An Ignoble Obsession with Numbers

I almost didn’t post this, but then I read an article by Relevant that just sweeps this incident under the rug of “how hard it is to be a mega-church pastor.” Sure, good Godly pastors fall to sin, but so many others who fall are the lone-leader types in an unbiblical model, engaged in unwise ministry methods, and whose teaching is suspect…or worse. To be sure, I am not above any sin and depend daily on the grace of God to keep me saved and qualified for pastoral service in His Church. God forbid a pastor fall. But God forbid that a pastor fall and the church not learn.

A popular evangelical Christian Sr. Pastor was recently fired by his church’s board. I will start by saying this is devastating for him personally and his family.I sincerely and prayerfully desire his restoration, mentally and spiritually. I can only imagine the sadness and loss he is experiencing. And while I hate to draw attention to it or come across as opportunistic, the lesson must be learned and a pervasive lie within modern evangelicalism must be exposed. (So let’s hope I’m not the only one talking about it!)

Board members expressed concerns regarding his “personal behavior, spiritual walk, posture toward his marriage, reliance on alcohol, and other behaviors of continual concern.” But the point must be made that these are merely symptoms of the problem. There is something much deeper for which he should have been fired long ago. We see the true problem here, in his explanation of what drove him to depend on alcohol:

“In my obsession to do everything possible to reach 100,000[attenders] and beyond, it has come at a personal cost in my own life and created a strain on my marriage.”

According to many within evangelicalism, an aggressive and unrelenting focus on numbers (attendance, participation, etc.) is noble. This attitude is especially potent within multi-site, vision-casting, mega-churches, and those who aspire to be like them. It is seen by many as a radical pursuit to win the lost for Christ. They say things like, “We count people, because people count” or “Every number has a name and every name have a story.” A church-growth/evangelism philosophy I once subscribed to was “We will do anything short of sin to reach the lost.” There is some truth to be found in these statements (some more than others), but the problem is they are unconsciously used to justify an inordinate emphasis on numerical growth. Such an emphasis appears respectable, but typically it is implemented at the expense of spiritual maturity. This is why I believe this former pastor should have been removed for the problem that caused his dependence of alcohol: a love of influence and performance in the church. I have seen it for years. I believed it and taught it. And I felt a portion of this pressure as a pastor, particularly while at a multi-site, vision-casting, mega-church that encouraged, if not inspired, this pastor’s church growth. I understand this “problem” to be, among other things, the sin of idolatry.

I believe there are several dangerous biblical problems with this love of leadership and influence provoked by the pressure to grow a large church.Here are two: A failure to recognize how people are saved according to the Bible and a dependence on the wisdom and ability of man, stemming either from a failure to trust God or from a proud confidence in man’s gifts or abilities.

First, a fundamental misunderstanding of How God saves according to the Bible. I understand the mindset of the attraction-oriented, seeker-focused churches who unapologetically tailor their presentation and content each week to relate largely, if not primarily, to the lost. This strategy ensures the maximum number of people, as it addresses felt-needs in a way to which the world can readily relate. For example, North Point Community Church touts the following statement: “We create churches that lost people love to attend.” Never mind that the word “church” literally means “the called out ones” (as in called out FROM the world, or Christians), at what point do you tell them they are sinners in need of a savior? The popular celebrity pastor of Elevation Church is known to claim, “If you know Jesus, this church is not for you,” which means the weekend services in particular are intended to be weekly evangelistic rallies. And once their method works and people are saved, they are then to attend, serve, and give in anticipation of the next group of converts responding (often done so anonymously) to the  salvation opportunity. The celebrity vision-casting leaders of Saddleback Church and Willow Creek Community Church consider Christianity the product and the lost people in their community as clients. Therefore, if a church is smart, they will market and design their services accordingly. This is seriously antithetical to Scripture, which states the church gathers for the common good of Christians and to equip the saints for ministry.

While daily personal evangelism is occasionally encouraged, it is the weekend service (or “worship experience”) that is the evangelistic bread and butter. Certain times of the year are especially targeted for maximum visitor potentiality. “Invite a Friend” Sunday, “Back-to-Church” Sunday, and of course the summer movie series are all prime times to cash in on the popular relational evangelism strategy, “Invest and Invite.” Meanwhile, a multitude of the campus staff as well as the central support staff (of all the campuses) are spending an exorbitant amount of time and money preparing videos, graphics, stage design, custom merchandise, give-a-ways, etc., so that from the moment your lost, unregenerate friend or neighbor arrives, they are impressed that a church could put together such a powerful, excellent service…(cough) experience! Whether it is the band’s cover of a secular song or the teaching series with creatively named after a trending phenomenon in pop culture, every element is designed to attract the lost person to Christianity and ultimately to Christ.

