When Church Attendance Becomes An Idol

I have a troubled past when it comes to counting people who attend your church. One of my early memories as a new staff member in a church is hearing the double-edged statement, “If numbers didn’t matter to God, He wouldn’t have written a book on it.”

David’s Problem with Numbers

Consider for a moment this illustration from 1 Chronicles 21:

1 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.” 3 But Joab said, “May the Lord add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?” 4 But the king’s word prevailed against Joab. So Joab departed and went throughout all Israel and came back to Jerusalem. 5 And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword. 6 But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab. 7 But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1–7)

Clearly, this illustration should not be used to prohibit counting church attendance, but I do believe it points to some character issues that can become a problem if counting  becomes an idol.

  1. Satan incited David to number Israel. As is often the case, Satan uses a seemingly harmless object, in this case a census, to cause a man to sin.
  2. David wanted to know the number. Why? Knowing the number was not sin; David’s motivation for knowing the number points to his sin. Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary notes that David was acting out of pride and self-reliance. Joab’s caution to David points to the root issue: “Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants?” David wanted to glorify himself rather than serve transparently as the Lord’s servant.
  3. God was displeased with this thing. Ultimately, and this is no surprise, God sees the heart of man. He knows when our motivation is genuine and when our motivation is self-serving or rooted in pride.

Counting Within the Church

Within church ministry, I’ve witnessed counting abused in a number of ways. Perhaps most unsettling is when the weekend count determines the “success” or “failure” of the weekend services. Sunday was a good day because the count was up; Sunday was a bad day because the count was down.

Ed Stetzer, a trusted voice, offers some good advice regarding the need to count people. He notes:

Among our churches, we need to ask if we are reaching people. We need to ask if we are discipling people. Are we reaching our goals or are we falling short? These are important questions to ask and important things to count.

My contention is that we need to keep a scorecard. The challenge is in deciding what we are going to measure and how are we going to measure it. I’m convinced that the things we’ve been counting for years on those church attendance boards are helpful to count – but they’re not all we should count.

  • What percentage of people in the church are serving?
  • How many are serving inside and outside the church?
  • How many are in small groups?
  • How many are being trained into leadership in groups and in the church?

Metrics can help us know where we are and where we need to change. We need to be careful not to be slavishly driven by numbers, but to use them as a tool. And to that end, check out Transformational Discipleship Assessment for maturity issues and also the Transformational Church Assessment Tool. These are helpful tools for counting well, using the best measurables, and bringing health and strength to individual Christians and your church as a whole.

My take: I agree, but I would add a strong word of caution: numbers can easily become an idol. As a pastor, if you would classify yourself as “competitive,” then I would add an extra layer of caution. Competitive, Type A personalities, which describes many pastors, will struggle with the sure black and white raw stimulant numbers can provide. Nothing is more exciting than  reaching a new attendance high after a well-planned, strategic push. Nothing is more discouraging than observing lack-luster stats after a well-planned, strategic push.

I agree with Stetzer on this point: count people because people count. You cross into dangerous territory when you begin to see numbers instead of people, and this happens faster than you think. We are all motivated by success, and nothing spells success more in the American Church than large attendance numbers. But, the next time you check your Sunday attendance, check your heart at the same time. Don’t let the numbers alone determine the success or failure of your ministry.

    Chris Eller is a Christ Follower, Husband, Father, Pastor, Geek, Writer, Photographer, and Church Technology Consultant.

    Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.