I taught a class on church growth for the first time this last quarter. It was small -- 15-20 of us in a circle, discussing Donald McGavran and everything else church growth has meant since the 1960s. It was highly engaged, I simply had to introduce a topic and the conversations flowed.
One interesting conversation we had was regarding numbers. For McGavran, numbers meant accuracy, truth, the removal of spiritual language about sociological phenomena. McGavran would hear stories where 'thousands were reached with the gospel." McGavran would respond, "how many were now engaged in church life?"
In our class, filled with mostly twenty-somethings, numbers were bad news. How many are in your youth group? How big is your church? How many conversions have you had? How many came to that event? These questions, they felt, were not innocent, but were used to judge, to belittle, to control. Numbers were not innocent; they became a tool of oppression, in their experience.
We needed to take another look. Are numbers always evil? Students chimed up. Not always. A church planter from India shared that numbers sometimes help. If he hears of many coming to faith in a certain area, it might be evidence of a move of the Holy Spirit. Others shared that numbers are simply a way to get a better understanding of things that are too complex when looked at individually; in those instances, aggregates give a clearer picture.
What is counted is always imbued with theology. When we count 'butts in seats' at a church service, we implicitly raise that up as a sign of faithfulness. We track it, it must be important. But what if what we counted dealt with Jesus-like activities? What if we counted how many in our congregation did activities for the poor, opened their house to their neighbors, participated in acts of justice? In this way, what we track in our churches is in synch with our stated theology; our numbers 'in church' are those who follow Jesus into the world. In our church growth class, we came to the conclusion that when we track kingdom-like activity instead of static church membership rolls, we come closer to McGavran's goal of numbers as a window into the work of the Holy Spirit.