Jason Byassee: How to count in church

It’s easy to ridicule an emphasis on numbers. Except that each statistic is also a human being.

“It’s easy to get people in the building,” the theology professor opined. “Just put a sign out front announcing, ‘Free Beer!’” The point, of course, is that a body in a church doesn’t make a disciple any more than a body in a hospital makes a doctor. It’s disciples we’re after, not statistics.

The beer advertisement is the kind of comment we theologians have been making about church growth emphases for at least a generation. Will Willimon used to make them too. But he’s not a theology professor or university employee anymore. He’s a bishop of a church that has lost a staggering, unimaginable number of people since the height of its numerical success in the mid-20th century. It’s not hard to project similar numerical results out into a future church that does not exist.

Willimon’s recent emphasis on numbers is not some sellout to corporate bean-counting. He loves the Methodist Church and he sees a future coming soon that’s none too bright. So what’s he to do? Kill time until retirement, as some clergy do? Or use the power the church has entrusted to him to appoint and oversee and discipline -- in short, to lead, to do what he can to make for a better future?

I confess I can’t find a Methodist argument against Willimon’s claim that Wesley insisted on numerical measures as a plumbline of effectiveness. Amidst the spasms of bile heaped on Willimon in this blogstorm (see link and link), no one has been able to show a Wesleyan argument against Willimon’s claim that numerical growth is a mark of Methodist faithfulness. They’ve attacked him personally, or attacked adherence to Wesley, or suggested bishops be held to the same standard (agreed -- and so would Will), or offered red herrings (“What about the poor?” As if anyone is asking only for new rich members) or just whined and kvetched. But they haven’t overturned his claim that numbers mattered to Wesley and their upward trend is a sign of church health.

As an elder in the UMC this makes me quite nervous. I miss being a local pastor enough that a day doesn’t pass when I don’t think about it. And I don’t much like the idea of my future hinging on whether the church I serve grows.

But then I remember my time as pastor in a rural parish. Numbers mattered to me. Numbers could mean that this family had slipped from once a month to once a quarter. Or that family, that I thought we could bring in, had fallen off altogether and needed visiting. Or that I really had offended him this time and needed to go apologize. There, in that local parish, numbers weren’t generic. They were faces, people I’d been called to serve, even love. And if they weren’t in church I had to do something about it. Not for my job’s sake, or the Methodist Church’s, but for the Kingdom of God’s and for the sake of these people, beloved of God, anointed by the Spirit in baptism, for whom Christ died.

Finding myself on Willimon’s side of these attacks reminds me of the times I’ve written against church growth as a sign of faithfulness. I think of the snide things I’ve said about Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, who opened churches in Orange County and the northwestern Chicago suburbs in the 1980’s when you’d have to have been a nincompoop not to grow a church.

The thing is, that’s not true. Willow and Saddleback grew because those pastors introduced people to Jesus and to a church lively enough to make them want to give their lives to it (and plenty of other attempts in the “right” places failed quickly). Minivans full of families (such as the family I’m in now, but wasn’t when I disparaged such churches) need Jesus just as much as anyone And not only that: large churches often grow because they’re Wesleyan, even if they don’t know it. They break people into small groups for friendship, discipleship, service and love. And they notice if folks aren’t there. People don’t go to church because of big parking lots and crowds and coffee shops. Trust me, they’re not idiots. They know they could do better for entertainment any number of other places. They endure the headaches at big churches because energetic leadership has made a space, a canopy, in which they and their families can worship Jesus and be remade in his image.

It should sound familiar. We Methodists used to do the same thing.

This was originally posted at “Peculiar Prophet,” Will Willimon’s blog.