What should you do first when someone says, “it’s not about the money”?
That's right. Reach for your wallet.
Because it really is about the money.
What should you do when a church leader says, "it's not about the numbers"?
Stop and think - carefully. Then ask them, "Why not?"
Who says it's not about the numbers?
In church circles the assertion arises whenever someone casts a gimlet eye on questions of church decline, revitalization, or growth. When ministry colleagues gather socially, someone will eventually spout “it’s not about the numbers” as if this were received wisdom passed to us through the ages.
I have yet to hear the pastor of a growing church say this. At the risk of oversimplification, folks who say this fall into several categories.
- They can’t deal with the pain the numbers inflict.
- They don’t understand that numbers are symptoms; they tell us that either the church is firing on all cylinders or draw our attention to the fact that something’s broken.
- They understand but state poorly the right use of metrics (numbers aren’t an end in themselves, they are means to the end).
- They overlook their accountability to the Head of the Church.
- They organize ministry around something other than Christ’s mission.
Numbers are painful.
I suspect that the first item - the pain of looking at the numbers - explains the majority of those who claim “it’s not about the numbers.”
I remember the pain of tracking the household finances when I was in graduate school. My wife was a full-time mother and homemaker. I worked various jobs and attended school. Money was tight. Opening the bank statement, balancing our accounts, and paying the bills was an ordeal by fire. I avoided it whenever possible. In recent years my challenge has been to face the numbers on the bathroom scale. I avoid it because I don’t like what it will tell me, blithely telling myself, “Hey, you’ve been exercising and eating okay, so why bother with the scale?”
Bill Hoyt states it this way:
Most churches count. Some do not, and not counting is always a bad sign. Not counting generally indicates they do not care or have given up. It’s a little like children shooting hoops in the back yard with dad or mom. They know they can’t win, so they want to play for fun. You know the tide is changing when they suddenly decide they want to keep score.
Pastor, let’s be honest. Chances are you’ve done everything you can think of to lead your church through turnaround. You’ve read the book, attended the conferences, and maybe even taken a few classes. But the numbers tell you it’s not working.
Isn’t it time to acknowledge the fact that your claim “it’s not about the numbers” is really self-protective? You can’t bear to look at the cold, hard evidence that suggests that you’re failing in ministry.
Until we face the facts there’s nothing we can do to steer our churches away from the cliff. If we fly down the highway at 60 miles an hour in a car with curtains over the front window, eventually something bad is going to happen. Something that can’t go on forever won’t.
Yes, it is about the numbers
The Bible is clear. The numbers matter to God.
The Lord promised Abraham, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” How will we - or God for that matter - know when this promise has been kept? Surely we must know at at least two numbers:
- The total number of families of the earth.
- How many of those families have been blessed.
Heaven’s worshippers sing to God, “And have redeemed us to God by Your blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation…” How do they know this is so? When Jesus instructed us to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” how will we know if we’re making progress in being obedient?
Matthew kept an eye on the numbers. Consider the way he framed his report in Matthew 9:35–38.
35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. 36 But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. 37 Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. 38 Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”
John tracked the numbers. Was he disappointed when he watch the crowds shrink after the Bread of Life discourse (John 6)?
60 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” … 66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.
Surely there’s no need to mention Luke’s significant interest in tracking numbers. His census counts in the Book of Acts are inescapable.
Numbers tell us whether if making progress
A recent TED Talk blog explains why we must have numbers in order to tell if we’re making progress.
Once a source of common ground between individuals, government numbers now provide a starting point for contentious debate. There’s even a bill in Congress that argues against the collection of data related to racial inequality. Without this data, “how can we observe discrimination, let alone fix it?” asks Mona Chalabi.
