Saturday, July 09, 2005

Why Do We Count?

I ran across this interesting post and string of comments at The Thinklings. In a discussion about church membership and why so many members who no longer attend remain on the rolls, commenter MC Hendrick blurted out, "Why do the churches even count how many attend a service." That struck a C Major chord with me.

My denomination has it's regional meeting next week. This week I got all the paperwork. Some of this is interesting reading. Other pages are dull and bland. But one section I can't miss is the statistical reports of all the churches in this region. Membership, attendance, income, missions giving, church debt. . . all kinds of numbers. And I do what I assume most other pastors do -- compare. Is my church doing better than other churches?

What an odd attitude that is! It's not that I don't "root" for other churches to do well. I just like to see that my congregation isn't the worst, I guess. It's a self-validation thing. I know we're not number one; I just don't want us to be last.

But MC Hendrick's question remains. Why do we even bother to count heads at a worship service? In my denomination, church attendance determines the number of delegates eligible to vote at conference. Aside from that I really don't see attendance being used for anything else. Well, maybe for two things.

First, we use attendance for comparison purposes. Some denominations will "reward" a pastor by sending him to a larger congregation. A church with more people is assumed to be better -- bigger is better, right? Without a count of attendees every Sunday, how are we going to know if we're a small church, a big church or somewhere in between? Somehow church attendance determines our church identity to many people.

But beyond that, church attendance is the statistic we tend to rely on to determine church health.

"How are things at your church?"

"Well, our attendance is over xxx now."

"That's great! Your church is doing well."

Is that right? Is our only call as a local church to put more backsides in the pews? Certainly not, although more bodies on Sunday morning is probably going to be a by-product of a healthy church ministry. And the Great Commission tells us to go and bring in more people. But Jesus says to make disciples, not just dunk 'em in the water and get 'em to show up every weekend. And what about the Great Commandment. You know: Love God with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself. (Loose paraphrase, I grant you.) Where is the evaluation for loving? Do we take some quiz out of Cosmopolitan magazine to see how well we love one another? Is there some kind of spiritual thermometer to show our love for God?

I'm not advocating a refusal to take attendance in worship. But I'd like to point out that this one statistic has been given much more importance than it deserves. What about a church of 500 with 450 coming from other churches? Is that church healthier than a church of 200 new believers?

So why do we bother to count? Does church attendance indicate spirituality? Does church attendance show obedience to Christ? Is a head count worth anything in terms of evaluation? I think there is a usefulness in tracking attendance, but there is also a danger -- a danger of missing the Gospel while we're busy keeping the pews full.

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