Friday Discussion: Should Churches Compare Attendance Numbers?

I realize there is room for debate and even disagreement on this Friday discussion post. I decided when I began this series that I would not shy away from issues only because they may appear controversial. My criteria is really issues I’m wrestling with personally or have a special interest in the discussion. Today’s post fits that category.  I put this off for a couple weeks before I posted it, because I’m not trying to encourage division in the church, but this is really something I’m wrestling through.  I’d appreciate your input. (I think we can disagree on this issue and still be partners in Kingdom-building!)

Should churches be comparing numbers of attendance with other churches?

Recently I’ve read controversy over the recent “fastest growing” and “largest” churches article published in Outreach Magazine. I admit, I read the article and I was encouraged by it and the stories of some of the churches. To this point, I have chosen not to submit our numbers, even though we would easily qualify in the fastest growing category. (I share that now only to illustrate that this is not an issue of bitterness…one of the counter arguments I have heard people say.)

Recently I tweeted that we had our largest non-Easter attendance and instantly people wanted to know the number. Most conversations with pastors start with a discussion of number. Keep in mind, I’ve posted before that the spirit of competition is not always a bad thing, even in the church. (Read those posts HERE and HERE.)

I’ve heard counting attendance numbers compared to 2 Samuel 24 where David wrongly counted the fighting men. At the same time, I’ve heard others counter that there is a whole book named “Numbers” and that most churches count their offering. (True that!)

So, my question remains: Should churches be comparing numbers of attendance with other churches?

What’s the value? What’s the harm? Is it good or bad? What’s your opinion?

I’d love for you to add to the discussion.

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59 thoughts on “Friday Discussion: Should Churches Compare Attendance Numbers?

  1. Maybe it's the recovering broadcaster in me, but any time I hear discussions about "numbers", I think of the efforts made to increase listeners. It always seemed so artificial — both the counting and the means of attracting numbers. It always felt like quality of programming was being sacrificed. Similarly, does a church with a thousand comfortable people serve the Kingdom the same way as a church with 100 people who are challenged and eager to spread the Gospel?

  2. Why churches are growing (numbers are building) should be analyzed. Fast growth does not necessarily mean solid theology is being taught. But where Scriptural truth is being taught and numbers are increasing by leaps and bounds, that deserves a deep look for best practices which can be perhaps replicated.

  3. In that numbers can be a means of representing the souls that a church is reaching for Christ, numbers can be a useful means of discussing how effective a church is at meeting its goals: How are we spending the monies we're taking in? What percentages of what we take in are used for overhead expenses, such as the cost of the building, the cost of the staff, the cost of bulletin or online presence verses the the expenses of our ministries we're doing… what percentages of our revenue are we spending on homeless ministries, feeding the hungry, missions at home, in my country, or overseas? Are we serving an already served community, or are we growing the kingdom and bringing in unchurched people, seeing genuine growth in the kingdom? In those ways, numbers can be a very effective tool within a church body to measure its own effectiveness towards meeting its own goals.

    Now, should they compare those numbers with other bodies? What does that accomplish? If those numbers are a means of checking yourself for growth, a metric used for self-evaluation, then what is gained by comparing them? The only value I'd see in comparison would be in confronting a brother that is struggling with sin… using numbers as a means of saying "here's what healthy growth should look like… your numbers look like this… can you explain the disconnect?"

    I will say, however, that sharing the numbers of a healthy church body can be very exciting… as long as the focus is correctly placed. If the focus is on the numbers or the body, then there's a problem. If the focus becomes instead "Look at the amazing things God is doing, and how His kingdom is growing!" then perhaps that's an acceptable means of sharing numbers.

    So: tracking them within your body serves as a useful tool to measure your body's effectiveness and movement towards its goals (and thus, can serve as an early warning of an upcoming problem). Sharing them can serve as encouragement of God's faithfulness within the Body of Christ as a whole when that is made the intentional focus of those numbers. And finally, they can help serve to correct a derailed body… but that needs to be done very very carefully and with much prayer. Numbers should be one evidence of many that this body is flawed, not the only one.

