Over the past few weeks I have been listening to a lot of podcasts from William Willimon, who is currently the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. I didn’t know much about Willimon much before this recent spate of listening, except that he was dean of the Chapel and professor at Duke University. And that he’s written books with Stanley Hauerwas (a good thing in my opinion).
He comes across as a down-to-earth guy who has a deep understanding of theology and church history. He’s just the kind of guy that I think we need leading churches today.
There is something in his leadership that just doesn’t sit right with me, though. It makes me quite uncomfortable, actually. Willimon puts quite an emphasis on growth in congregations. No, not metaphysical, intrinsic, personal, spiritual growth. I’m talking about numbers, attendance, giving, things-you-can-count growth. He recently published a blog post entitled, “Anything worth doing for God is worth counting.” In that post he explains that since becoming bishop he has instituted the use of the Conference Dashboard, which is a way for congregations to log in every week and report their numbers. He describes it this way:
Every church logs in on Monday morning and reports their numbers for that Sunday’s attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, offering, and participation in mission. Anyone can see the numbers for any church in our Conference over the past three years.
As you might expect, he has received a lot of push-back from congregations about his use of these metrics. People are skeptical about making Christian faith “all about the numbers” and “just putting butts in the pews” (I think I would probably be among them). He responds out of his own theological heritage:
There may be something to be said for some of these slogans. Except not in the United Methodist Church. We’re Wesleyans. That means we believe in the growth of the Kingdom of God. John Wesley had friction with the established church of his day, not only because of his vibrant Trinitarian theology, but also because of his refusal to limit his ministry to the moribund English parochial system. From the beginning, Methodists were inveterate counters and numbers keepers.
I have personally been averse to counting, mainly because I have seen it abused so many times. There are ways to grow a congregation or a youth group that have nothing to do with the gospel. You can bribe people into doing anything. (i.e. Come to youth group and get a free iPod!)
My stance has always been that growth is tangential: it is a result of healthy congregations, but you can never hit it if you aim for it. Growth happens as a result of proclaiming and living the gospel, not as a result of targeted marketing and growth strategies. We see that in Acts: in quite a few places the Bible tells us how many people were added to their number.
Have we swung the pendulum too far away from counting? Should we start counting again? Is there a better way to count? Should growth be the thing we are aiming for or is it only a second-order sign of health and maturity?
Or is “grow” a four letter word in ministry?