The Danger of Measuring Ministry Success by Numbers

Seeking God for ministry fruitfulness is wise and godly. But measuring ministry success by numbers alone is dangerous and misleading.

I have been a pastor for nearly two decades. Sadly, I feel that for most of this time, my primary means of measuring ministry success has been through attendance numbers. I do not mean simply numbers in our Sunday morning services, but also in prayer meetings, small groups, and different events or programmes.

Most times, I would have told you attendance does not matter. I would have advised you to resist the trap of the numbers game and the main thing is to be faithful in your calling, preach the Word, pray, and care for people. God will take care of the fruit. If you take care of the depth of your ministry, God will take care of the breadth. I strongly believe these things, then and now.

There is no doubt having a room packed full of people feels exciting (especially in a prayer meeting). We get a feeling that people are eager to be there, and that people are benefiting from our ministry. And of course, we all long to reach more people with the truth of the gospel and of God’s Word.

Yet, attendance was my main measure of success. If I came home from a church prayer meeting and my wife asked me how it was, I would usually answer, “It was okay. Only ten people showed up.” Or, “It was great, 40 people came!” Neither the communion we experienced with God nor the fellowship we enjoyed with one another mattered as much to me. All that really mattered was how many people attended.

The Dangers of Overvaluing Numbers

No doubt, numbers are important to God and they should be to us too. But they had become all-important to me. There are real dangers to judging our ministries primarily by numbers. Here are some of them and what we can do to overcome them.

Numbers Are Not an Accurate Measure of Ministry Success

Large crowds often followed Jesus for the wrong reasons (John 6:26). Sometimes only a few disciples remained with him (John 6:66-69). The faithfulness of the few showed the purity of Jesus’s teaching and the sincerity of those who stayed with him. Attendance is not the same as true fruitfulness in ministry.

Numbers have been misleading throughout church history. Preachers with bad doctrine (including cult leaders) often attract large crowds, while pastors faithful to biblical doctrine sometimes lead small congregations. We always want to reach as many people as possible. But we also need to recognise that numbers are not an adequate means of measuring ministry success.

Emphasising Attendance Subtly Changes Our Focus

Pastors should focus on ministering God’s Word accurately, passionately, and practically, regardless of how many people show up. Paying undue attention to attendance slightly (often imperceptibly) alters our focus. It makes us emphasise things that will make people happy and keep them coming back. It also subtly reduces people to numerical value, instead of individuals whom God has created in his image and whom he has entrusted to our care.

Numerical Growth (Or Lack of It) Can Become an Idol

Attendance is the most visible sign of our success (and popularity) as a pastor. So it is easy for us to draw our identity and significance from it. Then we will increasingly find our value, worth, and joy from how many people come to our church. When numbers swell up, our pride swells up and when numbers crash, our soul crashes with it. Once the idolatry takes hold, we will be willing to do anything to get more numbers in attendance.

There is a bitter irony in making an idol out of people in attendance. There will never be enough people coming to satisfy us.

Additionally, when idolatry takes hold ministry becomes entirely self-focused. We will no longer aim to glorify God and serve his people. We will only be serving ourselves. It is not a godly, mature way to live and minister in Christ. Regardless of what we may preach from the pulpit, eventually, our people will sense this misplaced affection in our hearts.

Seeking True Ministry Success

Every pastor can fall into the temptation to measure ministry success unwisely. Here are a few suggestions for how we can reduce the pull of numbers in our hearts.

Find Your Identity in Christ

It is amazing how many problems in our lives are resolved by returning to our identity in Christ. If we find our identity in how many people show up on a Sunday morning, we will feel our value, worth, and peace fluctuating up and down along with our numbers.

Thankfully, our lives do not consist of the number of people who attend our church. Rather, in Christ we are dearly beloved children of God, chosen before the foundation of the world, accepted by the One who matters most, and more than conquerors through him who loved us (1 John 3:1, Eph. 1:4, Rom. 15:7, 8:37).

A good practice for all of us is to preach the gospel to ourselves regularly so our sense of self-estimation is tied to who we are in Christ, not to the number of people who show up on Sunday or any other time.

Focus on People Who Are There, Not on Those Who Aren’t

Many years ago, a seasoned pastor said that when the weather was bad on a Sunday, he knew that half his congregation would not come to church. On such days, he would pray that God would provide a double portion of blessing for those who were there. What a helpful thing to remember! Instead of worrying about why more people did not come, focus on doing your best for those who came.

Minister for God’s Glory Alone

Every Sunday, pastors have an opportunity to take up our crosses, die to ourselves, and remind ourselves that we exist for God’s glory—not our own. Our church is not about us, or even about the people who come. It is all about God.

The Lord is most concerned about his people growing in genuine faith, obedience, and love. He is less concerned about how many people attend the church. On any given day, we can trust that God has brought the exact number of people whom he wanted to be there. Our job now is to minister to them.

Over the years the Lord has helped me to worry less about how many people show up and to focus more on him, his Word, and his people. As this happened, I experienced far more power and joy in my ministry. May this continue to be true for me and for all of us who are charged with ministering God’s Word to his precious people.