  4. Numbers don't necessarily mean a church is "successful". Just because I church has 1,000 people sitting in its pews on a given Sunday doesn't mean it has 1,000 people sitting in its pews who are truly worshipping God, listening for His instruction and obeying Him. It doesn't mean the church is healthy or that what happens inside its walls brings glory to God. It just means it has 1,000 people sitting in its pews. Take a look at the church's impact on the surrounding community. Look at its children and teens – are they excited about learning the Bible? Are the college kids and young adults firm in their faith and confident in what they believe? Are the adults continuing to grow in their faith and are they reaching out to others? Numbers mean nothing in light of eternity. Even the smallest church can bring glory to God and reach people for the Kingdom.

    As for pastors comparing numbers, doesn't that just open the door for discontent? I think we need to be satisfied with the ministry God gives us and trust that when we can handle something "bigger and better", He'll provide that opportunity.

  5. Several good comments so far.

    I agree that numbers can be handy, even necessary in some situations. For example, in a setting where the local church reports to a hierarchy, such as a district or regional office, numbers could make a difference in terms of the amount of support available from the hierarchy. Numbers can also be useful in managing growth, planning & budgeting, and other business-like situations.

    In regards to true church growth, though, numbers rarely have much to do with any reality. God has ordained some churches to be "neighborhood" or small churches, and others to be "megachurches." Each has its own sets of challenges to handle, of course, and numbers can relate to those challenges. Obviously comparing two churches, even in the same area or the same denomination/fellowship, based solely on numbers is foolishness. Comparing numbers in one church based on time can also be a trap of pride.
    Twitter: joe_sewell

    • (cont.)

      This also brings to my mind the question of what numbers to use. "Membership" can be misleading. For example, a denominational church with which I'm familiar, having been a member for almost 20 years, had 300+ "members" on the roll … but half of them were still on there simply because they so hated something about the church that they wouldn't even accept a call asking if they still wanted to be "members." Average attendance was around 125, so that was the number that was more useful. On the other hand, since that time I've attended two Calvary Chapels, where the number of "members," by definition, is 0 (i.e., there's no formal membership).

      "Membership" could probably be another hot Friday discussion topic. 🙂
      Twitter: joe_sewell

      • It's something I've experienced first-hand. The first Calvary Chapel I attended is truly a multi-site megachurch. Estimates of attendance, based on sanctuary capacity and rough-guess of percent filled, was about 7500-8000 on a weekend at the main campus. The pastor there taught a message back when the church was meeting in a hotel conference room that he felt the church was being called by God to be a large church, with "1,000, maybe even 2,000 people." 🙂

        On the other hand, my current pastor doesn't see nor want his little beach-side church to grow that big, nor does he feel that's the kind of church God's calling to exist there. Many don't want the megachurch atmosphere, and that's OK.

        I call it "the God-sized church." Or that's what I'll call the book about it if I ever get the guts up to write it & try to get it published. (After talking with the likes of Anne Jackson, Michael Hyatt, & Gloria Douglas, though, I'm not very confident.)
        Twitter: joe_sewell

  6. As a Mail Carrier for the USPS, I have come across many people that have left the Church, I have come across many people that have left the Church, several that are CEO's (Christmas & Easter Only). I have also seen several more that have never heard the Gospel in the first place! If we are counting and comparing, it's no wonder these people exist! If we are concerned about these people, then there will not be enough room for the question. No place for the thought. To use these numbers as a plumb line for where you are and where you need to be, that's one thing; but to actually compare your numbers with that of another Church is to ignore the needs of the community. It would do more to boost one's own ego than anything else. It was stated earlier that the needs and Ministry of one Church is going to be different than another, and I have to agree, to compare numbers is not competitive, it is comparing apples to oranges.
    Twitter: bryankr

  7. We have a mantra at our church.”Growth is not an option”. The church that is actively seeking God and following Him will grow. Why? Because life change is contagious. When we see people’s lives being changed because of their journey with Christ we want what they have.

    Attendance numbers are good to keep track of, “those who are serving” is also a valid trend to watch, however, both of these groups give us a fuzzy view of what is really happening in the life of our church. If we are not hearing stories of how people’s lives are being changed it doesn’t matter how many are showing up, or how many are “serving”. Jesus was all about life change and we should be to.

    So having said this. How do we effectively measure life change? (Next week’s question for discussion)

    And BTW I never kept score in my son’s non-competitive leagues but they were league champs!!!! 😛

  8. Numbers should be coordinated, not necessarily compared. One of those organizational truths says that what you measure becomes your mission. I actually think coordinated community-wide attendance numbers are much more helpful than local congregation attendance numbers.

