A recent survey on One News Now asks, “Do Evangelical Pastors exaggerate attendance and conversion numbers?” According to 63% of those who responded to the online survey, the answer is yes, pastors do sometimes exaggerate attendance figures. The non-scientific survey was occasioned by an article called Body-Count Evangelism written by a man who takes Rick Warren to task regarding the attendance figures at his church. He also offers criticism of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for saying that 3.2 million people made “decisions for Christ” through their various ministries in 2005. The author says that if the rest of us do not stand up to the “lies” of those who practice “body-count evangelism,” we are like Saul of Tarsus who held the cloaks for the men who stoned Stephen.
I wouldn’t have noticed this survey except that it was mentioned by Smart Christian, a fine website maintained by Dr. Andrew Jackson. After mentioning the survey, he adds this commentary regarding whether or not pastors and other Christian leaders routinely pad their attendance figures: “YES! Why? Because evangelical leaders for a long time have been determining success not primarily by biblical standards but by modernity. And so, they lie.”
Well, now. A number of thoughts come to mind on this point.
First, there is a major problem in gathering accurate data in the local church, especially growing churches located in metropolitan areas. I remember the frustration of wanting to know the attendance when I pastored in Oak Park. It took me years to figure out how we did the counting and where the numbers came from. Let’s say you have three worship services and two Sunday Schools–a fairly common approach. By definition, you’ve got people coming and going all morning long. Some come for Sunday School but not for worship. Others come for worship and not for Sunday School. Some people come to worship twice. Or they teach one hour and attend Sunday School the next hour. Some people inevitably are counted twice and others are not counted at all.
Second, there is no general agreement on how attendance should be calculated. In the South, Sunday School is king. The predominant question is, How many are you running in Sunday School? In the Midwest and the West, worship attendance tends to be much more important. But that’s not the end of the story. Many of today’s churches have multiple services on multiple campuses, or many venues on one campus. I can remember when churches were very regimented in their approach–Sunday School at 9:45, Worship at 11 AM, just the way the Apostle Paul did it in Corinth. Plus churches tended to be very strict on age-graded Sunday Schools. Today Sunday School doesn’t have to take place on Sunday morning. It can happen on Sunday night or on Friday night or Saturday night or some other night, thus blurring the lines between Sunday School and small group ministry.
Third, the figures churches report represent different things. As noted, some churches count only Sunday School attendance. Others count “worship attendance,” which means different things to different people. Does it mean only the adults in the sanctuary or does it include the children in various classes at the same time? But if those classes are part of Sunday School, aren’t you counting the same people twice? Or does it mean adults plus children in “children’s church” but not in Sunday School? And what about branch churches, mission churches and worship services in other languages? What about the shut-ins who don’t attend but watch the service on TV or via the Internet? The combinations are endless.
I personally favor counting Total Attendance, which I mean, “How many different people did we minister to on Sunday (or during the weekend) from the cradle to the grave, each person counted once and no person counted more than once?” That’s the figure that matters most to me. It will generally be the largest and also the most volatile figure–subject to various swings. It’s also the hardest to calculate if you have multiple services, multiple Sunday Schools, multiple campuses, and so on. Frankly, I never found a way to calculate that very accurately. In many churches the best you can do is get “in the neighborhood.” I recall one Easter Sunday when the attendance ended up at 1990. Surely we had ten extra people floating around somewhere. Yes, we probably did. And we weren’t counting Total Attendance. I’m not sure how to explain exactly what we were counting but it was some complicated permutation of adults in worship plus some of the children minus people who sang in more than one service plus the ushers, without adding in Sunday School classes. So how many people did we have that Easter? Probably more than 2000, but we reported 1990, which was the only figure we had.
People can say that numbers don’t matter but they do. We make budget and program decisions all the time based on how many people take part in a particular ministry. We add Sunday School classes and expand the choir loft and build new classrooms precisely because our numbers suggest to us that we’re reaching more people. We may cut ministries and drop staff because the numbers suggest that the time and energy and money could be better used elsewhere. And we add staff in part because God is blessing our new Chinese outreach and because our new video venues have really taken off. So it goes. Numbers aren’t everything, of course, and it’s a valid point to say that we shouldn’t fixate on them. But the pastor who ignores them or downplays them will probably find himself out of a job. Numbers measure movements and trends within a congregation–and within the surrounding community.
In closing, I wish to make two points. I agree that if you know you have around 800 on Sunday (however you measure it), you shouldn’t tell people that you have 1400. That sort of dishonesty catches up with you after a while. However, if someone asks, “How large is your church?” you should reply, “Tell me what you mean, and I’ll try to answer your question.”
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