Several years ago my dad was a church library consultant for the Baptist Sunday School Board. One of his assignments was to conduct church library conferences at churches around the country. At one conference, he asked for reports about the status of the participants’ church libraries. One dear lady stood proudly to announce, “As of last Sunday, all of our books are checked in.” Obviously, she thought the job of the librarian was to get books in, not give them out.
Which brings me to a thought about church — how much effort do we expend to get all our people “checked in?” We count high attendance Sundays, worship attendance, Sunday School attendance, membership lists, baptisms, and anything we can brag about to fellow pastors or our denomination’s leaders. But what are we not counting?
Ryan Bolger, assistant professor of church in contemporary culture at Fuller Seminary, brought up the question of numbers in one of his classes recently. He blogged about this discussion “Are Numbers Evil?” on The Bolgblog:
“When we count ‘butts in seats’ at a church service, we implicitly raise that up as a sign of faithfulness. We track it, [so] it must be important. But what if what we counted dealt with Jesus-like activities? What if we counted how many in our congregation did activities for the poor, opened their house to their neighbors, participated in acts of justice? In this way, what we track in our churches is in synch with our stated theology; our numbers ‘in church’ are those who follow Jesus into the world. In our church growth class, we came to the conclusion that when we track kingdom-like activity instead of static church membership rolls, we come closer to McGavran’s goal of numbers as a window into the work of the Holy Spirit.”
— Ryan Bolger, The Bolgblog (emphasis mine)
So, rather than counting if all our people are in, we might count how many of them have been out — out in the community, feeding the hungry, tutoring students, visiting the sick, caring for the elderly, and acting in Jesus’ name for the sake of the world.
If your church is like mine, you’re going to continue to count “butts in seats” –as Ryan so eloquently puts it. But what if we also paid attention to our members’ ministry outside the church building? What if our goal was to get all the books out of the library, metaphorically speaking? Isn’t the scattered church just as important as the gathered church? What would that look like?
My guess is that counting ‘Jesus-like activities’ would breathe new life into our small churches. I may be wrong, but I think small churches do more per person in ministry than large congregations. If we counted the church-in-the-world, then the measure of missional faithfulness might change, giving small churches the encouragement we need. What do you think?