    I believe sharing attendance numbers could be the first step for a group of churches who want to truly partner together and see what God us doing in their community. I long for the day when people say “we really grew this year!” and “we” is The Church in their community, not simply the local congregation they attend.

    That can’t happen unless we measure and share what is going on in each congregation.

  9. I've got nothing against collecting numbers. They can help indicate how a church is progressing, but should 'Church A' be comparing to 'Church B' where there is only one body?

  10. I love numbers and I’m an analyst at heart. I can create any number of reports to analyze practically anything in your church from tithes per square foot to average cost per attendee. I can even jump in and lead a zero based budgeting exercise for a church that wants to tighten the belt. However, what you do with the numbers is the most important thing. What’s the story?

    Just looking at basic attendance numbers does not tell the real story without including church demographics, current program emphasis, other church goals, and capacity issues. One set of numbers could make a pastor cringe, but the guy who helps parishioners find parking spots is ecstatic.

    What are your goals? How do you measure success? Are you efficient in your growth? What are your parishioner’s expectations of your church? How easy is it to find your location? These are some of the issues that add dimension to your attendance figures. They also may negate any comparison because different churches may have different goals.

    Numbers. Collecting them. Comparing them. Love them. Hate them. If you don't know the story behind the numbers, well then they are just numbers.

  11. As a former pastor and church board member, I think numbers can reflect whether or not a church's message is getting out there, however, focusing on just growing a number or comparing yourself to another church is not healthy. Attendance numbers, like giving, is one measurement of a church's health, not it's reason for existence. When numbers are used as a metric for evaluating the effectiveness of ministries, advertising, etc., they can really benefit a church. But just a raw attendance number is impacted by population, access, and many other factors.

    Just my thoughts.


  12. I don't think 'comparing' numbers between churches is necessarily a good thing, but numbers in and of themselves are not bad. I think it depends on what the numbers are used for — building one's ego or glorifying God. Each number represents another person God loves and wants to save from hell. In that regard, numbers can help us see who we are reaching and why. Thanks for posting!

    • I agree. Numbers are a good way to tell how you are doing attracting people to your mission and message. But whether I have more or less than the church down the street seems somewhat silly. I suppose that if there are 50 churches in my area and they each are attracting 2000 people a week for services and I only have 100, that could be telling. But other than that…

  13. It is kinda like having your children play sports on a non-competitive league. Do you think that the parents on the sidelines don't keep score? At the end of every game, there is a winner. It is wrong when we compete with numbers in an attempt to "win" Christians away from other churches. With 80% of the city unchurched, there are plenty of souls that we should be fighting for, regardless of the church they chose to attend. Whether or not you publish your numbers, your congregation knows how many are there. I certainly know how many are not at my church (or any other church), and that number troubles me.

  14. Here are my thoughts:
    I LOOOOVE numbers! I feel they are useful in business to make wise decisions, they're necessary. However, I am VERY wary of the habit in the church where more attendance = we're doing great! As people said above, you can have a ton of twitter followers & not have real influence & relationship w/ them. So too, you can (OFTEN!) have a crowd & many of them may not be following Jesus or desire to.

    In fact, I fear that focusing on building crowds can be dangerous – b/c it's a different set of skills/priorities/work/investment to gather a large crowd than it is to deeply develop a group of sold-out followers of Jesus – I think. Not that building a crowd & making disciples are mutually exclusive, but I think it's way easier to build a crowd than to make sure they are growing & giving their lives wholly to the Lord, and the temptation is to focus on the crowd, b/c the discipleship thing is hard.

    Therefore, I would almost say that FOCUSING on developing a large crowd implies that you're already wrong & doing it wrong. Therefore, I fear that a lot of numbers talk just stirs up a FOCUS on numbers, which I fear leads away from focusing on discipleship & more on building popularity, and spending time/money on building popularity.

    But I know this is an unpopular view & vehemently opposed by many. I'm not married to this opinion.

    • >>>Therefore, I would almost say that FOCUSING on developing a large crowd implies that you're already wrong & doing it wrong. Therefore, I fear that a lot of numbers talk just stirs up a FOCUS on numbers, which I fear leads away from focusing on discipleship & more on building popularity, and spending time/money on building popularity.<<<

      Great view. You shouldn't disown it either. Only God builds his church – period, the end. If you are steeped in attendees and your ministry does not have a heart or focus on God, then whose people are in your church?

