For church leaders and especially lead pastors, there’s a lingering question which many of us despise. We know it’s coming in those introductory conversations. It’s a question I often tried to avoid while leading a local church myself, but I could never completely circumvent the inevitable.
The question is this: How big is your church? The question was asked in a lot of ways, of course. What do you run on Sunday? What’s your average attendance? How many members are there?
Perhaps you’re wondering why I think this is a bad question, or already disagreeing with me that it is. What’s wrong with numbers? After all, there is a book in the bible with its name, and the New Testament details numbers of crowds that followed Jesus around as he performed his earthly ministry. The answer is, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with numbers inherently. I hear (and tend to agree with) people that say, “We count people because people count”. Perhaps a bit trite, but quite true nonetheless. Numbers do have a value to them, and they can tend to show us things that are working and things that are not – although we must always be careful to assume the why behind what seems to be working or attracting more people. A growing church doesn’t necessarily represent a healthy one.
The reality is, however, that the church in our context has become increasingly competitive, and that is in fact an inherently bad thing. Here’s what I was thinking every time the numbers question would come up. I would either think that this pastor is judging me (me personally, that is) or he thinks that I’m judging him (him personally, that is). Often, I would assume both. The problem with numbers in churches is that these numbers are often used to validate the identity of the pastor. There, I said it. The truth is – and we all know this – the church has little to do with the pastor, and his value is determined the exact same way every other follower’s of Christ is; by Jesus. Our value isn’t in our work, or our title, or our bank account, or a car, house, boat, kid, spouse, etc. Our value and identity is solely fixed in the person and work of Jesus. As we see mega church pastors dropping like flies, this concept is becoming more and more real.
I must admit, that I was an instigator of the question as much as I was a victim of it. When trying to grasp an understanding of a fellow local church, there just never seemed to be a better option, perhaps other than outright avoidance.
Allow me to propose an alternative question, one that I am attempting to be the first one I ask of pastors-freshly-acquainted. The question is this: How are you seeing God shape the neighborhood your church is in? Of course, there are other ways to ask it. What are you doing in your neighborhood? How is God redeeming and restoring the neighborhood where your church campus is? How are the people of your church engaging their respective neighborhoods and/or communities?
Maybe this is a clearer alternative to tell the story of a church.
After all, Sunday’s should never define a church. The church (aka, the collective gathering of local missionaries) should be defined by what happens Monday through Saturday, and Sunday simply becomes an celebration of what God is doing in and through them as Jesus restores the community he’s placed the church within. If this is a good working definition of the church (or a definition of the proper description of a local church) then what other more appropriate questions would we ask of each other? Whether your church is running 10 or 10,000, you can have a profound impact on the neighborhood where you reside. All you need to do is ask, “How is God shaping the neighborhood(s) that we gather in, and what’s our part in the process?”
By God’s grace, our local churches can add great value to our cities, and maybe it will all start with a new question.