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Last week, I wrote a piece about the foggy words we use in church that can sidetrack our mission. Sometimes, we say things that sound real nice, even sound important or profound, but have little real-world meaning. At best, these phrases keep us from really understanding what we are supposed to be doing concerning the Great Commission. At worst, they can be used to conceal ineffectiveness from ourselves or others.

Words are not the only things that can be foggy. Numbers can be foggy too.

That may be hard to swallow. After all, numbers are concrete, right? Well, to an extent. This post is primarily for men and women in church leadership; however, everyone can follow along and ask some of these questions about how your church measures itself.

Justin Long, a missiologist and number cruncher, refers to these foggy numbers as “vanity metrics.” In the business and internet world, vanity metrics are numbers that sound like a big deal but do not indicate the important pieces of your mission.

An article from TechCrunch magazine puts its this way:

Startups love to point to big growth numbers, and the press loves to publish them. We are as guilty as anyone else in this regard: one million downloads, 10 million registered users, 200 million tweets per day. These growth metrics can often be signs of traction (which is why we report them), but just as often they are not… Vanity metrics are things like registered users, downloads, and raw pageviews. They are easily manipulated, and do not necessarily correlate to the numbers that really matter.

This tendency is as true in local churches as it is businesses, and there are a number of reasons for it. Church leadership often feels the need to motivate their congregation into action. The sense of momentum from big numbers is often a compelling temptation. Simply put, pastors want to excite their congregation about what God is doing, so they look for metrics that would demonstrate that. However, too often these numbers are actually foggy and only give the appearance of growth or success in the Great Commission. New church plants are often big offenders when it comes to numbers. Traditional North American church plants are often supported by outside institutions. Sending agencies or churches supply funds, and church plants must report back on the work. In this situation, there is a built-in pressure to sound successful, and the search for numbers to prove it ensues.

Again, I cannot underscore enough that I do not think churches, established or new plants, are most often intentionally trying to deceive with the numbers they present. Instead, I am more concerned about the very real danger of mission being sidetracked by considering foggy numbers instead of ones that actually reveal things about the Great Commission. Numbers are not bad, in fact they are necessary, but we need to be good stewards of them. Just like words, numbers can conceal as much as they reveal. Churches do a disservice to themselves when they concentrate on foggy numbers and overlook important ones.

So, what are some foggy numbers for local churches?

Static Attendance Numbers:

How many people attend your church? This is the most common number that gets thrown around, I believe. As a pastor, this is almost always the first question I get asked about my own church. This number could, perhaps, indicate church health, but there is truly no actual correlation here. Attendance size says little about how well you are accomplishing the Great Commission, just consider any number of prosperity gospel megachurches that exist across the country.

Church Membership Numbers:

Because of the obvious issues using church attendance numbers, a nuance is to focus on membership. In most evangelical churches (though not all) membership is contingent on conversion and baptism. In other words, to be a member of most churches (at least in theory), someone has to have heard the gospel and accepted it. However, this number alone still tells us little about the church’s mission. In the article I linked to above, Justin points out that static membership numbers are actually a foggy number as well. Where did the bulk of these members come from? Did the church have anything to do with their conversion or did they leave some other church to join this one? Have any new disciples been made?

Church Growth Numbers:

Now with this one, we leave the realm of static numbers and move to one that measures numbers over time. Surely, an increase in members or an increase in attenders demonstrates something about the Great Commission ministry of the church. Maybe, but not always. Again, a bald number such as growth says little about how these people came to the church and whether or not the church’s disciplemaking ministry had any impact on that. Church growth could come from lots of gospel proclamation reaching lost members of the community or from the church down the street hiring a new pastor that no one likes.

Baptism Numbers:

Arguably, baptism numbers have been a key indicator for churches, at least in my denomination. And there are some significant reasons for this. Unlike the above numbers, a baptism (at least for most evangelicals) correlates to conversion. In theory, this number should reveal something about the church’s gospel proclamation in the community and their disciplemaking among the lost. This is actually complicated, though. Over the past 15-20 years, baptisms in churches are increasingly young adults who had a false baptism at an early age. Working at the seminary, it is common to see young men and women who realize they became believers after their baptism and want to be properly baptized. In a church with a younger congregation (I’m looking at you church plants), it is not uncommon for a round of baptisms to primarily be regular attenders or already members of the church. Thus, on a baptism Sunday the total number of baptisms does not represent gospel proclamation in the community making new disciples, but people seeing a need to be properly baptized.

Some advice concerning numbers…

So what is a church to do? First, consider your mission in clear terms. If your mission is disciplemaking (and it should be), focus on numbers that reveal how many disciples you are making. For new church plants, it is real easy to tell supporters your mission is reaching lost people in your city with the gospel when, in reality, you are more concerned about long term sustainability. I get it. You just picked up your family and moved to the middle of a big city with no stable income. That is a big deal, and it takes a ton of faith. But it is easy to get the mission sideways in the process. What is stated as a disciplemaking mission quickly becomes a mission to keep a church afloat, and then any new visitor will do even if they just came from another church.

Be honest with yourself and others in your reporting. The temptation is extremely high for established churches to motivate their members and for young plants to report success to their supporters. Avoid the temptation and focus on clarifying your numbers. It is possible to share an accurate number and still be sharing something that conceals instead of reveals.

Ask the hard questions and look at qualitative numbers. Do not give yourself a false pat on the back.