That’s the question Dr. Aubrey Malphurs throws at pastors who get upset when he talks about Luke’s “theology of numbers.” Malphurs is a senior professor at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, TX, and founder of The Malphurs Group, a consulting services ministry.
Luke, of course, was the writer of the Gospel according to Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 2, it seemed numbers were important enough that someone had kept count of how many in the crowd became believers. As Luke explicitly recorded, “… about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
By the end of Acts 2, we read that people were being saved daily. And, in Acts 4, Luke let us know that the number of new believers “grew to about five thousand.”
Perhaps we can all agree that numbers — all numbers — matter in church. Malphurs says each number represents a “breathing, living person.” I think it’s when we equate numbers with success or failure that church growth becomes a competitive race. Then, it’s easy to see why some church leaders would be consumed by numbers, while others might downplay their importance by arguing it’s the quality of people — not the quantity — that counts.
What’s a healthy way to view numbers? Tim Winters, executive pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, CA, says his church tracks numbers “to give us more of a warning of potential things coming down the pike.” It always feels strange, he adds, when the first thing people ask is the size of a church. “I wanted to say we are 10,000, but what really matters is X, Y, and Z!”
To Gateway Church (gatewaypeople.com), numbers matter because they measure both effectiveness and ineffectiveness, says Lawrence Swicegood, executive director for media. “Statistical data allows the church leadership to make educated decisions on things like: when to add services, how better to reach the community, what ministries need to be added and what programs no longer have the desired impact.”
For example: One of Gateway’s campuses was nearing capacity; so, the leadership did a demographic study to find out where the attendees lived. The data showed that more than 60 percent came from communities southwest of the campus location. Based on these numbers, Gateway nixed the idea of building additional space. Instead, it purchased a building six miles southwest of the campus. As a result, Swicegood says more than 2,200 new people were added to Gateway Church at these two campuses in the past 11 months alone.
At Westover Hills Assembly of God in San Antonio, TX, numbers help leadership develop what it calls a “Pipeline” through which the church addresses three areas of growth: assimilation of newcomers, discipleship of new believers, and development of new ministry leaders. The goal, says executive pastor Joel Botello, is to help the church grow spiritually and numerically. “It’s wonderful to see people grow in their spiritual journey, but none of this is accomplished without intentional effort and accurate tracking.”
Likewise, tracking weekly worship attendance, giving, volunteer engagement and monthly ministries is important to Hope Presbyterian Church in Cordova, TN. Scott Milholland, chief operating officer, says the goal this year is to see a 10 percent growth in those areas.
Growth doesn’t always have to be a huge number, Malphurs reminds us. He maintains though that a healthy church — in general — should be growing. “Numbers are important in terms of strategies,” he concludes, “to know if something is going wrong or something is going right.”
So, if I may ask you: What do you do with your numbers?