The problem, though, is this in not how people are saved. While it is certainly loving to express a concern for a lost person, strategically appealing to the desires of the flesh before you mention Jesus has no bearing on their decision to be saved. If fact, many of these churches do not clearly state what it is that the saved are saved from, but instead dodge or disfigure critical elements of the Gospel such as God’s wrath on sin, the need for repentance, and the Lordship of Jesus. I will skip the lesson on the Biblical doctrine on election and merely remind the reader that Scripture makes it quite clear how people are saved.

Nowhere in Scripture are believers personally or corporately given an example or any instruction to lure the lost to faith in Christ by worldly means or to help God by getting their attention and convincing them how relevant some of His people are. Practically speaking, this logic is ludicrous. And the logical conclusions are unbearable. It is no wonder this former pastor and many others have succumbed to drunkenness and other secret sins under the weight of reaching the lost and growing the Church. At some point, this would mean that you are personally responsible to pluck lost people from the mires of hell. Pastors and pew-sitters alike, take yourself out of the yoke of a love of influence and performance in the church. His “yoke is easy” because He (Christ) has performed perfectly. Our job is to simply obey and leave the results to him. This applies regarding living up to God’s perfect standard of law as well as every commandment since, including “go make disciples” and “preach the Word.” The pressure these pastors feel to grow the church comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Scripture regarding salvation, which places a crushing burden on the people and leadership of a church that Christ has not given them to bear.

Secondly, either a proud confidence or a lack of faith resulting in a sinful dependence on human effort. Multi-site, vision-casting, mega-churches are typically built on intentionality and no small measure of confidence in strategies. While many of the more popular ones are quick to give God credit, they are just as quick to write books, speak at conferences, and hold interviews regarding their uber-effective growth philosophies and leadership strategies. For example, This former pastor claims in his departing statement that “what we have seen the Lord do in the last 16 years (reaching the 30,000 attenders) has been a modern day miracle.” This is what he says. But what we know of these churches is there are forms and systems in place for most everything. There are procedures that ensure the consistent use of the latest best-practices. Another curiosity in calling such drastic church growth a “miracle” is the fact that worldly, questionable, and even blasphemous methods were used to attract many of those people.

The wisdom of NY Times bestselling books by business professionals are eagerly used in team-meetings and staff development. After all, the Bible is just used to preach from, and this secular person’s previous book “worked.” And to explain such a worldly approach, the truism that “the message never changes, but the methods always can” is asserted. This indicates that the message, which is the Gospel, is spiritual and biblical. But, the methods or means of sharing the message needn’t be spiritual nor informed by Scripture. They explain that it is shrewd and wise to use the organizational and profession principles of the world to the glory of God. Often times, what the Bible teaches regarding the means arepractically treated as un-authoritative and dated. Whatever the rational, the search for the message-method combo with the highest numerical yield is anongoing pursuit. While there is merit in certain processes, the fundamental flaw is that the evaluation is performed primarily on the basis of numerical participation or how the majority of the peoplefeel about it. Far less attention is given regarding biblical instruction, biblical precedents, or prayer and faith; this is to the detriment of both the leaders’ role as pastor and the maturity of their people. This allows the dangerous belief that the liberties we take when embracing questionable methods are justified by the ends (a larger audience and a good response).

This obsession with numerical increase goes hand-in-hand with an attitude that despises anything small or lacking in resources. And this is seen no more clearly than in a message Andy Stanley gave, in which he said…

“When I hear adults say ‘well I don’t like a big church. I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody’ I say you are so stinking selfish… You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids.”

