your opinion, please

i am so sorry, bloggy buddies, for my extended absence.  my ibook finally decided she’d had enough.  she was in i.c.u. for a while, but she finally succumbed to old age.  we had to pull the plug.  i don’t have the money to replace her right now, so i’ll blog when i can (I do not blog at work).  i am currently typing on a little mini-notebook that belongs to my wife.   this isn’t going to work either, as the tiny keyboard will not accommodate my beefy fingers.  oh well, we’ll figure something out.

i have a question i’d like to submit to my brilliant readers.  before i present the question, i want to acknowledge my cynical bent.  i’ve been thinking a lot about this subject and i am confused (a state with which i am quite familiar).  i am resolved to maintain an open mind on the subject, and i am genuinely interested in what others think.  here’s the question…

why do we count  how many people “get saved” (or “respond to christ” or “answer the altar call” or “join the church”) on easter sunday?  or any other sunday, for that matter.  a closely related question might be, “did they really get saved?” but we’ll save that for another post.  along with the question, “why are we concerned about how many people were in attendance?”  are we better or more effective or more faithful if more people were in the building? 

like i said, that’s a whole other subject.

now, i realize that i am “cutting against the grain”  so to speak, but i thought long and hard about how best to conclude our meeting yesterday.  i presented the gospel as best i could, and then invited people to establish a relationship with jesus.  while i was planning the meeting, though, i decided against asking people to raise their hands, or come down to the front.  there are many reasons i decided against a traditional altar call, but the biggest reason (again!) is my self-centeredness.  in the past, i have gone out of my way to get people to respond (is that manipulation?) to an invitation so i that i could say, “you won’t believe how many people got saved yesterday…god is so good.”  but, really, what i was saying was, “i am so good.”

did i cheat the pre-christians that were in that meeting?  is it possible they might be able to encounter christ even though they didn’t raise their hands?

i realize no one out there is as superficial and self-absorbed as me.  all the more reason i want your response to the question i posed:  why do we count how many people “got saved”?

weigh in, bloggy buddies!


15 thoughts on “your opinion, please

  1. To be completely Biblical, God doesn’t even need people, but just for kicks take the NT story of Philip being literally beamed over to a guy to share the Gospel.

    I am proud of you for not doing the deed. I think it should be done like this. “Who here is sick of being hopeless turd. If that’s you, stand up so God can see you and he can embrace you into the kingdom.”

  2. firstly, randy, you submitted this question to your brilliant readers. but i’m going to give my opinion anyway.

    i don’t necessarily like it, but i do see benefit in counting how many people get saved. some. i figure the precedent was set in acts 2, when we’re told 3000 were added to the church. the book of acts seems to concern itself with numbers of people being added to the body of Christ. several times (actually i think this is one of the keys to understanding the book and its purpose — the Holy Spirit and the spread of the kingdom) we’re given statements about churches being strengthened in the faith and growing daily in numbers.

    that said, luke seems to me to be more concerned with the steady and continual growth of numbers than he does with the actual numbers themselves. [i always say Christianity is about direction.] and never (i’m pretty sure) does he give actual numbers for any one time or event, except the first one — pentecost giving us a starting point.

    i think it’s important that we “measure” kingdom growth, and off the top of my head i can think of three ways/areas to do so: 1) spiritual maturity in believers themselves (fruits of the Spirit in their lives, namely love?), 2) growth in the number of individual believers, and 3) growth in the number of people groups reached or cultural barriers crossed.

    so i see some value in counting those saved — or at least in making sure there are those being saved (and continue to be). because if there aren’t, we have a problem, ie. we’re not the body of Christ. growth in those three areas, as best i can tell, is the natural fruit of Spirit-filled believers living in community. so we need to see numbers, or at least steady growth and right direction.

    do i think we need altar calls every sunday? that’s a definite no. do i think we should count people who raise their hands? not a chance. do i think we should advertise how many said the sinner’s prayer on easter? no again.

    but i think there are two bigger problems here than our desire to count numbers.
    1) and you said this one — are these people really saved?
    2) our methods of counting presuppose that salvation is a single point on a line, and not a process.

