Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Numerolatry and the Church

Several weeks ago I was one of more than a few small church pastors listening in to the backstage interviews at the Catalyst Conference. Folks of my sort are somewhat skeptical of folks of that sort -- not really the folks, so much as the machine the folks are a part of -- and what we were hearing was not very encouraging. Conferences like Catalyst and its progenitors and imitators appear to be predicated on the idea that the number one problem facing evangelical churches is lack of success. How to get success and keep success. And who best to teach us how to do this than successful pastors? By which it is usually meant pastors of large churches. This is how pastors with radically different philosophies of ministry end up on conference stages together: they both have huge churches.

One of the Catalyst speakers in his address said that every church has the Holy Spirit but that some churches have that something extra that makes them special. The crowd ate this up, and indeed, this seems to be the implicit message of all conferences, kits, consultations, and systems of this kind: You may have the Spirit, but do you have _______?

This not only implies that God isn't enough, it only feeds and stokes the insatiable idolatry for that "x factor" the fans of these programs are operating out of. "Sure, I've got Jesus. But I need the tips, techniques, and know-how to take it to the next level!"
The level above Jesus? There is a place that is better or more "successful" than having Jesus?
Do we need the Spirit plus something?

So I asked somebody. Us gawkers got to chat with some of the Catalyst bigwigs, and it was actually a very encouraging, very profitable tool. But one question I asked was, "Why are there no small church pastors speaking at Catalyst?"

I know what the answer is. They aren't considered successful. And even the small church leaders who attend Catalyst don't want to hear from small church leaders. They want to hear from the "successful" leaders. So they can figure out how to be successful too.

The answer I got was initially "That's a good question." And then the follow-up was something like "They aren't well-known enough," which is a good answer.
And then the respondent recommended we small church dudes check out The Sticks Conference. And he elaborated. The Sticks Conference is for pastors in small towns.

What wasn't said, but was nevertheless something I "heard," was that small church equals small town. Because, again, if you have a small church in a big town, it is not successful. The implication is that the only acceptable reason for having a small church is that you are in a low populated area where there aren't a lot of people.

So I checked out the website for The Sticks. It is indeed for pastors of small churches in small, mostly rural, towns. And the speakers are all pastors of megachurches that are in small towns. Each of the speakers' bios glowingly related how large they had grown their churches, as if that is the point of the conference: get big.
<> Thanks, Sticks, for dispatching with the preoccupation with size.

Even the concept of The Sticks, which was suggested as an alternative to the success-obsession of the other conferences, is that if you are in a small church, your job is to get bigger.

Good grief, we idolize numbers.
We haven't gotten the memo. The number of Christians isn't increasing! Wake up, Church.

The megachurches are growing, but the Church is not. Isn't that telling us something? Doesn't that say that all this emphasis on getting big isn't working? It's sucking in consumerist Christians happy with our bells and whistles, but our discipleship is failing, our evangelism is failing, our savoring the supremacy of Christ is failing, our loving our neighbors is failing, our exalting the God of the Universe is failing, not because those things are failures but because we aren't doing those things.

I love Acts 2. I'm not gonna trot out the "It's descriptive, not prescriptive" card, but I will at least mention that a lot of the leaders clinging to "And God added to their number daily" are subtracting the entire rest of the book where the apostles were boldly preaching the gospel, commanding shared-life community, and explicitly exalting the glory of God. They didn't put on a seeker service.

Our idolization of numbers is so heinous, preachers like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes get free passes. It must be working, right? Their churches are huge! They're reaching lots of people. Who cares if it's a Jesus-deficient and gospel-less Christian version of karma? They're biiiig.

Is this jealousy? Am I anti- big churches? Nope. There are just as many, if not more, big churches where the gospel is preached and the community is being discipled and is loving their neighbors as there are small churches that suck on all the things that matter.
And that's my point. It's not about numbers. It's about faithfulness. It's about pastors pastoring and the whole community worshiping. It's about health. It's about following Jesus. It's about trusting God.

Whether you're a tall, grande, or venti church, if your overriding concern is numbers, you're an idolatrous church.
Be faithful, and God will give the increase in his measure and in his time.



David Rudd said...

Very well said, Jared. Just this morning I was reading 1 Cor. 2:5, "that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God."

It sure feels in this emerging conference-crazed evangelicalism that we've exalted the "wisdom of man" awfully high.

