“How are you doing since COVID?” my friend asked. He pastors a nearby congregation. I knew what he wanted to know. He wanted to know if our attendance was back to pre-COVID numbers. Is our church back to where it was before COVID? A lot of things happened during the quarantine and one of the things that happened was that people stayed home from church. A lot of them haven’t come back to church. This has a lot of church leaders worried if they will ever come back.
We’re doing fine, I tell him. In fact, by all of the numbers we track, we’re doing pretty well.
This is important because counting attendance is how we measure success. I’m counted as a successful pastor when a lot of people attend our worship services. These numbers determine how other people see me. Most of the time, when I’m introduced to a group, someone will mention how many people attend our church. Because the fruit of the spirit is notoriously difficult to quantify, we’ve settled on counting how many people are sitting in the room. After all, how do you know if someone is stronger in grace? How do you know if our people have beefed up in mercy? See what I mean? This is too hard to figure out. It’s easier to just count who shows up.
There is a danger, however, in making attendance the measure of success. To be honest, there are several problems in making attendance the measure of success, but I don’t have time to name all of them. Let’s focus on a few of the obvious ones. First, and this is important, Jesus never made attendance the measure of success. Yes, there are stories that involve thousands – the feeding of the 5,000 and Pentecost with 3,000 being saved – but most of the stories involve twos and threes. Most of the time, Jesus’ audience was limited to 12. Jesus seemed to be focused on quality rather than quantity.
The second reason it’s dangerous to measure success with numbers is that we tend to focus on drawing a large attendance rather than making disciples. Remember, Jesus’ command was to go to all the world and make disciples, not draw a crowd. There are a lot of people in our world who know how to draw a crowd. Concert promoters know how to get people into an auditorium. Circus owners can get a crowd to their parade. Football teams, holiday fireworks, and social justice protests can all draw crowds. Because their livelihood depends on these crowds, they’ve gotten pretty good at drumming them up. When churches start seeing the success of these other events, we start using the same techniques to draw crowds into our churches. Because our sanctuaries become crowded, we think we’re successful.
When COVID hit and people were forced to stay home, we realized that we had focused too hard on growing attendance and not making disciples. The results were humiliating and embarrassing.
When I was just getting started in my ministry, I was having lunch with an older pastor. We were talking about attendance and success in ministry. He said he didn’t know how many people attended on any given Sunday. The staff of the church kept up with all of that, he said, but he never asked and didn’t care to know. When I asked why, he answered, “Because it doesn’t matter.”
How could he say that? As a young pastor, I knew all of my church’s numbers. More than that, I knew the attendance patterns of most of my members. To me, it was important that my members attend. My success depended on them showing up. I was personally insulted when they didn’t attend. How could my pastor friend be so unconcerned about the attendance numbers?
When I pressed him for an answer, he said he was only concerned about one person. He explained that the Bible said that Jesus left the 99 to find the one. Jesus was always leaving the crowd and looking for that one lost sheep. So, my friend said, if looking for that lost sheep was all that mattered to Jesus, then it should be all that mattered to him. Every Sunday, he said, he went into the sanctuary praying for one person, looking for one person and if there was only one person in the sanctuary, he would assume they were the one Jesus was looking for.
I can tell you that thinking like that on any given Sunday changes the way you look at your congregation. When you scan the congregation, I’m not checking attendance. I’m looking to see if I can find the one person that Jesus is looking for. From face to face and row by row, I’m trying to answer one question: “Are you the one Jesus is looking for?” If looking for the one is all that mattered to Jesus, then it’s all that matters to me. Every Sunday I have one prayer. “Please, dear Jesus, don’t let me say or do anything that will get between You and the one You are looking for.”
“And, Jesus, if I’m the one You’re looking for, help me to surrender quickly to Your determined love and persistent mercy.”
It’s always a full house in my church on Sunday. Every Sunday, Jesus shows up. Every Sunday, at least one person shows up. And more times than not, it’s the exact person Jesus is looking for.