Commentary: Church must pay attention to numbers

“It’s easy to get people in the building,” the theology professor opined. “Just put a sign out front announcing, ‘Free Beer!’” The joke, of course, hinges on the obvious fact that a body in a church doesn’t make a disciple any more than a body in a hospital makes a doctor. It’s disciples we’re after, not statistics.

The beer advertisement is the kind of comment we theologians have been making about church growth emphases for at least a generation. Will Willimon used to make them too. When I was his student, I remember stories about preachers who had been so faithful to Jesus’ preaching about nonviolence, money and carrying the cross that they’d preached every church they ever served down to a handful of rock-hard disciples too crazy not to leave.

But Willimon’s not a theology professor or university employee anymore. He’s a bishop of a church that has lost a staggering, unimaginable number of people since the height of our numerical success in the mid-20th century. It’s not hard to project similar numerical results out into a future church that does not exist.

Large churches often grow because they’re Wesleyan, even if they don’t know it. They break people into small groups for friendship, discipleship, service and love. And they notice if folks aren’t there.

I also remember the general criticism bordering on mockery in certain academic quarters when Willimon was elected (a United Methodist) bishop. “He’ll be asked to consecrate every outhouse from Mobile to Montgomery,” folks said, less knowledgeable about Alabama geography than alliteration. Why’d he want to do it? No other candidate for the episcopacy was looking at a pay cut, a loss in prestige, a curtailment of freedom, moving from a place where Bill Clinton was almost unacceptably right-of-center to life in the thick of Dixie. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas had an answer. “Will’s doing this because he loves the Methodist Church.”

Willimon’s emphasis of late on numbers is not some sellout to corporate bean counting, and it’s certainly not about his ego, which could have found greater fulfillment in any of a number of other ways. It’s that he loves the Methodist Church and he sees a future coming soon that’s none too bright. So what’s he to do? Kill time until retirement, as so many clergy do? Knock out a few more books and let the ship run itself into the shoals? Or use the power the church has entrusted him with, to appoint and oversee and discipline, in short, to lead, to do what he can to make for a better future?

Numbers matter

I confess I can’t find a Methodist argument against Willimon’s claim that Wesley insisted on numerical measures as a plumb line of effectiveness. Amid the spasms of bile heaped on Willimon in this blogstorm, no one has been able to show a Wesleyan argument against Willimon’s claim that numerical growth is a mark of Methodist faithfulness. They’ve attacked him personally, or attacked adherence to Wesley, or suggested bishops be held to the same standard (agreed—and so would Will), or offered red herrings (“What about the poor?” As if anyone is asking only for new rich members) or just whined and kvetched. But they haven’t overturned his claim that numbers mattered to Wesley and their upward trend is a sign of church health.

And as an elder in The UMC (The United Methodist Church), this makes me personally quite nervous. I’ve not only not ruled out an appointment in a local church, I actually hope to serve a parish again someday. I miss being a local pastor enough that a day doesn’t pass when I don’t think about it (don’t tell my D.S. or my bosses here at Duke). And I don’t much like the idea of my future hinging on whether the church I serve grows. What if I’m sent to an area that’s shrinking in population? Or to a congregation tied up in knots of generations of interfamily hatred? Or that doesn’t care for my sense that American patriotism often tips over into idolatry and votes with its feet after my first Sunday near a July 4th? Or . . . (you get the idea).

But then I remember my time as pastor in a rural parish. And numbers mattered to me. One thing I loved about pastoring a church of 80 members was adding a family of four meant 5 percent growth. That’s huge! On the other hand, numbers could mean bad news that needed attending to. Numbers could mean that this family had slipped from once a month to once a quarter. Or that family, that I thought we could bring in, had fallen off altogether and needed visiting. Or that I really had offended him this time and needed to go apologize. Here, numbers weren’t generic. They were faces, people I’d been called to serve, even love. And if they weren’t there, I had to do something about it. Not for my job’s sake, or the Methodist Church’s, but for the kingdom of God’s and for the sake of these people, beloved of God, anointed by the Spirit in baptism, for whom Christ died.

Wesleyan growth

Finding myself on Willimon’s side of these attacks reminds me of the times I’ve written against church growth as a sign of faithfulness. One friend, a former evangelical megachurch youth pastor in the suburbs, said his old church couldn’t not grow. They opened the doors, and minivans full of families of four to five came rolling in. So he quit to pastor an emerging-style congregation in the city. Or I think of the snide things I’ve said about Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, who opened churches in Orange County and the northwestern Chicago suburbs in the 1980s when you’d have to be a nincompoop not to grow a church.

The thing is, that’s not true. Willow and Saddleback grew because those pastors introduced people to Jesus and to a church lively enough to want to give one’s life to it (and plenty of other attempts in the “right” places failed quickly). And minivans full of families (such as the family I’m in now, but wasn’t when I disparaged them) need Jesus just as much as pierced graduate students living off the largesse of university insurance, parents and government-backed loans. And not only that: Large churches often grow because they’re Wesleyan, even if they don’t know it. They break people into small groups for friendship, discipleship, service and love. And they notice if folks aren’t there. People don’t go to church because of big parking lots and crowds and coffee shops—trust me, they’re not idiots, they know they could do better for entertainment any number of other places. They endure the headaches at big churches because energetic leadership has made a space, a canopy, in which they and their families can worship Jesus and be remade in his image.

It should sound familiar. We Methodists used to do the same thing.

*Byassee, an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference, is an editor, writer and blogger for Faith & Leadership. This commentary was originally published in Will Willimon’s blog, “A Pecular Prophet,” and republished in Faith & Leadership.