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Counting Heads, Counting Churches

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

It is not uncommon for evangelists to measure their success by counting the number of decisions made for Christ, or for pastors to measure their success by the number of people sitting in the pews on Sunday.  Both of these are inaccurate measures of success because they indicate little about genuine spiritual life.  But on the mission field another variation of the numbers game has developed: counting churches.

Among some advocates of church planting movements (CPM), it is not uncommon to hear reports about how many churches are planted here and there in such-and-such (short) period of time.  The rapid multiplication of churches is seen as evidence of the work of God in bringing many people to Christ.  Everyone is quick to shout their apparent successes from the rooftops, but neither missionaries, evangelists, nor pastors are as diligent in their reporting when new churches fold, new converts disappear, or attendees make for the back door of the church.  

The fact that multiple new churches are being planted rapidly doesn’t mean that those churches are either healthy or stable.  In fact, some (many?) of them may disappear as quickly as they appeared.  In even the best, most biblically sound evangelistic endeavor you will have some rate of attrition, but the more eager you are to get churches planted quickly, the lower your standard will be for church stability, health, and leadership.  And that is a set-up for nominalism, syncretism, or the simple disappearance of groups that may not have been churches to begin with.  

But why would a missionary begin to plant church(es) and push them to stand on their own too quickly when they are not really ready?  Could it be that reporting a lot of new churches looks good on the reports sent home, and to other missionaries?  The long process of discipleship and leadership development is not glorious and is often gory.  Many times it doesn’t make for exciting reporting, especially when you are doing the same things over and over again, month in and month out - preaching, teaching, home visitation, leading music, etc.  But if you are always giving birth to new churches, that sounds really good.  It sounds like God is really moving in your area, and in your ministry.  Never mind that those newborn churches are left to fend for themselves before they reach toddlerhood, and some end up dying altogether.  I mean, hey, they were born, right?

There is nothing inherently wrong with keeping statistics and a good shepherd should know who his sheep are, where they are, and what they are doing.  But a desire for stats can be motivated by pride.  And that is sin.  Please note that I am not saying that keeping statistics is wrong.  I am saying that sometimes our motivation for keeping statistics, and counting heads and churches is wrong.  It stems from pride, from a desire to feel like God is working through your ministry, or a desire to justify one's work and methods in the eyes of others. It is this type of wrongly-motivated number counting that God punished David for in 1 Chronicles 21:

“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.” But Joab said, “May the LORD add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?” But the king’s word prevailed against Joab. So Joab departed and went throughout all Israel and came back to Jerusalem. And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword. But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab. But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. And David said to God, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.”” (1 Chronicles 21:1–8 ESV)

If God is bringing people to Christ and planting new churches, that is fantastic.  Tell the world.  But let us be careful to focus on biblical faithfulness to the mission, and on loving people into Christ-like maturity, letting the numbers fall where they may.  Big numbers with a high attrition rate is no crown of glory in God’s sight.  Faithfulness to God’s call, no matter how many talents we start off with, is what our Lord will look at on the final day.

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