Opinions vary greatly when it comes to numbers in the church. There are often two extremes. One camp says that numbers are everything and another says numbers don’t matter.
Not only is there a conversation around if we should count but also what we should count. Some believe that numbers can be misleading. Some rely on metrics too much hoping that the number of attenders and budget line items can mask the unhealthiness behind closed doors. Others refuse to count in order to mask the lack of momentum their church has.
But I do believe that numbers matter. Metrics matter in the church and church planting. The most important factor when it comes to numbers may just be what and how we count. Counting in and of itself is not good enough. There has to be a method behind our madness. We have to count what matters. But what matters most?
Numbers should matter to us because they matter to Jesus. Jesus gives us some insight into counting what matters. In Luke 15 Jesus tells us three stories about lost things. He tells us about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and two lost sons. In the stories about the sheep and coin we have someone searching for something that is lost and when it is found a party is thrown and rejoicing follows.
I believe that Jesus is teaching us to count what’s lost. That’s what matters to him. Lostness. The shepherd leaves the 99. He leaves the found. He leaves the flock for just one lost sheep. The lady searches for the coin until she finds it. She will not be denied. She turns the whole house upside down to find the one thing that’s lost. She’s not just content with the nine coins she has already, she wants the one that’s lost.
We need not pass over the importance of existing churches. Nor should we downplay the impact that churches are having on their communities. But shouldn’t we also have a heart for what’s lost?
Often in our counting we focus on what’s already found. We don’t think we need more churches because we already have one in the community. Or, we have many people attending a church in our city so we think it’s mission accomplished. But should we count how many congregations we have in a geographical area as the sole metric for the need for new works? Should we simply count church buildings when we are surveying the need for church plants? If Jesus were teaching these parables today would he emphasize just the value of brick and mortar? Does Jesus teach us to measure this way?
I believe that Jesus is teaching us to count what’s lost not what’s found. For example, if we have two churches in a community of 20,000 people, and those churches average 200 in attendance each, should we count the nearly 400 that are found or the some 19,600 that are lost? We need not pass over the importance of existing churches. Nor should we downplay the impact that churches are having on their communities. But shouldn’t we also have a heart for what’s lost? Shouldn’t we also look to the harvest and have compassion for their lack of a shepherd? I believe this is the heart of Jesus and the heart of this passage.
The last story is like the first two in that it ends in a party and with something being found. But it also differs from the first two. In the parable of the sons there is a glaring unresolved question: Why does no one go looking for the younger son? The shepherd searches for the sheep, the woman searches for the coin, but who is looking for the younger son?
I once heard a pastor say that it would have been the role of the older brother to go looking for the younger in this scenario. But this doesn’t happen. Why? The older brother in the story represents the religious leaders of the day. The always conforming but never transformed Pharisees. The ever-present but also lost older brothers. In verse two, they are the ones grumbling and saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus is showing that the religious leaders of the day do not have a heart for what’s lost. They are the apathetic older brothers. They do not understand the mission of Jesus and the heart of God articulated in Mark 10:35, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Jesus shows us to count what’s lost, and when we refuse we liken ourselves to the religious leaders of the New Testament. Not a good crowd to be lumped in with.
Jesus is challenging our metrics. He is showing us how and what to count. He is showing us to count what matters, to count what’s lost. Will we join him in seeking what’s not yet found?
Read about how churches are reaching lost people in their city by visiting our Every Church Can campaign on the Church Planting page or searching the hashtag #everychurchcan on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.