  15. I think we should track, but not compare as commented above. There are just too many differences from church to church, so how can you identify what someone else is doing right or you’re doing wrong? But we should compare with ourselves. How was this month compared with last, or this year versus two years ago?

    We should also watch how many are leaving just as much as how many are coming because that is a measure of *spiritual* growth and the ability of you church to meet needs. My biggest hangup with counting growth by numbers is that it leaves out measures of spiritual growth. And if we’re not doing that, who cares how many people are showing up? God’s not going to be glorified.

  16. Kuddos to Frank and his comment, it is spot on. I grew up in a church that made Outreaches Fastest growing list and the numbers counting was obsessive. Many members were encouraged to grow their numbers and compensated in a big way if they did. If you brought in the numbers you were brought before the church and given acolades and lifted up. The greater the numbers on your bus route, sunday school class or souls won the greater christian you were. It created an atmosphere of outward works…a spiral that in my opinion that only lead to performance Christianity.
    I say track but do not compare. Thank you for talking about this controversial issue.

  17. The truth is we all count the numbers. The question is do we publish them? They did in Acts. I think motivation is at the heart of the matter. We can brag. We can try to impress others. Or we can get our people excited about a move of God. The matter is the heart and thats the heart of the matter I think.

  18. I think that any given church should know its own numbers and use that to figure out if they're doing things right or wrong. It a church has been around for 10 years and still has only 200 members, unless it's in the middle of Montana, that should probably be a sign that something's not right.

    But I don't think it's useful to compare church to church. Let me give you an example. The church that we've gone to for close to 26 years started out in a front room of someone's home. Over the 28 years of its existence we've grown into our own building, after leasing for years and official membership is probably over 1000. And during that time we've spawned off a couple of bodies of our own.

    There's another church that my wife has been attending and that we all may be at someday that has been around probably not quite as long as the other. It also started out as a very small church; an off-shoot of another well-established, but not terribly large church. It has grown quickly into something of a small mega-church. I don't know their attendance, but would guess that it's two to three times that of the other.

    So what does that mean? Nothing. If you would attend the first church, you would see a very traditional church from the building style to the service style, to the preaching style. The second church is more "today" from the building style to the service style to the web page to their use of as many current technologies as makes sense. But the bottom line is that they are both growing and a person can find God and get fed and led from a Biblical standpoint at both churches; and isn't that what really matters.

    Truthfully, if the first church acted more like the second, it would lose some of it's identity and vice versa. Having said that, I do wish that the first church would do a little better job of utilizing today's technologies to reach out to the community of believers and non-believers. But if we just looked at numbers, the whole story isn't being told. I'm not sure there's any real harm in it, unless you are ONLY looking at the numbers. I just don't think it serves any real purpose.

  19. I see two sides with comparing numbers:
    1. Seeing that another church is growing really gives hope that God can do the same thing through your church and move in an amazing way.
    2. Comparing can be bad because another church may be called to do something totally different than you.
    So I definitely see both sides.

  20. I don't see a problem with comparing numbers. Like with most things it comes down to motivation. Do you want to know because you think there is some secret formula to fill the seats? Are you jealous of someone else's growth and want to match or top it? Or do you want to learn from others in how to be a more effective equipper (is that a word?) of the saints?

    At the end of the day, church numbers is like Twitter followers…if they aren't actively engaged, it doesn't mean much. You aren't exerting much influence if people aren't listening and responding. I know people that have sat passively in the pews their whole life and never really had a genuine relationship with the Lord.

    I think a better topic is how many people you have active in ministry and/or how many you send out (missions, church planting, etc). Now that is something to talk about!

    • Thanks Tony. I agree…motivation is a key wherever one lands on this issue. And I agree with the "better topic".
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  21. I'm a numbers guys. Thats for sure. I like to see what numbers do and how they are changing. But I'm not pro on comparing. On question that is asked starting churches is "is there growth". Thats a valid question but still misses the spirit of what it means to be a community.

    I am convinced that the quality or vitality of a church is measured by the hunger towards God and the time that people spend to actively seek Him. A quote in relation to numbers and what I believe came from a preacher that visited our church. He said "the number of attendants in you Sunday service shows the popularity of your church, the number of attendants in your prayer meetings shows the hunger for God."

    I would say. Don't compare but be aware of the changes that are taking place in your church that relate to the scale/numbers in your church. Focus your attention on the people and their development.