I noticed that Seth Godin even spoke at Catalyst (ironically, Brad Lomenick gets prominent mention in Seth's new book "Tribes"). Godin not only is not a Christian, he openly rejects the idea... and he's speaking to the "church leadership of tomorrow"? Scary.

Thanks for providing balanced commentary on this unsettling trend.

Anonymous said...

David - Interesting point about Seth Godin. I see his name show up a bit on the "relevant" pastors' blogs, and I was wondering if he was a Christian. Can you point to some places on the next where he openly rejects the idea of being a Christian?

Jared - Thanks for the article. When the economy tanks, and the conferences are canceled, what are these people going to do?

Spherical said...

Great piece! Your thoughtful analysis of an alarming trend will hopefully be food for thought for many.

Unfortunately, in so many areas, money rules and big often means more money (and more influence).

I don't recall Jesus saying this, but perhaps he should have. "Size doesn't matter!" (Unless it is the size of the Spirit!)

Jared said...

what are these people going to do?

I don't know.
Most of them are oblivious to the facts. REVEAL hasn't slowed them down. Morgenthaler's about face in the wake of the research she presented recently hasn't been publicized.

I think they just keep cranking out the widgets and insisting it works.

Here in the Bible Belt the Christians don't even take you seriously if you don't have an array of programs and services. If the leaders don't catch on, reformation won't trickle down.

But it doesn't seem to be trickling up either.

Anonymous said...

Jared said - "Here in the Bible Belt the Christians don't even take you seriously if you don't have an array of programs and services"

I live just down the buckle from you on the same belt....and this begs the question - are these "Christians" we speak of people who have actually had their heart of stone ripped out of their chest and replaced with a heart of flesh?......isn't our understanding of what a Christian is and what they would desire in a church in stark contrast to what you mention above?

I kind of go back to the manifesto you put up last week......If someone says they're holding a "Christian" card in their hand - I call.

Sorry - you're post from last week still has me fired up.

Jared said...

Fantastic, point.

Yes, what passes for Christianity (and even "church") very often isn't.

Christianity is cultural here, which is pretty much not Christianity. Or at least, isn't biblical Christianity.

In spite of this stuff, man, I'm optimistic. I really am. I know calling for reformation is inherently critical, but if I didn't think change was possible or even promised by God I wouldn't bother.

Craig Groeschel, one of the big dogs of megachurch guys, has been for the last 4-5 weeks basically telling his folks that many of them think they're Christians but probably aren't. That's incredible.

Jamie Steele said...

As always great post. Even for a Redskin fan. I have been to Catalyst several times and I say Amen to everything you said.
I was wondering did Andy giveaway the "Furtick baptism starter kit" If so when you get done with yours could you mail it to me.

Anonymous said...

looks like it is easy for some preachers get distracted from serving a group of believers and end up focusing on becoming a successful speaker. those are two totally different works. if a person is a speaker and marketer and using the front of being a preacher, then many people that think they listening to a preacher are being deceived.

this is a very serious matter for preachers to do this.

i would much rather go to church where the pastor's heart is set on serving others in the body and teaching them about the Love of God in Jesus, and how to live this in their life.

David Rudd said...


try this:

i guess how you read and interpret it depends on your idea about the gospel... seems pretty clear to me, but i may be misreading it i guess?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, David, for the link on Godin. Now that I see that, it looks familiar.

It seems clear to me as well. Yet the "relevant" pastors continue to fawn all over him.

Anonymous said...


Interesting, right?

Jared said...

Yes, interesting.

Reading the full article I didn't see any figures. Just references to "more" and "less."

There's no disputing anyway that most megachurches are evangelical churches, and this post of mine is not against big churches. It's against the lust for bigness.

Jeff said...

Spot on comments. I am reading the book "God in the Wasteland" right now for a theology class and he makes some of those same points. In fact, I pastor a small church in a small town and I keep beating back the pressure to grow for the sake of the numbers in myself. Thanks for the encouraging words.

Blue, with a hint of amber said...

Good post.

I would always ask these two questions.

1) Are people being "saved"?

2) Are people being "sent"?

Both of those increase the kingdom, and increase the mission of the Church at large. You can do both with 30 or 4,000 members.

I don't think small church = good
I don't think large church = good

I do think church = mission

That requires the discipleship, love, building community etc. But it has a goal, has a purpose that is beyond the Church.

I don't like the "Top ten ways to grow your church" kind of programmes. I don't like the way some megachurches scoop up thousands fo christians and actually make them less effective in their witness. The questionf or me isn't "how many do you have", but rather "how many did you reach"