Escaping the Numbers Trap

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One pastor I know leads a vital, multi-staff church of 300. He would be the envy of many smaller-church pastors, but he doesn’t feel that.

    Instead he looks at the churches of 500 and 1,000 that are nearby and questions what he’s doing wrong. Freedom comes not from size, which is a relative and shifting measure, but from an internal sense of worth based on entirely different criteria.

   Here are five ways churches have learned to focus on goals other than growth, based on a survey by Leadership journal:

1.       Accept your current size. “One thing that helped me,” wrote a Baptist pastor, “was hearing Garrison Keillor. He was talking about a small town, and he said its motto was ‘We are what we are.’ I decided I was going to love what we were. Early in my ministry I’d look out and see the empty pews. Now I’m looking at the people who are there and trying to say something for them.”

2.       See this place as a holy calling. Oswald Chambers wrote, “Notice God’s unutterable waste of saints, according to the judgment of the world…God puts his saints where they will glorify him, and we are no judges at all of where that is.”

3.       Realize the importance of ministering to your current members. The life issues people face in a small church are just as difficult and significant as the issues in a larger church. Said one small-church pastor, “One woman’s husband is dying of cancer. A young guy is struggling with whether to go to seminary. Those are significant issues; they can’t get any bigger. And what God says through me to these people is a gift.”

4.       Embrace the opportunities of small-church ministry. One pastor in the survey didn’t want to do ministry in a large church: “I gain encouragement from dealing with people on a one-to-one basis, where you can really have a spiritual conversation and deal with people’s needs. And I probably wouldn’t be able to do as much of that.”

5.       Find a different measuring stick. Since churches are called to equip the saints, some look not to the number of saints but to the number equipped. “I was a fair-haired youth worker who had hundreds of kids coming to meetings,” remembers one pastor. “But looking back, if I had to gauge my success, it wouldn’t be by the number who came, but the number whom I nurtured to become Christian leaders. I can think of six people who are still ministering today, helping what’s now a third and fourth generation of kids. That’s what makes me feel good.”

Kevin Miller


1.    Which of the five ways above moved you the most? Why?

2.    What measures of vitality, other than numerical growth, are most important to our church?

3.    Even if our church isn’t growing in numbers right now, what things are we doing well? Where can we see God working in our church?


From Building Church Leaders, published by Leadership Resources 2006 Christianity Today Intl

Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188.

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