written by: Michael Catt
Southern Baptists like to brag about being a denomination of 15 million plus. We are (in our opinion) the biggest and the best. Truth be known (and we all know it) we are probably closer to 8 million. If all our churches cleaned up their rolls, the picture would be more realistic. Painfully realistic.
Truth is, we don’t want to know the facts. That would require a diminishing amount of preacher “bull “at the annual convention. While some preachers brag about having “x” number of members, the truth is there are probably 25% of those who are inactive or nonresident. I’ve served churches that had dead people still on the roll, so the church could keep “growing.”
It’s nothing for churches and preachers, to stretch the truth when it comes to numbers. You don’t even have to tell outright lies to do it. By creatively using statistics, there are dozens of ways to make numbers look good. If we’re honest, none of us are ever as good as our press release, resume, or Associational Letter.
If we get God honest, most of our churches are stagnant or dying. Our only growth in Baptisms is overseas. North America is increasingly secular and closed to the true gospel. Therefore, we have to put a positive spin on our numbers.
It’s easy to do, especially with Sunday School numbers. I remember one painful staff meeting a number of years ago when the Minister of Education informed the Pastor that there was no possible way the buildings could hold the numbers we were reporting in light of past and current square footage…ouch!
In another church I served, we joked in the Sunday School office about the cemetery behind the building being the “dead in Christ” class. If you needed a few more in Sunday School to reach the goal, simply go out and count the markers. I’m sure some of those folks were still on someone’s class roll.
It’s also easy to plan a few rallies, bring in a singing group, and count the “concert” as Bible Study. Integrity says it’s a concert, not a Bible Study. Call it, and count it, as it is. Some churches count support groups, school chapels, Precept studies and ladies groups in their weekly Bible study numbers. That’s stretching it. We have nearly 600 in our school chapels each week, but we don’t even keep those numbers at the church. Why not? Why? Who are we trying to impress?
Have you heard about the Minister of Education who counted the cars in the parking lot and multiplied by four. I recently read of one pastor in Michigan who is so flagrant with his “ministerial” counting that he is dubbed Pastor Pinocchio.
I’ve heard about a church in Iowa that consistently adds 50 to their attendance each week to cover those in the rest room. (We could never do that, we don’t have that much rest room space!) I also heard about the church that had 5,000 in Bible study… until someone counted.
Several years ago, we realized we were making an innocent error. Nothing malicious, but an error. So, we moved to correct it. The problem? We were double counting nearly 150 people per week, and had been doing so since the mid 80’s. People who were substituting were being counted as “visitors” in one area and as members present in another. No intent at deception, no motive to mislead, but an error that had to be corrected. The result? Our numbers “dropped” in Bible study for a season.
Today the numbers are real. Not like that church that averaged 350 in Bible study until their long time pastor retired and there was a drop of a hundred in average attendance. The retired pastor finally admitted he simply looked over the crowd each Sunday and made an estimate. The new pastor’s mistake was having someone actually count the crowd.
Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Maybe we should say, “Let your 1125 be 1125 and your 1473 be 1473.” Exaggeration is not a sign of good leadership or integrity. While bigger numbers make us look better, they are misleading. While no one likes the bearer of bad news, (We’re running 20 less than last year,) you have to admire honesty.
The church growth gurus might not invite you to speak if you aren’t clipping along at a 10% growth rate, but who cares. Better to sleep at night than to stand before God guilty of evangelical lying. Lying to make your numbers appear to be up is not “ministerial speaking,” – it’s lying.
There is a mail-out available listing the largest and fastest growing churches in North America. I’ve seen the list. I know many of those churches on the list. Some are reporting that are a farce at best, and a bold-faced lie at worse.
If you live by the numbers, you’ll die by them. The day your growth stops, your ministry is over. Some churches are no longer in the growth pattern of a community and they are not growing as they did in the past. Are those churches and pastors to be considered failures? Absolutely not. Neither should we call a pastor a growth expert who is in an area where the population growth is so strong, you’d have to mount machine guns on the church pillars to keep people out.
My question is this: when will Southern Baptists and staff members begin counting what really matters? Never judge a church by Sunday School and morning worship numbers; you may only be counting convenience Christianity. If you want to find out about a church, look at the number in intercessory prayer, the Sunday night attendance and Wednesday night programming. These numbers are harder to exaggerate, and more clearly represent the size, and depth of the church.
The mark of a church is the number of people who are tithing, serving, ministering and growing in their walk with God. Evaluate great churches by their mission’s giving. Those numbers can’t be exaggerated. They tell us about ourselves, our motives and the depth of people. They also reveal the real level of the church’s leadership.
Come to think of it, this convention couldn’t stand that kind of honesty. So, let’s just keep playing the game and forget reality and truth. Lying and image serve us better. After all, Jesus said, “Look good at all costs” didn’t he?
Michael C. Catt, I May Be Wrong…but I doubt it!
(Columbus, Ga.: Brentwood Christian Press, 2000), pp. 116-118
©2002 MCC This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use.
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Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.