If you’ve spent more than 10 minutes in church leadership, you’re aware of the tension that tracking church attendance creates inside you and around you.
Sure, for starters, the way other leaders talk about numbers is an easy gateway for criticism (He’s totally obsessed with numbers).
But it’s deeper than that. It’s easy to criticize what an obsession with attendance, giving and growth trends might be doing to another leader, but it’s more important to ask what tracking numbers might be doing to you.
Before you think that you’re immune from this or that “you don’t care about the numbers,” I’m not sure any of us gets a pass on this one.
Like many other leaders, I tend to be a little too obsessed with numbers. Some leaders say they don’t care about numbers at all, and if that’s you, just read to the end. There’s a danger there too.
Having been in church leadership for most of my adult life, tracking numbers has done a number on me too, both positively and negatively.
Here are 5 ways church attendance tracking can mess with your soul, whether you care about them or not.
1. You Feel Like God’s Only Happy With You When Your Church Is Growing
The basic thrust of the Gospel is this: your salvation doesn’t arise from how good you are, but on how good God is. Jesus didn’t come for you because you were awesome, but because you weren’t and he loved you anyway.
I have to admit there have been whole seasons where I’ve felt like God must be happy with me because things are going well, only to realize that—of course—that isn’t true.
But sometimes we leaders are like 3rd graders who show up with our report card hoping that we gain mom and dad’s approval by our good marks.
Look, you have God’s approval. That was settled on a hillside outside of Jerusalem two millennia ago and you gained it personally when you decided to place your trust in Christ.
God’s love for you in Christ is unconditional. His love for you is no different when your church is growing or when it’s stuck or even declining.
That understanding will give you the security you need to tackle whatever is ahead of you to further advance the mission of the church: whether that’s to build on a strong season or throw fresh energy into a tough season.
God doesn’t love you because of what you do, leaders. He just loves you.
2. Your Self-Esteem Rises and Falls With The Numbers
In the same way your relationship with God shouldn’t be impacted by trends in your church, your view of yourself also shouldn’t be impacted by them either. But it’s so hard to remember that.
Momentum distorts reality.
When you have momentum, you think you’re better than you are. When you don’t, you think you’re worse than you are.
In leadership, having a steady view of yourself is just as important as having a steady view of God.
Otherwise, everyone around you suffers. Your family will suffer. Your team will suffer. And of course, you’ll suffer.
If your self-esteem rises and falls with the numbers, you’ll be arrogant in the good seasons (and fail to address any underlying weaknesses) and despondent in the bad seasons (incapable of leading forward with humility and resolve).
Keep a steady view of God, and a steady view of yourself, and you’ll lead so much better.
3. People Become a Means To An End
When you’re obsessed with numbers, it’s so easy to start seeing people as a means to an end.
You can start viewing people through the lens of what they give you. When you do that, your heart goes dark and you start caring about all the wrong things.
People become a way of jacking up your numbers, increasing your fragile self-esteem or giving you bragging rights.
Leaders, there’s one reason people should matter to you: because they matter to God.
Over time, people will start to sense whether you care about them or whether you only care about what they give you.
Sadly, the world is full people who came to church looking for God but felt used in the process. Many have left church. Some are never coming back. That’s devastating.
If people become a means to an end, eventually you won’t have many people. And the people you do have will never know the kind of joy that’s possible in a healthy relationship with God and with each other.
4. Progress Becomes Your Idol
One of the greatest dangers you face as a driven leader is that progress will become your god.
I know for me, my fascination with the numbers is not as much an about the numbers as it is about progress. I just want to see progress in the mission, and that means that I love to see all the trends moving up and to the right.
But like most things, progress makes a wonderful servant and a terrible master.
When I idolize progress and the numbers that go with it, I substitute what’s secondary for what’s primary.
And that’s just wrong.
Progress serves God. It isn’t God.
5. You Don’t Even Care Enough to Count
One final way that tracking trends and numbers messes with your soul is this: sometimes you just stop caring.
I have run into more than a few leaders who say “I don’t even track numbers anymore.” They wear it as a badge of honor.
Not tracking is almost as bad as tracking too closely. Because then, accomplishing your mission doesn’t matter at all.
You know what all those leaders have in common (at least in my experience)? They lead stagnant or declining churches.
I feel for them…I know what leading when you have no momentum is hard. I’ve been there.
But here’s what’s ultimately true: to stop counting is to stop caring.
People matter, whether you have a few or whether you have many. They matter whether you’re losing or whether you’re gaining.
The numbers tell you something. And even if they’re telling you something you don’t want to hear, as a leader you should listen.
Sure, you can create all kinds of justifications in your mind for not counting:
We don’t measure breadth, we measure depth.
It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality.
God disciplined King David for counting. There you go—counting is sinful.
Everyone else has sold out. I haven’t.
I get that. We have to be so careful how we handle what we measure. It is a soul issue.
But I can’t escape the sinking feeling that leaders who have stopped counting are either hiding their insecurity or have stopped caring.
Or at least let me put it this way: I know when I stop counting it will be because I’m trying to hide my insecurity or it will be a giant red flag that I’ve stopped caring.
If it’s insecurity that’s bothering you, get over it. Admitting the truth is the first step forward.
And if you’ve stopped caring—here’s the bigger question—why are you still leading?
Move Your Mission Forward
In the end, it’s all about the mission.
Church growth can be a healthy thing and it doesn’t need to own us emotionally.
If you want to drill down on why your church isn’t reaching new people, you may want to check out my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow. In the book, I outline 7 issues that keep churches from reaching their mission. You can get it here.
Plus I’ve created a Lasting Impact Team Edition video series that will help your leadership team discuss the book in a healthy way. You can get that here.
If your church is reaching new people but is stuck an attendance plateau (this is so common in growing churches), check out my Breaking 200 Without Breaking You course. It’s designed to lead you and your team through the barriers that keep growing churches from their true potential. While it addresses the #1 church growth barrier (200 weekend attenders), it has also helped hundreds of churches scale the 400, 500 and even 700 barrier. The principles are often the same.
Both of these resources provide deeper help for leaders who want to move forward.
How Do You Handle Numbers?
We all get owned by how we handle numbers, whether we pretend to care about them or not.
Idolizing big can be a thin mask for ego.
Idolizing small can be a thin mask for insecurity.
This is a really tricky conversation that owns most of us at some level.
How do you handle the fragile relationship we all have with numbers? What’s helping you?