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I’ve heard it from both sides, if not always so forthrightly.

“How many people now go to that church? It’s huge! It must be the music. Or maybe they have lasers and a smoke machine. I hope we never sell out like that.”

Or,

“How many people even go to that church? It’s so small! They haven’t baptized a believer in years. Their influence and importance is basically nil. I hope we are never irrelevant like that.”

I realize people rarely state their opinions so candidly, but the sentiments are out there. And both sides have a point. Some big churches are more show than substance. They may have thousands of people, but they sacrificed maturity, depth, truth-driven preaching, biblical ecclesiology, and maybe even the gospel to get there. On the other hand, some small churches are backward and insulated. They may talk a big game about standing for truth, but their small size is less about gospel courage than the fact that they are hyper-critical, dated in the worst ways, and unconcerned about the lost.

Churches can be big or small for all the right reasons. Or for all the wrong reasons. We simply should not conclude that bigger is better or smaller is more sanctified. In God’s eyes, the success of your church and your pastor are measured by criteria more important than weekend attendance. While we must not be scared of bigger numbers or automatically skeptical of them–numbers in the best cases represent people after all, people who are hearing the gospel and bearing fruit–neither should we fixate on numbers. Every church is different, with varying locations, gifts, opportunities, abilities, facilities, people, and cultural contexts that we can’t possibly be so crass as to think big churches are always doing things better than small churches. Surely, the emphasis must be on faithfulness.

If a blessed forgetfulness about numbers seems anti-missional, we should listen to Leslie Newbigin, still one of the most seminal theologians in missional circles as he summarizes the New Testament approach to numbers:

Reviewing, then, the teaching of the New Testament, one would have to say that, on the one hand, there is joy in the rapid growth of the church in its earliest days, but that, on the other hand, there is no evidence that the numerical growth of the church is a matter of primary concern.

There is no shred of evidence in Paul’s letters to suggest that he judged the churches by the measure of their success in rapid numerical growth, nor is there anything comparable to the strident cries of some contemporary evangelists that the salvation of the world depends upon the multiplication of believers.

There is an incomparable sense of seriousness and urgency as the apostle contemplates the fact that he and all people “must appear before the judgment seat of Christ” and as he acknowledges the constraint of Jesus’ love and the ministry of reconciliation that he has received (2 Cor. 5:10-21). But this nowhere appears as either an anxiety or an enthusiasm about the numerical growth of the church. (The Open Secret, 126).

Wise words. We love to see more people loving Jesus and living in greater accordance to his commands, but we should not think church size, when judged by the only Judge that really matters, is a reliable measure of a church’s success or a pastor’s faithfulness.


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10 thoughts on “Numbers in the Church: Is Bigger Badder or Better?”

  1. Gerald Van Iwaarden says:

    Great article reminding us of the primary purpose which is to faithfully proclaim the great Good News of what God has done through Christ Jesus and our hope for reconciliation with Him. We communicate what the focus of church ministry should be as we lovingly labor in an out of the way place – “God doesn’t judge you by the noses you count, the nickels you bring in or the noise you make.” He will judge you on your faithfulness to His call on you to proclaim the Good News and disciple those that respond. This does not justify sloth in any way, it pushes us to discover how to bring the Word into the culture in which we are located.

  2. Jack Miller says:

    Kevin,

    You said it all here, “Surely, the emphasis must be on faithfulness.” Amen.

    Interestingly, none of the rebukes by the Lord Jesus to the churches in John’s Revelation had to do with the lack of numerical growth, but everything to do with faithfulness…

  3. John Thomson says:

    I continue to be thankful to God for men who relate well and are faithful to Scripture, and to the balance of Scripture. May God continue to grant you wisdom.

  4. Mark McIntye says:

    Do you think that the emphasis on numbers is because of the ease of measurement? We like to determine if we’re making progress but faithfulness is so hard to measure, especially in a society were we are not persecuted for our faith.

    It is much easier to count heads than to assess if individuals are growing, changing and reproducing disciples.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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