simple: it’s because it’s easy to count. Church leaders are subject to identity wobbles and the desire for career fulfilment like anyone else; we are often insecure; we want affirmation; we want to know that we are doing a good job. In our previous job(s), we were appraised, assessed, promoted, given pay hikes, and so on, and a tremendous sense of security came from knowing how we were doing, as measured by some apparently objective standard. Then we started working for the church, and almost all of this disappeared. Mostly, we were fine with that, because we knew that our security was in God, that he was the one who was building his church, and that he cared more about disciples than deliverables, and more about obedience than objectives. But the desire for a metric of some sort, a measurable way of telling us how we are doing, never quite left us. And the number of people who came to our Sunday meetings was the easiest one to count.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider this thought experiment. Imagine there was a universally accepted, easily identifiable measurement for doctrinal purity in your church: the Theological Accuracy Quotient (TAQ). Imagine, also, that there was a church equivalent of what financial analysts call Return on Net Assets (RONA): the spiritual growth the church had experienced, given the resources it had. Say there was a Worship Experience Index (WEI), and an Evangelistic Zeal Coefficient (EZC), and a Godliness and Prayerfulness Assessment (GPA). In this scenario, would the rather pedestrian “numbers on a Sunday” get a look in? I suspect we’d find that conversations in the toilets at leaders conferences quickly started including phrases like “Hi Mike, how’s your WEI at the moment?”, or “God has really blessed us; we have a GPA of 4.0 at the moment”. Attendance figures would be so last season.
None of which is to say, by the way, that we shouldn’t count people (at Kings, we do every week), or that leaders who do count are insecure, or that we should never ask people how big their church is for fear of feeding the beast. But it is to say two things. One, our attendance figures may be helpful to plan for the future, and helpful to orientate others, but not to measure our success, far less our personal value. And two, as the most successful church planter of them all pointed out, “with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3-4). Thank God for that.

Andrew Wilson’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, is out now, published by IVP who are offering a generous discount for readers of this blog.

← Prev article
Next article →