    • thanks for your insightful and measured (i can tell you’re trying not to hurt my feelings) comments, brett.

      i agree almost completely. that being said, we are tap-dancing around an issue (and it’s a major issue in the american church). you suggested we need to measure “growth in the number of individual believers.” i would ask, how can we differentiate between individual “believers” and individual “butts-in-the-seats”? that distinction defines how i, as a church leader, plan my program. with one, i am expanding the kingdom and with the other, i am expanding my kingdom. if i preach the unadulterated truth, believers will grow but my congregation very likely will not.

      to me, it feels like a clear-cut choice: i can preach/program to grow people, or i can preach/program to grow numbers. sadly, much (reputation; job description; peer approval; salary increases) depends on numbers production.

      • “how can we differentiate between individual ‘believers’ and individual ‘butts-in-the-seats?'”

        this, i think, is the important question. i agree completely that we need to be striving to grow maturity in the believers — but while also growing the number of believers themselves. i don’t ascribe to preaching simply to grow numbers. [but for that matter, i don’t know how big i am on preaching anyway. it doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to grow the kingdom. i believe it can be effective, but not to the extent that we use it (ie. half of every assembly… that’s ridiculous, in my opinion).]

        so we know we’re going to work towards mature disciples, who are filled with, empowered by, and living through, the Holy Spirit. the question still arises, “how do we count the number of ‘saved?'” i guess my answer is that i’m not sure. i mean we know people are saved if they’re exhibiting the fruits of the Sprit and living lives obedient to God. but we’re not going to divide the room in half and tell people which side to stand on while we count.

        i think the answer is to do what we’re supposed to do (not what brings a crowd), and THEN count everyone there. because if they’re not coming for the band and the coffee, chances are they’re coming to be changed (and i’m not discounting the possibility that they’re present for the wrong reasons, but will be changed anyway). what i’m trying to say is that when we’re not attractional in our ministries (and when the sunday assembly is for Christians), it seems the majority of those present are somewhere on the path towards Christ. now, do i call them saved? not necessarily. but disciples? maybe… probably? i just know that salvation is a process, and i don’t like this one day you’re out, the next day you’re in idea — whether you raised your hand or got in the water. in the weeks leading up to that point, you may’ve already had faith and even been exhibiting it.

        i’m not sure i’m making any sense. i guess i’m saying that it’s hard to count the number of “saved.” that’s why i think it’s better to only “count” enough to know the direction of the numbers — that daily there are those being added to the church.

      • another big problem with this counting thing (you mentioned a preacher’s salary and job description, etc) is that it requires we be concerned with how many people are added to “OUR” congregation. it becomes less about kingdom growth and more about OUR numbers.

        so i should clarify: when i say we ought to be looking for steady and continual growth in numbers of disciples, i don’t say that to mean within our own church necessarily. i say that to mean are we leading others to Christ, period. when a church starts thinking that new converts and disciples have to come to their church, they’re missing the point of it all. we’re also likely, in those situations, only reaching out to those just like us. or we’re asking those who are different to change and become just like us — so that they can fit into our group. or we’re starting “churches” within “churches,” just so we can add them to our own numbers? a lot of that just doesn’t make sense to me.

      • yeah, that all sounds good but if you’re seriously suggesting that we should be striving for “kingdom growth” rather than obsessing “more about OUR numbers” then you must be living on another planet. or africa.

      • i guess i have some freedom to not be concerned about my own numbers. not because i’m a missionary in tanzania — i know plenty of missionaries who have to be more concerned about numbers than preachers and pastors in the states — but because my sending church is incredible. they are completely in favor of christie and i doing what God calls us to, and not what gives them numbers OR creates churches that look like theirs OR gives them the best return on their monetary investment.

        they want us to work for God, and to do so alongside any others who are working for God. they’re not concerned that we start Churches of Christ per se, although that is the background from which we come. they’re only concerned that God is glorified in what we do, and that others are pointed to Christ because of it. drawing men is God’s business, and saving men is God’s business. it’s not our responsibility in our “agreement” with the church. pretty neat, huh?

