Obsessing over numbers

June 20th, 2016

Confession: I rarely check my posts that go live on Ministry Matters. It’s not to avoid commenters and discussions that may come as a result of the posts. I’d actually like to follow up on comments and questions folks may have. (You can always tweet me @josephyoo).

It’s because I start obsessing over the wrong thing. Right underneath the title of the post are the share buttons/icons that allow you to share the post on your Facebook page, Twitter feed, email the article, share it on Google+ (That’s still around?) and other options. And then, there’s a red badge that indicates how many times that article has been shared. There’s also the Facebook page that shares with you how many people liked the article, how many shared, and how many commented. Forget the comments, forget the content, it starts becoming about, “Oh wow, I wonder why a lot of people liked this article.” Or worse, “Oh wow, may this one was as I bad as I thought…”

Then when I sit in front of my laptop with a blank word processor page, all I can think of is the stats. It can (and sometimes does) affect what I write.

I wanted to write this but last time I did, nobody really read it.

Or, What can I write to get the response I got last time?

Numbers, well, they can be such a toxic thing. The bigger numbers we get, the better we’re doing, right? In my United Methodist Conference (California-Pacific Annual Conference) there’s an annoying (to me) tendency we have when we talk about our churches. Inevitably someone asks how big one’s church is. And the usual response is membership roll first and worship attendance.

Oh, we’re a 1,500 member church. But we have 200 in attendance.

I don’t know if folks in other conferences describe their churches in this manner.

When we measure the “success” of a church we tend to use, as Dr. Soong-Chan Rah says, Western culture values over biblical values.

We may subconsciously conclude that a pastor is better if she has a book published and even more successful if she’s a New York Times best-selling author. We may think that a church is doing far better just because it’s bigger and that a small church is no good — without ever setting foot in either church. We judge books by their covers more often than we’d care to admit.

There’s a campus ministry out there that has about 40-50 students coming weekly. But the powers that be are constantly pressuring the campus pastor about the size of that ministry and its lack of (numerical) growth. Especially when that other campus ministry draws over 5,000 students weekly. Why can’t you even get to a tenth of that size?

It’s easy to conclude that the campus ministry is not doing well — that it’s unsuccessful and perhaps it’s time for a change of leadership — after all, the campus pastor has been there for decades.

But over those decades, over 100 students have answered the call to ordained ministry. The pastor has mentored and guided over 100 students who are now ordained ministers.

Numerically, perhaps we can conclude that the campus ministry is not successful, but can we argue that it might be an effective ministry?

I’ve been reminding myself that, in ministry, success is overrated. (Spoken like an unsuccessful person.) I’ve been working on focusing (and helping my church to focus) on being effective. Chasing success can make me result-oriented.

This won’t be a success unless x amount of (and, preferably more) people show up. This article  won’t be a good one unless it’s read and shared by x amount of folks. It becomes about me. And my worth is based on what I produce rather than who I am.

But ultimately, it’s not about what we produce. It’s about the One who produces in and through us. My worth isn’t determined by my success, the number of church members I have or the number of readers and shares I have.

My worth is in that I am God’s beloved. As are you.

Perhaps we'd do well to stop obsessing over results, the end game, our numbers or the fruit that we should be bearing. (That’s often difficult to do because even in ministry our success is usually determined by our attendance, our giving and budget, our professions of faith and how many baptisms we’ve had.)

Maybe the healthiest thing we could do is focus on the journey that God has us on and do our part by offering ourselves wholly for the work God wants to complete through us.

Joseph Yoo is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of Practical Prayer and Encountering Grace. He blogs at JosephYoo.com

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