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December 12, 2006


John Fanous

Ryan, great to read your posts. I was just hanging out with Dana Cunliffe and your name came up!

My question for you is: can't we count both? If we know that 25 ppl in our church are doing missional activity (e.g., caring for the poor), that's great. But if we also know that 100 ppl are part of our weekly gathering, then that 25 number means something even more. I'm much more of a both/and kind of guy than an either/or. I hear that what you are saying is that we tend to count attendance as our "success" number, when, in fact, there are other aspects of church life that are closer to what counts to Jesus. But I believing counting different aspects of our churches give us a good overview.


I had an interesting conversation with one Bishop in Malaysia once and we talked about whether many so called "church growth" proponents or pastors have "detoured" from McGravan's original intentions and framework.

Interestingly, McGravan's insights were birthed out of his experience in India. But when most people think of The "church growth movement" they associate it more with the American entrepreneurial spirit.

brad wright

I view numbers as just another way to describe and observe. So, if a church has a meeting, and afterwards someone asks how it went. Few would raise an eyebrow if the pastor gave a qualitative description, e.g., good, bad, exciting, boring.... Why be concerned about using numbers in a similar manner?

Now, I'm in the people-numbers business, so I'm probably biased, but for me all data is worth hearing, only some worth believing. Numbers & impressions, let's hear them.

Maybe it's an issue of balance... one could ignore numbers, with the problems identified in Ryan's post, or one can put numbers above all else. Maybe the ideal is in the middle.

Makeesha Fisher

fantastic! I am encouraged that we are already doing this in our congregation.


It's not numbers so much, as mensuration in general. We like to measure, because measurement gives us a handle, some kind of rational basis on which to decide... mostly on success or not. So measurement is part of our finitude, part of our inherent need for affirmation, for love.

We have a tyranny of numbers in our education system - governments and parents wanting to boil a complex, relational activity down to a single 'performance indicator'. Why? Because in an economic world, it's measurement and numbers that have power.

The Infinite cannot be measured, counted, boxed or fully rationalised. He loves. Beyond. Measure. 'How wide and long and high and deep...?' We can't tell.

How do we resolve this tension? We never quite will. Numbers aren't evil; just tyrannical. They cancel the debate down to its lowest common denominator. When we use them, which we should, we should do so with one eye on the infinite. Especially at Advent, when one tiny thing, visited by two, and three, and years later followed by 12, became Zero, to raise us to the power of love.


These are good and interesting thoughts. In the past I have facilitated (non-faith) organisations, and often asked the question “What does your organisation measure?” With a little work, the group come to realise that their organisation measures non-numeric things more than numeric things. The better question for some groups is then “what does your organisation reward?” … this can prompt some real soul searching, as what an organisation rewards is what it will get. Tragically, and dangerously, many of reward systems are unconscious. In essence I have come to believe that what groups reward are specific behaviours, which, more often than not, have not been defined or explicitly named, but are immensely powerful. This is where I then branch off into some of Walter Wink’s thinking…


One reality about the numbers game with the church that always checks me is the fact this isn't yet another Evangelical created priority. We may dislike the way numbers are used and pursued, but it is in our primary text on the church we get this emphasis. Numbers as a description of the success of the Gospel are mentioned about 13 times in the book of Acts.

The difference, in my estimation, is that numbers for Luke was descriptive. "See, how God works when people pray and do what is right."

In our era it has become the goal, so that practices change to pursue the numbers rather than engaging the practices that result in the numbers. The latter course, though the way in Acts, makes for a lot more leaderly unease.


FINALLY!!! took ya long enough, papa... grumble, and i've been posting every other day. tut tut!

scoey d

At gatherings of pastors/church leaders, its inevitable that the question will pop up: "What are you running?" It's used like a measuring stick... am I doing better than you? Am I better than you? Or, are you better than me? With the implication being, "the more butts in the seats" the better I am/we are.

Thanks for the challenge - not to throw out numbers all together, but to try to track "kingdom-like" activity.


Good conversations here -- numbers as a window but not absolute -- tracking meaningful activity rather than in or out...

Trevor Lee

There is some good discussion of this in the book Simple Church. I had become anti-numbers because I've been in churches where people at a weekly service is the sole measure of effectiveness, but that book (along the lines of this post) challenged me to use numbers in a different way. I think numbers can be used to see how well we are discipling rather than how popular we are and that can be a great thing.

Mattie Phillipa

I feel numbers has to be put in it's proper place, yes numbers are important, because that's how the kingdom grows. However, It can be used to discourage a small church and it's pastors. We must look at how people lives are being changed into the image of Christ rather than how famous the pastor is with it's membership


You're right numbers are bad.

How many people should attend the church?

Answer: 0

Please, give us a more interesting topic.

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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?"

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There is some good discussion of this in the book Simple Church. I had become anti-numbers because I've been in churches where people at a weekly service is the sole measure of effectiveness, but that book (along the lines of this post) challenged me to use numbers in a different way.


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  • Hi, welcome to my former blog! My name is Ryan Bolger, and this is where I posted my thoughts on Jesus, culture, new forms of community, among other things. Come visit me at my new blog: http://www.ryanbolger.com. I still teach at Fuller Seminary in Southern California where I'm doing some writing as well. Feel free to bounce around the new or old website -- I hope it might stir your imagination -- feel free to stir mine as well by leaving some comments, preferably at the new site... Peace...


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