Paul says of the Corinthians, “you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us” (2 Cor. 3:3). Therein lies the difference between disciple-producing and decision-producing.
The way we are typically programmed to measure the success of our ministries sets us up for hollow victory and desperate failure. But this is not to say we should never do any measuring. It is only to say that what we measure and how we measure shows where our confidence lies.
For instance, not all attendance increases are created equal. Joel Osteen boasts the largest church in North America, but it is not likely that the majority of these attendees are feeding on the gospel, because Osteen does not preach it as “of first importance.” For that matter, the Mormons, whom Osteen considers fellow Christians, are a movement growing in numbers and influence. There are many false religions with many adherents around the world. Clearly, accumulating numbers cannot be our primary measure of success.
But in the attractional church, growth in numbers is often seen not just as a measure of success but as a justification for any methodology used to get them. Numbers become not just a metric to track growth but a badge of honor and a demand for validation. It is not uncommon to see the leaders of attractional churches tallying each week in public venues the number of “decisions” that were made. (This is at least a more honest label than “salvations,” since it would seem presumptuous to declare the number of souls changed by virtue of the number of feet down an aisle or names on a card.) Where any church sees the fruit of gospel preaching, both in professions of faith and in the baptisms by which the professions are announced, we all ought to rejoice with those who rejoice. But we also ought to caution those who publicly tally to check their own motives and observe their disciples’ fruit. Biblical credibility is not found in big stats.
Apparently this phenomenon is not new, as Spurgeon once responded to it himself:
Do not, therefore, consider that soul-winning is or can be secured by the multiplication of baptisms and the swelling of the size of your church. What mean these dispatches from the battlefield? “Last night fourteen souls were under conviction, fifteen were justified, and eight received full sanctification.” I am weary of this public bragging, this counting of unhatched chickens, this exhibition of doubtful spoils. Lay aside such numberings of the people, such idle pretense of certifying in half a minute that which will need the testing of a lifetime. (The Soulwinner (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker, 1995), 13.)
The attractional defenders of such number-crunching will say that numbers matter because every number is a person and every person matters. Absolutely right. But every person is a soul, and when in our zeal we pronounce the state of a soul that has not been invested in over time and cared for, we do no one’s soul any favors.
Another thing we often hear as a church growth truism is that “healthy things grow.” And as I said before, yes, they often do. But not always.
Pastoral ministry is about souls, not stats. If your number of souls grows, fantastic. To God be the glory. Let’s just remember that we are responsible mainly for the care of the souls, not the accumulation of them.
In the end, this is good news. It is good news because it means God’s approval of us is not based on our ability to produce statistics. We are not called to be successful but faithful. We may plant, we may water, but it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6).
When we pastors cling to the gospel ourselves, it will shape us, giving us the mind and heart of Christ for our people. As Christ shepherds our hearts, let us shepherd the hearts of our people, with deep love and spiritual affection seeking their good above our own comfort. And in the end, they may be our boast (2 Cor. 1:14).
— from The Prodigal Church (Crossway, 2015), pp.151-153.