Packer: Too Many Churches in North America Are Playing the Number Game

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J. I. Packer:

“I have found that churches, pastors, seminaries, and parachurch agencies throughout North America are mostly playing the numbers game—that is, defining success in terms of numbers of heads counted or added to those that were there before. Church-growth theorists, evangelists, pastors, missionaries, news reporters, and others all speak as if

(1) numerical increase is what matters most;

(2) numerical increase will surely come if our techniques and procedures are right;

(3) numerical increase validates ministries as nothing else does;

(4) numerical increase must be everyone’s main goal.

I detect four unhappy consequences of this.

First, big and growing churches are viewed as far more significant than others.

Second, parachurch specialists who pull in large numbers are venerated, while hard-working pastors are treated as near-nonentities.

Third, lively laymen and clergy too are constantly being creamed off from the churches to run parachurch ministries, in which, just because they specialize on a relatively narrow front, quicker and more striking results can be expected.

Fourth, many ministers of not-so-bouncy temperament and not-so-flashy gifts return to secular employment in disillusionment and bitterness, concluding that the pastoral life of steady service is a game not worth playing.

In all of this I seem to see a great deal of unmortified pride, either massaged, indulged, and gratified, or wounded, nursed, and mollycoddled. Where quantifiable success is god, pride always grows strong and spreads through the soul as cancer sometimes gallops through the body.

Shrinking spiritual stature and growing moral weakness thence result, and in pastoral leaders, especially those who have become sure they are succeeding, the various forms of abuse and exploitation that follow can be horrific.

Orienting all Christian action to visible success as its goal, a move which to many moderns seems supremely sensible and businesslike, is thus more a weakness in the church than its strength; it is a seedbed both of unspiritual vainglory for the self-rated succeeders and of unspiritual despair for the self-rated failures, and a source of shallowness and superficiality all round.

The way of health and humility is for us to admit to ourselves that in the final analysis we do not and cannot know the measure of our success the way God sees it. Wisdom says: leave success ratings to God, and live your Christianity as a religion of faithfulness rather than an idolatry of achievement.”

Packer says that he would like to see Kent and Barbara Hughes’ book, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, “made required reading for every pastoral aspirant.”

—J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton: Crossway, 1995), 207-209.

(HT: Justin Taylor)

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.

One thought on “Packer: Too Many Churches in North America Are Playing the Number Game

  1. Absolutely! And I’m not at all convinced that for the individual Christian being part of a mega church is better than being part of a smaller congregation. It becomes sometimes harder to use one’s gifts, easier to remain anonymous, more difficult to feel part of a community.

    It also becomes progressively harder to truly create space for diversity, because when there are large numbers, the one-size-fits-all response to discipleship and worship is by far the most pragmatic option.

    Many big churches get most of their growth by attracting Christians from elsewhere rather than reaching the lost, which ultimately weakens the body of Christ.

    Malcolm Gladwell, in ‘The Tipping Point’ cogently argues that 120 (or 150 – I don’t have the book in front of me) is about the number beyond which it becomes difficult to have meaningful relationships and above which the sense of community begins to fragment. I can’t help thinking that the Kingdom of God, the communities we serve and individual believers would be better served by larger numbers of well led smaller churches than by a few superstar mega churches.

    Don’t get me wrong, sometimes churches grow for all the right reasons. No particular size equals perfection. There are grotty small churches and overrated big ones and marvellous Christ centred, loving churches of all shapes and sizes. But of we could lose our addiction to numerical success I think it would be a blessed relief all round.

    Thanks for the post. It got me thinking. As you can see!

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