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J. I. Packer:

I have found that churches, pastors, seminaries, and parachurch agencies throughout North America are mostly playing the numbers game—that is, defining success in terms of numbers of heads counted or added to those that were there before. Church-growth theorists, evangelists, pastors, missionaries, news reporters, and others all speak as if

(1) numerical increase is what matters most;

(2) numerical increase will surely come if our techniques and procedures are right;

(3) numerical increase validates ministries as nothing else does;

(4) numerical increase must be everyone’s main goal.

I detect four unhappy consequences of this.

First, big and growing churches are viewed as far more significant than others.

Second, parachurch specialists who pull in large numbers are venerated, while hard-working pastors are treated as near-nonentities.

Third, lively laymen and clergy too are constantly being creamed off from the churches to run parachurch ministries, in which, just because they specialize on a relatively narrow front, quicker and more striking results can be expected.

Fourth, many ministers of not-so-bouncy temperament and not-so-flashy gifts return to secular employment in disillusionment and bitterness, concluding that the pastoral life of steady service is a game not worth playing.

In all of this I seem to see a great deal of unmortified pride, either massaged, indulged, and gratified, or wounded, nursed, and mollycoddled. Where quantifiable success is god, pride always grows strong and spreads through the soul as cancer sometimes gallops through the body.

Shrinking spiritual stature and growing moral weakness thence result, and in pastoral leaders, especially those who have become sure they are succeeding, the various forms of abuse and exploitation that follow can be horrific.

Orienting all Christian action to visible success as its goal, a move which to many moderns seems supremely sensible and businesslike, is thus more a weakness in the church than its strength; it is a seedbed both of unspiritual vainglory for the self-rated succeeders and of unspiritual despair for the self-rated failures, and a source of shallowness and superficiality all round.

The way of health and humility is for us to admit to ourselves that in the final analysis we do not and cannot know the measure of our success the way God sees it. Wisdom says: leave success ratings to God, and live your Christianity as a religion of faithfulness rather than an idolatry of achievement.

Packer says that he would like to see Kent and Barbara Hughes’ book, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, “made required reading for every pastoral aspirant.”

—J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton: Crossway, 1995), 207-209.

None of this is in contradiction, so far as I can tell, between Matt Chandler’s arguments below about the relationship between faithfulness and fruitfulness. But it’s a warning from a seasoned sage that all of us, no matter which side of the horse we tend to fall off of, would be wise to hear.

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28 thoughts on “Packer: Too Many Churches in North America Are Playing the Number Game”

  1. Chuck Lawless says:

    As a professor of evangelism, church growth, and missions, I agree with Dr. Packer. At the same time, I encourage us to remember another point of view as well: A balance of both views demands godly wisdom and daily introspection.

    1. Karl Vaters says:

      Hi Chuck and Justin.

      Your unintentional contrast of “dueling articles” came up side-by-side in my RSS feed yesterday. An interesting juxtaposition of ecclesiastical heavyweights. So I wrote about the contrast on my blog today. Here’s the link to the post if you’re interested in how I compared them.

      Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful analysis of this issue.

  2. Bobby says:

    I agree that all four of your premises are false and bring about unhealthy and unbiblical consequences. Your wisdom on this is noted and appreciated.

    However I also think there’s also an opposite problem with many seemingly solid biblical churches who use the numbers argument to justify their lack of evangelism, or as Chandler puts it, gospel ambition.

    Numbers shouldn’t be what defines or becomes the main goal for a healthy church, but we can’t pretend that God isn’t at all concerned about numbers. We should be concerned with sharing the Gospel with more people (the apostle Paul was so consumed by that ambition that after walking miles into a new city, he would immediately preach the Gospel without resting).

    We should be careful of what side we tend to lean (more numbers-centered or more numbers-averse) and be careful about the pitfalls in which we may tend to go.

  3. Emerson says:

    I find it ironic that this post is present on a blog that largely highlights the pastors of churches that fit the profile of the first and fourth consequences Packer outlines. I have nothing against Chandler, but so many of the pastors who are interviewed for this website or who have books promoted here are being promoted because they have fast growing churches and dynamic personalities.
    The celebrity culture of TGC saddens me because it reflects that the return to a gospel-centered approach to theology and ministry (which was initially what was so appealing to me about TGC) has failed to touch this aspect of the Neo-Reformed culture. Many of these young celebrity pastors promoted on this blog fill their time with conferences, endlessly accept speaking engagements, tweet retweets of compliments, promote their books, launch multiple sites to expand their audience, and engage in extra-local church ministry that I have a hard time distinguishing the “gospel-centered” leaders of our day from the old evangelical televangelists of the 80s. Of course their message is different, but if the message doesn’t produce a different culture, then the message is suspect.
    I thoroughly agree with Packer here. I just wish that his words would impact those who (in addition to all of us Neo-Reformed pastors) make decisions about what TGC is about and how gospel-centered resources will be distributed and promoted. We really don’t need to hear as often as we do from these young celebrities whose harvest of fruit looks abundant now but has had little time to be tested.

    1. It is ironic. The tension is that gifted preachers or other kinds of ministers make an obvious impact and are duly honored for their work. But Chandler’s message, and similar messages, are based on the idea that we should just be faithful with the tasks we have been given. Some of the rest of us are pretty clear on what their jobs are so it’s easy to be faithful. Most of the rest of us don’t have much of a clue precisely what we are supposed to be doing. Our job descriptions as Christians are pretty general and the application of our gifts is strongly relativistic. We can look at messengers like Chandler and see that it’s pretty clear what the messengers are supposed to be doing. But the message to be faithful to the task implies that we are all as clear in our appointed task when no specific task (other than go to church, don’t sin, and try to evangelize) has been given to us. So we kind of do what we want to do as long as it’s not sinful and might be loosely construed as evangelistic.

