“If you can’t count what is important, you count what you can count.”
It was a moment of spoken revelation for me during a recent PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. They said we were winning; but were we? They pointed out indicators of success, but were they counting the right things?
Though the work of building churches is an inexact parallel to war (though some might debate that based on their experiences), it caused me to ask as a leader: “Are we counting the right things as indicators of success? Are we counting what we can count, instead of what really matters?”
Perhaps the easiest thing to count is attendance. It’s measurable. It’s visible. It gives ministers security when we can say, “The house was full today.” And while I believe numbers have some value – the book of Acts tells us about the number of people coming to Christ – are numbers the best measure of success when it comes to leading people toward a lifestyle of following Jesus? On the other hand, is it possible for someone to attend every Sunday for years and not be growing as a disciple of Jesus?
Contrast that with a conversation I had with a young man this week. Though he is probably a little over 50/50 in attendance, he called to tell me about a Bible reading app with which he is connected. He said, “I love it. I read my Bible every day, and I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t stay in the Word. I read the Bible in the morning, I do the devotional each night with my wife and daughter, and since I have made the commitment to be directed by God’s Word each day, I have found my walk with Jesus more constant and faithful.” I asked myself, “Is this a good measure of spiritual success?”
Through the years I have heard a good number of sermons on church attendance, and at times I have seen Hebrews 10:25 used as a hammer over the head. (In fact, I distinctly remember a godly minister, Paul Rogers, saying at a preacher’s workshop that you can use a hammer to kill a man, or you can use it to build a bird house). Upon reflection, I am pretty sure that the passage that was used to promote attendance was misused and misapplied at times.
As I have watched people grow spiritually, however, I have come to see that success in ministry is not so much about numbers, but more about leading people toward faithfulness to Jesus in the everydayness of life–faithfulness in prayer, faithfulness in reflecting upon Scripture, faithfulness in being connected to the family of God (which is so much more than attending a service). Robby Gallaty writes, “Jesus never attempted to draw large crowds for the sake of counting heads . . . . Jesus was not interested in growing a mile wide and an inch deep. Rather, He focused on developing mature, faithful disciples who would go out and make more disciples” (Growing Up, 22). The two churches that received the highest praise in the book of Revelation were Smyrna and Philadelphia, both small churches. My guess is, they were measuring the things that mattered, not just the attendance.
The work of making disciples is slow, sometimes difficult, and less noticeable than a big crowd on Sunday. But in the end, it’s the careful and thoughtful work of disciplemaking that I believe is making the greatest difference for the Kingdom. Paul instructed Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). If every Christian could lead just one to be a follower of Jesus each year, we would change the world like the early Christians did. How are you gauging ministry success? (Our team is having conversations with ministers and church leaders weekly about disciplemaking. Contact us for a practical conversation on leading your congregation to a more productive future in fulfilling the Great Commission).