God loves people, not numbers. But he wants to see certain countable things happening in their lives.

Two years ago our congregation began using numbers to measure the church program. We are convinced they have helped make our ministry more effective. Previously I would have objected strenuously to this approach. I was convinced that using numbers in church work was the product of human ego, and I told myself I was seeking “quality, not quantity.” I believed my scorn for “the numbers game” came from concern to protect the purity of the gospel; actually, it was based on ways I saw numbers being used.

I saw church leaders use a single numerical measure to evaluate something as complex as a pastor’s overall effectiveness. I served my internship in a church badly hurt by a pastor who was abrasive, dictatorial, and divisive. But that was overlooked by some denominational executives because he gained large numbers of baptisms.

I saw the discouragement of small congregations because they could not produce gaudy membership statistics. Meanwhile, larger churches seemingly were misled because their numbers looked so good: they missed countless opportunities for service and witness and never knew the difference.

I saw numbers manipulated to control the impression they created. I arrived to pastor one church where a recent evangelistic crusade had been declared a tremendous success because it produced 35 baptisms. But only three adults were attending the church because of the crusade—a number that would never be reported. Reporting at an event’s conclusion only the numbers that make it look good is a widespread practice. Sponsors of door-to-door visitation that produces few decisions speak glowingly about the large number of contacts made.

The narrow, selective, manipulative use of numbers, I concluded, is detrimental to the church. I still believe that. Then I saw that not every congregation that used numbers fell into these traps. That encouraged me to work with my congregation to develop a different approach:

• We measure and evaluate as many facets of church life as possible. We count not only the number of members, but also how many people attend services. A yearly congregational survey tells us such facts as how many members are involved in regular Bible study, faithful giving, mutually supportive relationships, and consistent witnessing. When we plan for the year, we set objectives for many activities instead of a single objective in baptisms or attendance. This is more work, but we want enough numbers to give us accurate information to evaluate our congregational life.

• We set numerical objectives so as to protect us from the temptation to manipulate numbers. For example, a year ago our board sought a way to attract unchurched people in the community to our church. We decided to promote, a series of gospel concerts as a family entertainment opportunity, and to aim at attracting 15 unchurched people to each one.

• We work to compile our numbers with accuracy and unflinching honesty once our objectives are set. The concert series attracted few unchurched people, and our clear objective and an accurate count of those attending revealed the concerts were ineffective for outreach.

Our church is located in a resort area, and visitors make up about 40 percent of the attendance. Their presence could be misleading, so we count total and local attendance. The local number is less impressive, but it tells us how to assess local impact.

Used honestly and accurately as a tool for self-evaluation rather than an end to be reached by any means, numerical measurements have made four positive differences in our church:

• Openness to change has increased. Numbers help show the gap between objectives and accomplishments. We are now more concerned with improving the future, and we see the status quo as worth preserving only so long as it accomplishes its purpose.

• A healthy sense of accountability has been created. Our board reviews each month’s plan, compares results with goals, and plans for the coming month. This accountability causes leaders to take responsibility seriously, and they seldom allow things to drift. And because we are accountable to one another, the numbers are strengthening our sense of community.

• The use of numerical measurements has raised morale. We can identify ineffective projects early, sparing members the maintenance of unproductive programs and the hopeless feeling that “nothing ever gets finished around here.” We are able to celebrate finishing a task or reaching an objective.

• Missionary consciousness has increased noticeably. Said one member: “I used to hate seeing strangers coming to church. Now I’m thrilled to see any who come, and I want to run right up and welcome them!”

We want to use numbers as did the shepherd whose count at the sheepfold one night was a great 99 percent. But he used numbers as a tool, not an end. He went out and brought the one missing sheep back to the fold. I believe that, properly used, numbers help us come closer to Jesus’ ideal of ministry.

DARRELL HOLTZMr. Holtz wrote this column as pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at Big Bear City, California. He is now assistant professor of religion at Union College,Lincoln, Nebraska.

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