How to Break Free from the Numbers Leash and Cultivate Gardens

The Most Difficult Things to Count

Starting from the small church of my youth, winding through my last 20 years of vocational pastoring, I have had a decent vantage point on the church growth narrative.

When I was in a booming attractional church, we took pride in our voluminous of felt-needs programs. When I was in a liturgical church, there was a palatable panic around when our numbers of people dropped. No matter what our style was, we were numbers conscience.

We’d hear about the metrics over and over; how many campuses we have, how many people attend, how many got saved, how much money we raised etc. Honestly I came to dread church conferences because of the onslaught of that single question “so how many…” Even when I pastored at a megachurch, I was embarrassed to answer.

The question itself exposes our ambitions.

As a church planter, the volume of resources for church planting stresses this anxiety. Supposedly, after you’re first Sunday Launch the race is on to get to 100 people in order to survive. This is the goal. I was just reading a church planting book published last year that suggested borrowing people from another church to create the illusion of numerical energy so that church shoppers feel you’re a big deal in town. This feels disingenuous.

The numbers seem to say that a shiny personality is magnetic enough to attract people. The numbers often create a producer-consumer relationship with parishioners.

Every church I’ve served has been led around by the numbers leash. Whether spoken or unspoken, it is how we weighed our impact. Simultaneously we always had angst about a lack of involvement, spiritual maturity and genuine care for mission.

Despite this angst, we did not change our matrix. We still emotionally and pragmatically lived under the shadow of numbers. The unnerving truth is God gets heated when leaders survey the success of their organizations using numerical size.

“David took a census of the people of Israel commissioning Joab to count the inhabitants of Israel. ‘Take a census of all the people of Israel—from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north—and bring me a report    so I may know how many there are.

But Joab replied, ‘May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this?’

But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab traveled throughout all Israel to count the people… God was very displeased with the census.

Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt for doing this foolish thing.'” – 1 Chronicles 21

This leads me to believe that we need a major paradigm shift. We need to stop emphasizing the most obvious, simplistic cultural sign of success and instead use a more Kingdom-oriented pattern. What we measure is what will eventually matter the most.

Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.”

I’ve found this to be true.

Missional Churches are going to have to wrestle with resisting the numbers template. Numbers tell us very little about the DNA of Discipleship, Neighborhood Rootedness and Relational Tethering. These things mattered in the 1st Century Church. What if we reoriented around their vitality?

We need a new fresh metaphor, one that has little do with numbers and a whole lot to do with rich soil and earth under our fingernails. The metaphor I find most helpful is The Garden, The Gardeners and The Gardening.

The Garden – Seeing Neighborhoods

God got really clear about his love for the world by moving into the Nazareth neighborhood. We need to get clear about locality. Like a raised bed in a garden box, we need to define size, shape and contents of our garden.

Your garden may be a section of your city or include several small towns in your county. If the language you use in your church is always connected to the brick-and-mortar of your Sunday gathering place, then you will naturally count heads as the means to measuring.

Talk about the neighborhood more than you talk about your little church empire. Direct eyes outward. Pull people into the garden to explore, to behold, to understand where they live. Release into the air imagination for the particular province God has situated your community in. Make it obvious over-and-over that the energy is outside the building in the neighborhood. This takes a lot of bandwidth, but it is the most foundational missional shift.

Moving people’s affections beyond the spiritual goods-n-services they consume to the needs in their neighborhood, is moving from a “me-orientation” to “mission-orientation.” Honestly there is probably nothing more vital or volatile than this dirty work.

Focus on questions like:

  • Who is our city?
  • Who are our neighbors?
  • Where do we live?
  • Who is already doing good work in this garden?
  • What is beauty in our place?
  • What is the brokenness in our place?

The Gardening – Seeding Relationships

It’s not enough to have better intelligence on a neighborhood, now we need better relational attachment.

Cultivating a garden is more than raising money for an initiative or throwing in some skilled leaders. The Garden needs us to get on our hands and knees and enjoy the soil. Is your church relationally investing in a region?

We need to move beyond an event-mindset to a rhythm-mindset. Having events that catalyze missional serving in our city can cause good sparks. Those sparks can easily be compartmentalized. Our passion must be sustainability.

We must cross and close the relationship gap. You must push for tangibility about how to foster connectivity with a place. This is the labor of incarnation.

Create spaces for clusters within your church to brainstorm the pathways into a particular place. Let people verbalize their challenges, ideals, fears and hurdles to bridging the relational disparities with their neighbors.

Some helpful questions for these clusters to wrestle through are:

  • How are we going get dirty in our place?
  • On a daily basis?
  • On a weekly basis?
  • On a monthly basis?
  • On a yearly basis?
  • How can we do this in micro-groups?
  • With other families?
  • With our friends?

The Gardeners – Shaping Disciples

An agriculturist understands the challenge, the fine art and backbreaking working found in the garden.

I’ve had a literal urban garden for a few years. My wife is the expert and must continually teach me how to plant seed and nurture them to life. She understands the conditions of the soil and the variables of gardening. I’ve got a lot to learn.

Every Spring, that garden needs fresh work and focus. If you’re inviting people to into the garden how will you equip them? How will you foster their intelligence and their perseverance?

Gardeners burn out without water, nourishment and best practices. How do we build a disciple culture? Tilling-and-toiling requires tools. What tools are you putting in the hands of your Gardeners?

Gardeners who inhabit a relational-ecosystem will need water and sustenance to continue. Jesus will build the church if we make disciples. Shaping disciples is not directed at more service to the church infrastructure but more service to the labyrinth outside our church doors.

Consider:

  • How are we cultivating disciples?
  • How are we training for the hands-on work of missional dwelling?
  • How are we clearing out space on our church calendars for this pivotal work?

Check out the V3 Movement’s Learning Cohorts to learn how to reframe around the Garden and not Numbers.

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Dan White

Dan White

Missional Community Cultivator at V3 Church Planting Movement
Dan White Jr. is the leader of a developing network of communities in the urban neighborhoods of Syracuse, NY. Together our communities are multiplying into diverse neighborhoods learning to serve, listen and extend the all-consuming love of Jesus. He serves V3 as a coach/consultant with the V3 Missional Movement. Personal obsessions include reading theological works, songwriting, buffalo wings, the Dallas Cowboys, U2, dinner-time with my family and good conversations. You can learn more about Dan on his blog.
Dan White

2 Comments

  1. Kathleen Ward Mar 22, 2014 Reply

    Great insights, Dan, as always.

    I was embarrassed to find myself asking someone at a party this evening how many people were involved in their missional community/church plant. Even though I don’t care about the numbers, I asked the question to visualise the community better. As soon as I’d asked the question, I felt ashamed of myself, for all the implicit judgement the question holds.

    I appreciate your reference back to David’s census as a comment on our obsession with numbers. If God doesn’t care about the numbers, why should we?

    Blessings,

    – Kathleen

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