This isn’t just about discrimination: think about how much harder it would be to have a public debate about health care if we don’t have numbers on health and poverty. Or how hard it would be to legislate on immigration if we can’t agree on how many people are entering and leaving the country. In an illustrated talk full of her signature hand-drawn data visualizations, Chalabi offers advice on how to distinguish good numbers from bad ones. As she explains, if we give up on government numbers altogether, “we’ll be making public policy decisions in the dark, using nothing but private interests to guide us.” [my emphasis]
As in government, so in church. If we give up numbers, we’ll be making decisions in the dark with nothing but personal preference to guide us.
Pastors are responsible for numbers
Pastors will stand before Jesus when he sits on the Bema Seat, as will every other believer. Jesus will be evaluating our service, based (in part) on the ROI he receives back from us.
Don’t miss the point that Jesus expects all of his followers to increase the numbers. This expectation is stated clearly in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25); he indeed tracks our “account” and looks for an increase.
26 “But his lord answered and said to him, ’You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. 27 So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest.
Who receives the praise, ”Well done, good and faithful servant“? Those who returned to the master an increased number.
Trying telling Jesus, ”but it’s not about the numbers!"
All believers, will have to give an account of the stewardship of their service. Pastors and spiritual leaders will have to render an account (Hebrews 13:17), which includes careful scrutiny of whether their service added to the harvest or not (1 Corinthians 3:5–15). Perhaps this is why James admonishes us that those who teach will face the stricter judgment (James 3:1)?
Pastors entrusted with the privilege of spiritual leadership in the church bear a terrible burden. Among other things they are responsible for what the numbers point to, what the numbers represent - a vigorous church filled with disciples actively engaged in mission which produces more disciples (John 15:16).
Responsibility for the numbers is intrinsic to pastoral ministry. They are written into your job description by him who calls. One day they will be part of your assessment.
But it’s not about the numbers per se
There is one sense it really isn’t about the numbers. More important than watching the attendance or income numbers (as if those were goals in themselves) are the numbers that show your church is moving forward in mission. If you focus on the bottom line numbers - number of attendees, giving, perhaps the number of baptisms, you’ll end up measuring the wrong things.
Elsewhere I’ve written about the vital importance of looking at the right numbers, and treating them as means to and end rather than the goal.
But these are the wrong things to count in plateaued or declining churches. Focusing on these numbers leads to feelings of defeat because they are lagging indicators. They confirm that a church has already been moving in the right direction for quite some time. But it may take several years for a plateaued church to see the numbers move, long after it has begun renewal!
So the traditional church metrics won’t help the pastor of a plateaued or declining church gauge whether his or her hard work, which hasn’t yet moved the numbers on the charts, is moving the church in the right direction. Edward Deming’s assessment about the short-sightedness of metrics-driven leadership applies to churches as well: it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.
When are the numbers wrong?
If you’re looking at lagging rather than leading indicators, you’ve got the numbers wrong. Lagging indicators tell you that existing processes either are or are not working. Leading indicators tell you that you’re moving in the right direction.
If you feel good about yourself when the numbers move the right direction and bad about yourself when they don’t, you’ve got the numbers wrong. Metrics aren’t intended to make pastors feel good; their purpose is to show us what we need to be doing differently and more effectively.
The New England Patriots didn’t have a goal of scoring 34 points in Super Bowl 51. Their objective was to win. Winning means “scoring more points than your opponent.”
The final score, 34–28, was a lagging indicator. It pointed to the fact that their game plan worked.
But throughout the game the Patriots continually monitored lots of different numbers, and adjusted the game plan accordingly. Among the numbers they tracked were:
- Passes completed
- Average yards per carry
- Quarterback efficiency
- Number of defensive sacks, knockdowns, and hurries on the Atlanta QB
- Air pressure in the football
These were the lagging metrics. These numbers told the Patriots they were moving in the right direction - toward victory.
And that was the reason they played the game.
My wife and I attend a church where the staff understands why it really is all about the numbers. Our pastors put it this way.
Every number represents a name. Every name represents a soul. Every soul is precious to God. The numbers matter.
It really is all about the numbers.
- Bill Hoyt, Effectiveness By The Numbers ↩