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5 Ways Tracking Church Attendance Messes With Your Soul

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?

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?

13 Comments

  1. Keith Smith on September 6, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    Four ways counting is bad, and one way not counting is bad. It would be helpful if the article included an opinion on just what the Goldilocks approach to counting is.

  2. Margaret Marcuson on August 28, 2017 at 11:01 am

    I love this post. When I was in pastoral ministry, I could notice my mood go up and down depending on how many people were in worship that day. I think this is a real spiritual practice, to notice those things (both the numbers and our response to them) without getting too caught up in it. Obsessive focus on tracking and ignoring the numbers are flip sides of the same phenomenon. When you say “idolizing big can be a thin mask for ego” that is a reflection of insecurity just as much as idolizing small. The challenge is to be committed to the work, including working toward growth, without having our sense of self completely caught up in it.

  3. James on August 15, 2017 at 8:23 am

    Hey Carey great article and great heart check. I’m someone who watches numbers closely and who also loves to see progress. While I don’t always get it right (and your article reminded/challenged me on it) – my strategy is to remember that I’m not the one building the church or the head of the church – it’s Jesus. In times when I’m concerned about numbers or growth I try to force myself to step back and re-focus on God – what’s He wanting and asking me to do. Helps keep me from worry, selfish ambition, and putting my trust/hope in the wrong thing.

  4. John on August 14, 2017 at 6:39 am

    Brilliant article – Thanks Carey. (from John in South Africa! Been listening to podcasts and some of your articles for about 2 years now. Very helpful!)

  5. Clementina on August 12, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    Thank you, Carey!
    Great article and insight. Gives a fresh perspective on what truly matters – honouring the Creator through His people (three or five hundred) and not seeking to pamper our egos!!
    Blessings and the Wisdom of our Lord be upon you and the ministry.

  6. Bill Thomas on August 12, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Great insight Carey. It is very hard to maintain personal spiritual momentum when your church is going through one of those “down cycles” that most churches experience several times throughout it’s lifetime- especially in a church my size (@200 average sunday worship attendance.) Just one or two families who are away on vacation, or a family or two decide the bigger church up the road has more to offer – dramatically effects the “morale” and heart of people. Everybody notices right away that people are gone and that usually translates as “something is wrong.”I love what Rick Warren says, “We count people because people count.” The he asks, “How did the Good Shepherd know that one sheep was missing from the fold? He kept count!” Thanks for your articles as always. And thanks for the coaching about attendance and our own value and self worth to God – in spite of the numbers – big or small!

  7. Valerie Battaglia on August 12, 2017 at 5:41 am

    growing up in a church, where as a child I felt I knew everyone, and now attending church where I feel I no hardly a soul after almost ten years of attending, and being involved, you get to a point where you stop even trying to get to know people. The numbers are still there but the people are constantly changing.

  8. Patricia Repke on August 10, 2017 at 8:00 pm

    This is true of not only leaders in the church, it can affect many people. I am a woman who takes attendance, the men count the # of people. My husband and I want to know who is there and who isn’t, we do this so that we can call or send a card to people who’ve missed encouraging them and offering help if they need it. Sometimes we’re guilty of feeling bad because the numbers are down, and we have to remind ourselves why we’re counting.

  9. B. Roken on August 8, 2017 at 1:34 am

    “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.”

    This is one of the most truthful and painful statements to read. I wonder how many of the congregations this applies to would be self reflecting and honest enough to see it in themselves.

  10. Siobhan Hewson on August 7, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    Great article! We’ve been grappling with this in our church too. One of the ways that we are trying to approach the whole numbers issue is not discard counting all together, but we’re talking with our leaders about counting the things that count -E.g. we still count attendance but we assess connection (focus on our capacity to sit with people rather than our seating capacity).

    • Michael on August 12, 2017 at 6:30 am

      Great insight. Seating capacity is stagnant based on the size of your auditorium. Our ability to connect with others is rarely measured and I believe is they key to increasing seating capacity. Connecting with people is the horse pulling the cart. Put the cart ahead of the horse and you are going no where fast. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Jason on August 7, 2017 at 11:35 am

    So bang on and fair to both sides of the issue. Like everything else in life it usually comes down to our hearts. “Above all else guard your heart…”

    Thanks Carey!

  12. Luis Hiciano on August 7, 2017 at 9:03 am

    Amazing this is so true Im going trough it right at this moment. Blessed day

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