I’ve sat in many churches and even served in a few. I have been the one sitting in the back row not wanting to be seen but longing to be noticed, and the one behind the microphone unable to hide but desperately not wanting to be judged. Both positions are nerve wracking and heart breaking because neither desire in either position can be met. There is really nowhere to hide in a church…someone always sees you. If no one else, it is usually one of the ushers as they pass the plate or during the sermon when they take attendance. You’ve seen them – standing in the back of the sanctuary when the pastor begins his opening prayer and everyone bows their heads – counting, sometimes with a pencil and paper in hand, jotting down just how many people are seated in each row, each section, then on to each classroom and nursery to make sure they have an accurate count of everyone who is in the building.
In the few churches I have served in, this number tally was viewed as very important. How many were in the service? How many children were in children’s church? How many were in the nursery? Once we had that figured out we would move on to asking other questions. How many people came forward for prayer? How many spoke in tongues? How many gave an offering?…(and how much was it? – yes, that question is asked). How many cars were in the parking lot? How many people accepted Christ today? I’m sure there are many questions you could add to the list but they all boil down to one very important question, “How many?”
Some may say the numbers game helps a church to know what kind of an impact they are having in the community. It helps them to understand what their demographics are and where they need to put more efforts. It enables the denomination leaders to put a little asterisk near your church’s name on their list of ‘successful’ affiliates. And, probably most importantly to the crunchers, small numbers must mean you are ineffective and inconsequential…both in the community and for the Kingdom of God. The numbers game is played in far too many churches.
When Jesus would minister to multitudes, I don’t believe he was trying to save the crowd but trying to reach the one who was ready. I believe he is a personal savior who desires a personal relationship with each one of us, and while we may be in a crowd sometimes, he is still reaching out to each one. And while we may marvel at how he fed 5000 or 4000 and how he preached to congregations on hillsides, Jesus did not hesitate to minister to each and every one who was in need; it did not matter how many there were…to him, all were in need and he had the cure.
So maybe we could be a little less concerned with how many people came to the service, and a little more concerned about whether they met Jesus there or not. And let us also remember that Jesus did not often go to a building and hold a service for people to come to him; he more often sat on a hillside or in someone’s home or on the road as he walked alongside to see people where they were and meet their need where they were, not where they should be.