      • fran,

        i think i agree with most everything you’re saying. but i think you’ve misunderstood me. i am also completely in favor of church leaders using a balanced assessment process to evaluate kingdom growth in the churches they serve. this will also give them a better idea of how well they are allowing the Spirit to bring transformation in their lives and make them effective in the roles to which they’ve been called. [i’m also in favor of balanced assessment in schools.]

        that’s why i suggested we DON’T use attendance and number of “salvations” ONLY when assessing kingdom growth. i agree with you on that; but i think it should still remain one criterion. we don’t throw out testing because it fails to give us a full picture of a student’s ability. we use other assessors alongside testing.

        my best attempt at choosing the proper assessors (ie. those i see used in the new testament) follows:
        1) spiritual maturity in believers themselves (fruits of the Spirit in their lives, namely love, obedience to Christ, service, evangelism)
        2) growth in the number of individual believers
        3) growth in the number of people groups reached or cultural barriers crossed.

        as far as i know, you’re right that we’re not given examples of paul using numbers to assess growth. he does, however, assess the faith of churches by how many people / geographic areas hear of their faith (1 thes 1). and luke uses numbers and addition of saved peoples often in the book of acts (it’s actually how the book is divided, in my opinion).

        for the sake of clarity, i think assessor #1 is the most important. do the people in this church look like Jesus Christ? are they moving further in that direction? and i agree with you that the size of a church isn’t important. the two questions above are the second biggest reason i have to be uncomfortable with mega-churches.

      • I totally get you and thanks for the clarification. Ideally, I think your method could work but I’m still a little fuzzy on how you actually measure assessor #1. God has allowed me the cool task of discipling a few of my friends as they have come to God and my experience has been that He manuvers their growth and sometimes lets me in on what He is doing in their lives. I do however see the “fruit” of His work but I don’t feel I assess them to see if my ministry is effective. I just get to be involved in the coolest process on earth and be obedient. Is that effective? I just think we in the states have things way out of balance with a large majority of church leaders bringing people into their church, getting them saved, counting them on a report but not being available in some way to walk with them as God brings about the growth.

        Great conversation…it really helps to sort things out!!

  3. I am not a preacher or someone responsible for a body of believers to God and to a denomination. But, I have been a believer for a while and share this on the basis of my experience. I tend to look at the pattern of the new testament church when questions of this nature arise. I know methods have changed since then but I truly believe the foundation of the early church is the best to build on no matter what generation one lives in. It’s not apparent to me that the apostles and disciples were worried about numbers of those saved or in attendance. But, what is apparent to me is that they had a genuine experience and life changing encounter with Jesus that totally revolutionized their lives. Then, as they began to share the change, (good news) others were drawn. It was nothing planned by man. I wonder if that’s why it was so “successful”, if we call it that. I wonder if the person who was counting on the day that 3000 were recorded was simply standing and making an estimate. (something to ponder) It seems to me though that in today’s western structure of the church, numbers are the indicators of success and the amounts of salaries for its leaders. People who have received Christ become notches on the belts of the leaders of the church. The focus is skewed. I believe and my heart crys for a place to worship where God is being followed, the message of His ability to take a life that is in shambles and create something beautiful is presented. I believe if we will focus on lifting God to His rightful place as the creator of the universe desperately in love with us and passionate to have relationship and if we will live that out in community, we will not be able to contain the people. The world is hungry for our God. So, the question is to count or not to count..I truly cannot say what I would do because I have never carried the full weight and responsibility of leading a church. I also realize that simply saying to “follow God” is very much a cliché. But, is it? I wonder if we have missed the simplicity of Jesus’ command to “follow me”. It has been my experience that as I have done that all the details work out. Is that to naïve and simplistic?

    • fran, some very good thoughts. and i think Jesus’ request for us to follow him is quite clear. we do often miss the simplicity of it. and i wouldn’t call it naive — but i do wonder if there’s a step in there that came naturally to you, and seemed, then, that it wasn’t present?

      You said, “It has been my experience that as I have done that all the details work out. Is that to naïve and simplistic?”

      what i mean is that you somehow have judged in your own life that “all the details” have worked out once you chose to follow Jesus. what that means is that you’ve had some kind of (regular?) assessment in your life to see that those details are in fact working out. you know that following Jesus has made things right in your life because of some set of measures — possibly even unnamed in your own mind.

      when working with a church, we still have to assess that the way in which we are “following Christ” is producing the correct results (ie. working out all the details). i’d argue we have to evaluate it all the more — because, as teachers, we’re being held responsible at a higher level for the way we “build” Christ’s church. and measuring numbers might be one of those terms of assessment. anyway, these are my opinions, not necessarily correct, mind you. but do they at least make sense?