While Stanley replied to the barrage of  offended small-church pastors, with an“apology” for this comment (and several others made in the same lengthy sound-bite), his ministry practices (not to mention the length of his arrogant rant) prove that he did, in fact, mean what he said. He thinks bigger is better, small is not worth his time, plus; it doesn’t “work.” The lie that is communicated by this is that God works best through great leaders who have the most resources. Ironically, this lie serves to elevate not only the church with the best resources but also the leader of that church. The Apostle Paul, when the Corinthian church was fighting over whether they were to follow Paul or Apollos, told them they were behaving carnally. They were behaving in a “human way” by centering their Christianity and the growth of their faith on mere man. Paul reminds them…

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

As if the fact that the Church belongs to God needs any clarification, Jesus provided it anyway when he said that He would build His Church. This is precisely why the Bible offers nothing in the way of church growth and marketing strategies. It does not need to. We do not need them. Our instructions are clear and are firmly set within the context of Christ’s promise that he himself would build his church using means, and not just any means, but means that Christ warned the world would think arefoolishexpository teaching and preaching.  All throughout his letter of Acts, Luke writes in such a way that makes it clear God sovereignly determined who would be saved, and it was God would caused the Church to increase numerically, as the Apostles, disciples, pastors, and deacons faithfully did the work of the ministry. In fact, the church experienced numerical growth when the Lord struck dead Ananias and Sophia for lying to the Holy spirit. Why? Because they feared God. The spread and subsequent expansion of the church resulted, in part, because of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and the intense persecution of many more Christians. This is how we see God grow the church: foolish preaching, the fear of God, and persecution. Note the differences. 

In most multi-site, vision-casting, mega-churches the weighty office ofteaching pastor is exchanged for something more akin to an organizational “Leader” or corporate CEO. Stanley has said, “that word [“pastor”] needs to go away…nothing works in our culture with that model except this sense of the gentle, pastoral care.”  Here, the humble service role of pastor has been thuroughly despised. In most of these churches, the God-ordained method of teaching and preaching the Scriptures is diminished, resulting in men (well, mainly) who sound more like motivational speakers than New Testament preachers. Yet, in Scripture, we see Paul rejecting the very notion that his oratory skill contributed anything to his effectiveness. He was adamant that he came to them instead, in weakness – preaching only to highlight Christ. If you read every letter the Apostle Paul wrote to pastors Timothy and Titus, as he trained them as pastors, you will notice the absence of any semblance of pragmatic and strategic leadership principles. Instead, you will read a lot of this…

  • 1 Timothy 4:13 – Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

  • 2 Timothy 4:1 – preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

NewSpring Church claims to be…“Changing the world through helping churches anddeveloping leaders.” And yet, they do not have a biblical“leadership team” known as (a plurality of) elders from which they are able to send men to pastor and teach in their other campuses (churches). With so many people in attendance, you have to wonder why they need to broadcast a video of the vision-casting leader to the auditoriums of campuses nation-wide. Is it the church’s job to develop “leaders” or is their job to train men to be pastors?(Answer: the second one). Are they not developing “leaders” or can none of their“leaders” teach? Or are they just not as good or as cool as the main guy, from the main campus? The reason most multi-site campuses exist in the first place is to preserve as many elements of the original church site as possible, because you already know they “work” to draw the crowd by most effectively relating to the most people. The personality and speaking ability of the Sr. Pastor(not necessarily his biblical qualifications) are evidently the most important element, therefore the most practical (pragmatic) solution is to purchase extremely expensive broadcast equipment that enables you to send a live feed of the Sr. Pastor’s message for another group of people to watch him on a screen. While many believe it is about giving the viewing audience the best possible teaching product from their most qualified person, I am convinced it is ultimately all about not wanting to disappoint and lose people by offering a less giftedteacher/preacher. This is generally driven either by pride or fear.

Final words. Pastors (as opposed to our modern day celebrity-pastor / vision-casting-leaders) are to watch over the souls of their “flock” or congregation. They are supposed to preach the Word. They are to be the biggest servants in their church. They are to gently disciple people to maturity. They are to correct and exhort those within the Church, and to rebuke and expose those without. They are to feed and defend their people. When pastors, deacons, and Spirit-filled believers are doing their job, God will bring the appropriate numerical and spiritual growth. If this former pastor does returns, I sincerely pray his heart has changed first, so that he can say…

“I have a new obsession to do everything possible to faithfully fulfill the Biblical role of pastor as I seek to please Christ as a servant in His Church.”

A love for influence and performance in the church (often stemming from a fear of failure) is such a dangerous thing. Join me in praying for the health of fallen pastors and the churches that struggle in the wake of their departure! But do more than that. Do something to expose the lie that it is up to us to grow Christ’s church! Encourage your pastors to lean fully on God and His Word in everything from budget meetings to teaching and preaching. Pray for them. Hold them accountable for training men to be Godly elders, teachers, fathers, and husbands. Participate in the spiritual growth opportunities they provide for you. Respectfully demand nothing less of them than what Christ does – if they are pastors who are called by God, they will thank you!

*For an example of Biblical church growth, read 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:12.