The Numbers Game
I hate that question! That’s almost invariably the follow-up question after I tell someone that our church is doing well. The question has a presupposition built into it. Namely, that if your church really is doing well it will be reflected by a large number of people attending it. I believe that assumption is false and dangerous, but unfortunately it dominates the thinking of many pastors and church planters.
While numbers of people coming to the Lord and gathering to worship Him are important, they are not ultimate. It is typical of churches in America to focus on numbers, but it’s not my intent in this blog post to disprove the assumption that numbers equals health. Plenty has been written to that end by much smarter people than I, and I highly doubt I would have much to add to the conversation. My goal in this post is to simply share the story of how God used the experience of planting Harbins to teach me a thing or two about numbers.
American church planters in particular are susceptible to the lure of the numbers game. After all, you are starting with nothing and you want the new church to become sustainable, so a misplaced focus on numbers can easily set in. One church planting book I read in 2006, as I was preparing to plant Harbins, said that if you don’t have 100 people for your initial launch service your church has no hope of survival. Ten years into the adventure of church planting I can sincerely say that the words printed on the pages of that little book are absolute nonsense. But, as a young church planter that type of thinking was everywhere and even if I resisted it in my spirit my flesh was too often found in agreement with it. God would do a work in my heart, however, and from the day we launched the church the heart-idol of numbers would begin to be torn down.
Our plan was to launch our new church on Easter Sunday, April 8th, 2007. The conventional wisdom is that launching on Easter draws a bigger crowd because a new church might attract some of the Easter and Christmas only folks. Now, why one would want to start off their church with a load of nominal Christians is another question all together, but regardless, we hoped to get a bigger draw by launching on Easter.
To attract people to the new church we decided to host an easter egg hunt. To be fair, the hunt was more than a pragmatic tool to attract people to the church, we also wanted the event to be a gift to the community which seemed to be lacking in activities and opportunities for social connections. But we were still hoping that the easter egg hunt itself would attract a crowd who might give a new church start-up a shot. So, we sent out 10,000 attractive, professionally designed mailers to promote the easter egg hunt and our launch service. We also left flyers in businesses and daycares. We even had the local newspaper do a story on our new church. Everything was set for a big launch!
The Friday before the big weekend my co-planter, Greg Teffertiller, and I talked about what we were praying for and what we expected from our first service. I can’t remember if I posed the idea or if Greg did, but we challenged each other to come up with a specific number of people we were asking God to bring on our launch Sunday, and then after Sunday we would share that number with each other. I wrote down my number on a piece of paper and stuffed it in my computer bag. The number was 100. After all, according to the aforementioned book, we were doomed if we didn’t at least hit that number on our first Sunday. By my calculations an Easter Sunday service with 100 people would be the perfect way to cap off a perfect weekend and thus ensure a perfect launch for our perfect little church. The problem with that scenario is that God works with those who acknowledge their weakness rather than those who strive for their own perfection.
So, as would happen many times in the ten year history of Harbins, we found out quickly that God had other plans. He had a different number in His mind. The wheels began to come off my perfect plan on Saturday, the day for the egg hunt. To our surprise the temperatures on that first Saturday of April never got above 30°F and the swirling winds made it feel as if it were in the teens. On top of that the local community house where we were meeting didn’t have adequate heat. Shivering kids trying to pick up frozen eggs with numb hands, while entertaining to watch, wasn’t exactly what we were aiming for. Needless to say very few people showed up. But despite the underwhelming community event we still held out hope for a great launch Sunday. After all we had sent 10,000 mailers, we were launching on Easter, and surely there were hundreds of people just chomping at the bit to visit a cool new church called Milestone (see reflection #2).
Sunday arrived. Everything was carefully set up at Harbins Elementary School. The staging looked sharp, the custom designed welcome center looked welcoming, and a wondrous aroma was emanating from the coffee station. Our mother church, Anchor, had sent a bunch of people to help us handle the expected walk up crowd. They did this so that our core group could be freed up to mingle with the visitors and start making relational connections. Everything was in place and so we waited for the anticipated walk up crowd. We looked at that big clock in the school cafeteria. Twenty minutes ’til go time! Then, fifteen minutes. We glanced at the clock. Ten minutes. We kept nervously glancing at that clock. Five minutes. Nobody was coming. No bodies! And I felt like a nobody. My heart began to sink.
And then, right before we were to start, they came. One family. The young couple walked in with their three little girls. I enthusiastically greeted them and quickly discerned that they were not a churched family. It thrilled my heart that they were excited to be there and they expressed appreciation for the warm welcome. They had survived our frozen easter egg hunt the day prior. They had received our mailer. Most importantly they told me that they felt God was moving them to start going to church. I immediately saw that we had a gospel opportunity with this family. I praised God as I watched them find their seats. I got up and preached my heart out. As it turned out, those were our only visitors.
So at our first grand opening service we had, counting children, sixty-two people. Thirty were from our core group, two were a couple who were helping us with music, twenty-five were one-time helpers from Anchor who would not be back the next week, and the remaining five were that solitary family from the community. We fell far short of the number written on that little scrap of paper in my computer bag.
The next week when Greg and I met to assess the first worship service he was much more upbeat than I was. Then came the moment of truth. I sheepishly revealed that the number I was praying for was 100 and that we had obviously fallen well short. I ask Greg what number his number was. I will never forget his answer. He look at me and said, “One!”
“One?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes one,” he repeated.
He went on to explain that all he was asking God to do was to impact one person with the gospel and if the only reason our church start-up existed was for that one person, then it was all worth it. Of course, he was absolutely right. And God answered his prayer.
For just a few months after that first service I had the pleasure of baptizing that first visiting couple. The gospel had done its work in both their hearts and they came under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They are still active and important members of our church to this day. I have since had the opportunity to baptize three of their now five children. God indeed transformed their lives and He use our pathetic efforts as a means to get His gospel into their hearts. So, in the end our launch was a huge success.
I didn’t quite learn my lesson though. The next year we had an absolutely gigantic easter egg hunt. Over six-hundred people were there. The weather was spectacular. We had the opportunity to present the gospel to a large crowd at the hunt itself. We personally invited a bunch of people to our service the next day, and many of those people said they were planning to come. I was, therefore, expecting a huge walk-up crowd on our second Easter Sunday. Well, Sunday arrived and how many families showed up? You got it. One! But again, God was at work. I had the privilege of leading the husband to the Lord and later baptizing him and one of his children. They too remained vibrant members of our church until his job recently took him to the other side of Atlanta.
So that’s the way God has been at work at Harbins ever since. He’s been working in one family at a time. He’s been saving and sanctifying one heart at a time. After that second Easter I stopped playing the numbers game. From that point forward I can honestly say I have never really worried all that much about numbers. Not even financial numbers. Every now and then I’m tempted to measure success by numbers, but then God reminds me of the radically transformed lives that are represented at Harbins. I’d rather have 100 people whose hearts are day in and day out being transformed by the gospel than 1,000 nominal believers who can muster up the strength to go to a service once week. I’d rather shepherd 100 sheep I know than 1,000 sheep I merely see.
I’ve tried to keep Greg’s number, the number one, in my mind each Sunday since that very first Sunday. If one person is impacted by the gospel preached then it’s all worth it. We have learned to have great confidence in the truth that if God’s Word is being proclaimed accurately He will make sure it does not return to Him empty (Isaiah 55:11). But the Word must be preached, it must be preached carefully, it must be preached faithfully, and thus the priority of preaching will be reflection #4, stay tuned.