Last evening, my wife and I invited a minister friend and his family to our parsonage after the church activities of the day. First off, he asked me, “How did church go today?”

Without giving me time to talk, he told me about his church. He listed the number of persons in both of his services and how much money came in his offering plates.

Similarly, in my first pastorate back in 1964, a clergy friend of mine would phone me each Monday morning. First off, he would inquire: “How many did you have in Sunday school yesterday?”

The number was no sooner out of my mouth when I was told how many he had. So it went, week after week. Now, almost 20 years later, it is still going on.

What I would like to tell these poll takers is that they are asking me the wrong questions. Finally, when the dust of planet Earth will have settled and souls will have departed, who will care how many we had in Sunday school and how many bucks were deposited in the plate?

This kind of criterion has been communicated likewise to the laity, yet revamped a bit to suit their own purposes and interests. For instance, when new people come into my church, they ask these questions: “What programs do you have for my teens? What activities are there for my little children? Do you have a choir? When does it meet?” After these new parishioners get somewhat established their questions are a bit more subtle: “How can I get elected to the top board?” I actually had one woman ask a veteran of the congregation, “How does the pastor operate?” When the veteran answered, “He doesn’t operate, he pastors,” she responded with, “Come on, now. You can finally figure out every minister as to how he operates.”

So there they are—the yardsticks of the church:

• How many were in Sunday school?

• How many showed up for worship?

• How much money came in?

• How many buses do you have running?

• How many are on your staff?

• What programs do you have for my kids?

• How can I get elected to the power elite?

• How can I get in on the “operation”?

But what a wearisome yardstick. There is definitely a self-centeredness about it. And it smacks too much of the business syndrome of success. Further, I do not have an easy feeling about it in that it does not seem to have biblical support. Instead, it appears to be more “wood, hay, and stubble” than “gold, silver, and precious stones.”

One of these days, I just know it has to happen—someone is going to approach me with these questions:

• How much unity is there in your church?

• Is there real love there?

• Do your people have an excitement about the Bible?

• Do your parishioners know how to pray?

• How solid are the Christian families in your congregation?

• How much time do the fathers of your church spend with their children?

• Does your church allow much time for people to be away from the church building in order to build their homes?

• Are new people coming to know Christ personally?

• Have the households of your congregation given up the notion that the church program should babysit their offspring?

Well, if that miracle does not take place soon, I just may plant a zinger the next time one of my colleagues starts in with, “How many did you have in Sunday school yesterday?” That is, playing deaf to the question, I may ask, “How strong are the marriages in your congregation?”

Who knows, it may actually open up a whole new kind of evening.

Interestingly enough—and logically enough—that could also go for our annual reports to the congregation, the district and general levels of the denomination. Instead of reporting the number of heads and dollars for one year, what if each cleric gave an honest accounting of the oneness, caring, and strength of his congregation? It would not be as easy to feed into the computer, but it just might have more value in the sight of God.

J. Grant Swank, Jr., is minister of the Church of the Nazarene, Walpole, Massachusetts. He is the author of four books and more than 200 magazine articles.

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