      • Your opinions totally make sense. Let me explain my thoughts about all the details working out….It’sbeen my experience that when God has asked me to follow Him the call was and still is much bigger than anything I could hope for or manage and on the onset of stepping out in simple obedience because I want to love Him without hesitation, my natural tendancy is to work out all the details myself, lean on my own understanding, if you will. (count the people, if you will) As I have blindly stepped, following His command as closely as possible through prayer and accountability, (not perfectly, I might add) all of my hesitations and questions about the command have worked out including the logistics of how the plan would pan out. Recently, the Lord challenged me with the story of Mary and her response to Gabriel sharing the plan of the Messiah with her. A plan logistically impossible. And, she even said, How can this be. But, her attitude was shown as she said, (in my words) “So be it, however God wants to work it out. So be it.” Zechariah on the other hand asked the same question but with a little more of a “this is impossible” attitude. What I’m trying to say is…I want to leave all the logistics to God. It’s His plan and I simply cannot accomplish it. Paul “built” the church but I do not recall him counting people and he held himself to the highest responsibility of following God which in turn developed Christ nature in him which in turn is still impacting the world. I don’t think he assessed growth by counting….I think Paul is in heaven shaking his head saying, “I had no idea…”, don’t you? I teach elementary school, by the way, and our assessment process is skewed in the fact that we measure “success” by end of the year state tests. But what about those students who suck (sorry if that word is offensive) at taking tests. Which, I am one of those. What about the students who come to school having no breakfast and their mind isn’t thinking clearly but in class they have demonstrated that they know the skills even better than the students who are good test takers. The assessment process is out of balance. I think a parallel can be drawn. I think counting salvations and using numbers of attendace as the only way to measure or assess growth in the church or kingdom of God is out of balance and it creates some ugly situations of comparing. Don’t you think? How do we measure how God is moving when the word says we can’t see which way the wind is blowing? How do we compare the leaders of mega-churches ( termed in my opion, mass-numbers) to those who lead under one hundred. Are the leaders of the larger churches somehow more successful? Have they followed the vision more closely? Good questions and I won’t share how I feel about that. But, I will say, I have a pastor friend of mine who has followed the vision, (not perfectly) and his church still struggles with low numbers. But, the extent of outreach that has happened through the vision is amazing and the lives it has touched and trained is mind boggling and that could be what God had in mind all along. And, if we are pleasing to Him, isn’t that success? I agree with Randy, we, in the church, strive for a way to say we are successful (because of pride, my opinion, not Randy’s) and numbering people has become the only way of assessing that. But are we really successful? In God’s view, are we really successful? Again, I am not a leader of a body of believers responsible to higher authority who may be asking me to number, but these are my thougths. By the way, I am new at blogging and I entended to post my first reply at the end of the blogs and wasn’t aimed at you. Sorry…

  4. This is a discussion that will never fully resolve. We all know it’s not about numbers, and we all know it’s not about being able to ‘justify’ our church’s existence or a pastor’s ministry. We all know that some plant, some water while others harvest.

    (My wife and I attended a church where the annual number of baptisms was represented on a bar graph in the annual report. I mean, what’s church if you can’t represent something in a graph or pie chart?)

    But every time I get into this topic, somebody plays the D. L. Moody trump card. One Sunday, Moody decided to forgo the invitation and give people time to think it over. So far so good. We want people who will count the cost. We want long term disciples, not short-term decisions.

    But then — and this is where they play the trump card — that week the Chicago Fire ravaged the city. Some of those people never had another chance to respond.

    And this is where it gets really sticky; because anything else I type here is going to be mis-read by somebody. Did Moody do the wrong thing?

    I think Moody did what he felt God was leading him to do that night. If he had any regrets, I’m sure that tempered the rest of his ministry. He probably had altar calls every time he had the chance.

    But that was then and this is now. I don’t think it’s fair to play the Moody trump card.

    • great point, paul. and, like you said, this is a discussion with no clear resolution. the obvious question to me, though, is this: let’s say moody actually does give people the “chance to respond.” does that mean they were regenerated because theu raised their hand?

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