Every few years 21st Century Christian publishers a book which lists by location all the churches of Christ in America. In the list the church is given, sometimes descriptors are given, and then total members of that particular congregation are given. The book is a needed resource for helping churches who teach similarly to connect with one another.
For those of you who are not familiar with what are commonly called churches of Christ each church is self-governed and there is no higher level of leadership than the local congregation. Therefore each church is free, from the human standpoint, to preach, teach, and worship as they see appropriate. We have no headquarters or governing body that sets the doctrine and practices for all churches. So this book is a helpful way to find and connect with other groups of disciples of Jesus.
What normally happens when the book is released though is that two items come to the forefront. One, have we increased or decreased in number of “members.” Two, have we increased or decreased in number of “churches.” It is always interesting, because if we have increased then people assume everything is fine. If we have decreased then things are bad. This year there was a significant decrease, 102,000 fewer members and 700 fewer churches. This resulted in a plethora of posts that gave their analysis on why the number is going down.
We could discuss why the numbers are going down. We would mention the fact that many churches are located in rural areas and more and more people are moving into the city. We would mention the shift of people no longer becoming “members” of a church or no longer attending church regularly that has affected churches across the spectrum. We could speak of doctrinal problems within the church. We could speak of leadership issues. We could speak of a lack of evangelistic zeal. All of those I’m sure play some role.
However, I want to speak more to how we define success. It seems so often that success at the local church level and at the brotherhood level is determined by numbers. If numbers are up then we declare our churches are successful and healthy. If they are down then the opposite is true. This infatuation with numbers is a by-product of the church growth movement that for many reduced the total work of the church to having more people attend this year then we did last.
I understand why we use this model. It is easy and clean. You can look at a number and quickly determine health, but I think the whole concept is flawed. Church history is littered with large movements and large churches that called themselves Christians and gathered large crowds, but were not making disciples. Some of these movements denied essential doctrines like the Deity and/or humanity of Jesus. Yet, they called themselves Christian and sprang up with great numbers. Today, we see growth amongst health and wealth churches. Churches who have distorted the good news of Jesus into a message that God exists for our financial benefit (read more here). Again we have large churches, in fact some of the largest in America, who teach this.
The health of a church or group of churches is not based upon the number of people who attend. Rather it is based upon whether the church is producing disciples. One who reads the gospel of Matthew quickly realizes there is a real difference between crowds and disciples. Our goal is not to increase the crowd but to make disciples. Now we pray and hope that we “win more” and that our numbers go up, but not for the sake of adding numbers, but hopefully because those numbers represent committed followers of Jesus. At the same time we all should understand that sometimes making disciples results in losing the crowd (John 6).
I hope that as churches evaluate themselves we do not look for cheap fixes to grab more market share of the crowd, but rather we look at ourselves to make sure we are focused and obedient in disciple making. Then we see if God gives the increase.