Justification by Attendance

Church Math

As kids, I bet most of us reading this post probably hated math—all the subtracting, borrowing, and dividing. These are all words that make pastors nervous. No wonder teachers called them “problems.”

But as we aged and began ministry, something miraculous happened and we suddenly fell in love with numbers. In fact, we learned the whole new subject called “church math,” like baptisms, budgets, and Sunday service attendance. The number of things to count became almost endless and almost fun—as long as the numbers were up. But if the numbers went down, especially the Sunday attendance number, our spirits would sink with it. And that is a problem indeed.

Our Relationship With Attendance

I am not against counting things when it comes to church. The old adage which says, “We count people because people count” may be trite, but it is true. We should follow our attendance and other patterns. But all of us should readily admit that there is something suspicious going on with our relationship with the attendance figure. I believe it is because, at times, we look to it to justify ourselves and our ministries.

The equations on the chalkboard of our heart usually go something like this:

Lots of people = Visible success in ministry = I am happy

Fewer people = Failure in ministry = I am depressed

Anybody else think that math is a little fuzzy?

Here are a few tips to help us clear things up.

1. Define yourself by what Jesus did on the cross, not what you do on Sunday.

Though we all know this is true, we often struggle to believe it when it counts. To see change happen, we must do what it takes to write this Gospel truth on our hearts, so that it is ready when we need it most. As we grow in our ability to use the Gospel in daily life, we will be better equipped to fight the enemy’s lies.

2. Be careful with counting.

As I said before, I’m not telling you not to keep track of things. I’m simply saying that we recognize attendance records can be like handguns—helpful in some situations and dangerous in others. Ask yourself questions like, “Why am I watching the attendance so closely? For the care of souls or for me?” Remember, our worth as followers of Jesus and as pastors is not wrapped up in how many people attend our services, but in the Gospel.

3. Be careful with how you define success.

Though our “bigger is better” mentality may tempt us to think otherwise, a big crowd doesn’t necessarily signify a faithful ministry. In fact, as we study the Scriptures we see a number of “successful” preachers who weren’t always surrounded by huge crowds—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and at times, even Jesus. While we can take heart in this fact, we must also guard ourselves from going too far in the other direction as well. Pastoring a small church doesn’t necessarily make us more faithful, just as pastoring a large church doesn’t make us unfaithful.

4. Be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Nearly every pastor I know struggles with this issue. Will you join me in serving your fellow strugglers and not let “So what are you guys running these days?” be the first question you ask your pastor friends the next time you talk to them? Ask about their soul, their family, or how they are engaging their community. And if you do ask, check your heart for your sake and theirs. 

Our justification is in the Gospel, not how many people attend our services.

What are you looking to for your justification today?