      Given that, messages like this don’t actually have much an impact. We simply can’t appropriate it in our everyday lives. Chandler’s example is his own preaching. My example is… well, I guess I just need to go to work everyday whether or not anyone gets saved as a result. Everyone at my work knows I’m a Christian and where I stand on the gospel. So I guess I’m done. If I had a recognizable ministry I would have something to do on a regular basis. My guess is that that’s where most Christians are with this message.

      1. Charlie says:

        Jim, I’ve been where you are and have wondered what exactly my role in the church might be. I’m now in my mid 50s, and believe long-lasting faithfulness to God is something many people see and are impressed with. When they understand that God is the one that has sustained me and given me everything I’ve needed to endure what this world throws at me (us), they become interested in God and ask questions. I’ve never been successful in sharing the gospel cold, just beginning a conversation by telling someone they’re a sinner and need Jesus. But as I’ve shared my failures and God’s forgiveness while I’m still a sinner (Rom 5:8), more conversations follow. If I’m gracious and not a plank-eyed judge, God gives the increase. So, keep going to work, work hard, love people, and God will do work through you. This might seem overly simple, and it probably is. But we’re in a marathon, mostly, not a sprint.

        1. Thanks, Charlie. That’s very encouraging.

  4. Darius says:

    And us missionaries with a “not-so-bouncy temperament and not-so-flashy gifts” can have a tough time raising the money for missions!

  5. Eric says:

    Agree to the fullest that this pitiful condition: Success is numbers.

    And I disagree to the fullest that it should be weighed and balanced to approve the work being done.

    Each man’s work will be tested by fire for QUALITY before the Lord.
    Do not judge the one with a plank in his eye when you have a speck.
    So judging with my eyes is sin.
    Should I partake in sin to try and bring an end to sin.
    That is to say if I judge a man as having too many members I have sinned or if I say that he has too few converts then I have sinned.
    Let us each be involved in the ministry before the Lord that he would approve us so that our work will pass the test.
    Success is to walk by the Spirit. Nothing more. Nothing less.

  6. Gary says:

    Spot on Emerson. The post from Packer was great. Too bad that line at the end had to be thrown in (this doesn’t contradict Chandler). But hey, you’ve got to protect the brand name, right?

  7. Steven says:

    Unfortunately the church system breeds this due to viability factors in keeping the ministry doors open and funding the process. Whats not being addressed is the solution. Talking about it doesn’t solve the problem. The solutions go against the grain and jeopardizes the very existence of the western church system today.

  8. Audrey says:

    A problem that I have seen first hand through a family member’s church, is they are so concerned about numbers and bringing in the community that they don’t encourage their youth to attend the actual worship service after attending a youth service because “there wouldn’t be room for them”. It breaks my heart to know children I love are not hearing the Word from the pulpit but are being entertained through a variety of multimedia tools. If there isn’t room for them in the sanctuary as a child…why would they feel as though there will be room from them when they are an adult?

  9. david carlson says:

    Acts 2?
    Sometimes it appears that numbers do matter

  10. It’s easy (in the flesh) to play the game. Jesus said, “I will build my Church….” Matthew 16:18. May I suggest 8 questions all church leaders should ask to stay focused?

  11. Martin says:

    ‘Big number’ churches take over residential communities, tearing down houses and paving the land with parking lots. How is that success???

    ‘Big number’ churches sometimes mimic agricultural conglomerates … promoting genetically-altered crops (i.e. peer group pressured flock thinking alike because of ‘numerical success’).

    These are two dangers that I have witnessed.

  12. Adriani D says:

    I’ve been part of a church in Europe. It actually was (and still is) a church planting project from USA missionaries.
    As time went by, I came to understand that the funds they received were based on the number of people who were in the church on Sunday morning.
    Sunday after Sunday, we “indegenous” have been counted and photographed. Then, all data were (and still are, as far as I know) collected and sent to the USA.
    I used to think that “counting heads” was just a way to organize the chairs or something like that, that the pictures were nothing more than pics and we “indigenous” were just people, not numbers.
    But, more people, more funds.
    Sometimes, we were even asked to pose for pictures as if we were “new visitors” in order to say to the home funders “Hei guys, we are doing a great job! New people are joining the church!”.
    That thing was quite shocking. Believe me, being counted as a number is such a shame.
    It was so much about numbers, numbers and again numbers.

    I’ve left that place, with sadness. I’ve been through it, but it wasn’t easy. For quite a long time I’ve felt the trauma of being in a new church again. I just went to other churches, sometimes, sitting on the last chairs on the back and wanting to not be noticed by anyone. I think I will make it, to finally be part of a church again.

    Please, if you are a reader from USA and you use to give funds to missionaires who are giving you reports based just on number, please, ask for more. Numbers mean nothing, especially in cultures where churches are smaller than in your country. Please, consider that in other countries, church growth is often slower than in the USA.

    Thank you so much for reading these lines, sorry if this will sadden anyone.

  13. Phil Allcock says:

    Praise God it’s not always like this. A good friend is planting in Scotland, which is tough soil right now. His funding comes from the US, mainly from a church that has grown wildly quickly and has big numbers of people and cash. but the godly, wise leadership of that church recognise that things are different in different places. He has been assured of long term funding, and set free of any stress and worry about numbers. Now, the only reason numbers crops up in the thinking is out of a longing to see more people hear the gospel and more people discipled.

  14. Jonathan says:

    Spurgeon said it all…

    “A time will come when instead of shepherds feeding the sheep, the church will have clowns entertaining the goats.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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