The Funny Thing About Numbers

A math professor friend of mine likes to joke that real math doesn’t use numbers. The church could use a similar sort of approach. Do real churches need numbers?

Attending a Conference meeting at a church about an hour from where I live, I couldn’t help but notice the large timeline painted on the fellowship hall wall. It was huge, taking up a large, long wall of the room.

The timeline included a lot of important events for the church, like when an addition was built and certain stained glass windows were installed. The timeline also highlighted several numbers—the date for record setting attendance in the Sunday School (1962), along with the number that set the “record,” and the date and number for record attendance at worship services, which happened on Easter Sunday in 1960.

Presumably, the numbers were included in this large display as a way of signaling points of pride for the congregation. Now, perhaps, those numbers serve as an opportunity for the heaving a heavy sigh. Oh, how things have changed. I’m sure all of those “records” now seem wildly out of reach, in a church that is part of the national decline of mainline churches and yet more complicated by the decline in overall population of the area.

What do numbers truly say about a church? What sort of reality do they convey? What, if anything, do numbers tell us about “real” church?

In conversations I’ve had over the years, I’ve heard over and over again the sense that more is not only better, but more suggests “success,” or at least that the church that has more, especially more people, is doing something good or right.

I know how alluring the numbers game can be. I, for one, will admit that I notice that worship at Old South—especially when we are worshiping in our sanctuary—feels noticeably better when there are more people. There’s something about sharing the worship experience with a larger group—singing the hymns with a louder voice, saying the prayers with more people—that makes worship feel somehow something more. More of what, I’m not sure.  Perhaps it’s that it feels more compelling, or meaningful, or affirming, or all of those things. Yet, what do those numbers really mean?

Churches, like so many other human enterprises, can’t seem to help to associate success or failure, goodness or badness, with numbers, even beyond the notion that the “more the merrier.” It’s as if the numbers also indicate something along the lines of relationship with God, as if more people bring more of God’s blessing.

But, there’s nothing scriptural that indicates anything along the lines of God loving the bigger church, or God’s grace falling more on the church with the full parking lot. We are told that Jesus had great compassion for the large group of 5000, and that he fed them, but there’s no indication that Jesus showed any preference for the larger group over the small one.   In fact, there are ways through which the New Testament conveys respect and appreciation for smaller numbers—“for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

At this time of year, we ought to be especially aware of those important smaller numbers. At the crucifixion, only a small group of close followers, all women, chose to stay and watch until the end. And on Easter morning, it was again only a very small group that encountered the risen Christ.

The reality of church is that “real” church isn’t about numbers. Whether a church has many or just a few, church is about relationship with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit. It may be that more people in the sanctuary makes for a more rewarding worship experience, and that more people are helpful to a church’s bottom line, but we ought not be confused about what the numbers mean (or not) and what truly matters in being a church of Jesus Christ.

Real church is focused on sharing the love of Christ. Real church is focused on how it remains true to its mission. Whether there are many or just a few, real church is focused on faithfulness to the Gospel. Real church is not tempted by the notions of this world that more is, of its own accord, better and that more indicates success in the eyes of God.

Do real churches need numbers? Sure, more people are nice to have. But, more doesn’t convey anything about actual faithfulness or ability to be the church of Jesus Christ.





About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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