Numbers in the Church: Is Bigger Badder or Better?

By: Kevin DeYoung

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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