Back in the day when I went to Baptist conventions, this was the big pastor-to-pastor question, “So, how many do you run in Sunday School?” You can tell it’s been a long time since I went to a convention because nowadays Baptists put more focus on the worship count than their Sunday School count. But either way, we’re still counting.
Some are put off by it: “Church is a spiritual enterprise; counting seems so earthly, so superficial, so secular.” Some are all for it: "Now did you count that family that came in late and that dog that crossed the parking lot?" Others don’t much care one way or the other. Pastors have mixed emotions about counting—when the numbers are trending upward we like it; when they’re trending downward we don’t like it. But whether a church’s numbers are up or down, there’s nothing wrong with counting. It’s certainly no sin. If, as Jesus says, God keeps track of even the number of hairs on our heads, counting the people who show up on Sunday doesn't seem so ungodly.
In fact, counting people serves a purpose. That purpose was driven home to me in a note I received from our Sunday School Director, Steve Jackson. Seems not all of our Sunday School classes were getting their records turned in. So to encourage everyone to get their records in, Steve put together a note for our Sunday School Department Directors and Secretaries. He gave me permission to share it with you and here it is:
Christ didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to numbers. Counting was not His mission. That became our mission. The number of interest to Christ was all.
When he fed the multitudes with just a few fish and a couple of loaves, the head count was of no particular concern. It could have 5,000 or 50,000. The point was that all who were hungry were well fed. One was the important number; each one.
In Sunday School and Church it may appear that we give an inordinate amount of attention to the number. Sometimes perhaps we do, but out of an appreciation for the hard work that went into getting them here. However, we don’t count to keep up with a prideful number. Counting is not the goal but rather accounting is. We count to account for each one.
We don’t count so much to see who’s here; but to see who’s not here. To us their absence may be as important as their presence. When a family member misses a regular family dinner or get-together, we don’t dismiss it with an “Oh well” attitude. We find out if there is a problem. We do that with church and Sunday School too. Counting, no big deal; knowing who they are and where they are … Priceless. Record keeping is a very important job for the overall effectiveness of our Church.
You have done well accounting for each one. It’s important you know it doesn’t go unnoticed. Thanks.
I wish I had said that. I’m very glad Steve said it and said it so well. Counting serves a purpose in any organization, including church. And as long as a church keeps its focus on who the numbers represent rather than upon the numbers themselves, much good can come of it.
Reading Steve’s piece, I was reminded of a story Fred Craddock tells about his father. He was a man who started in church but who didn’t finish there. Craddock’s dad was an alcoholic and I guess he wasn’t sure he’d fit in. The people in the church reached out to him, pastors came by to see him pretty often, but all he’d say is “I know what the church wants: another name, another pledge; another name, another pledge.” The man never went back to church.
Craddock writes of going to see his now 73-pound father in the hospital as he lay dying of throat cancer. Craddock found the room full of flowers, and next to his father’s bed was a 20-inch stack of cards and notes. And every card and every blossom came from people in Craddock’s home church in Humboldt, Tennessee—the church his father scorned. As Craddock stood by his father’s bedside, he motioned for him to lean down. And his father, a lover of Shakespeare, whispered into Fred’s ear a line from Hamlet: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”
“And what is your story, daddy?”
“I was wrong.”
Craddock’s father didn’t realize it until his deathbed, but the church was concerned about a lot more than “another name, another pledge.” The church loved him, prayed for him, and longed to be there for him in his suffering.
I hope that if you think all the church cares about is nickels and noses and numbers, you’ll discover you are wrong long before you are ever on your deathbed. Perhaps then you’ll get into the life of the church, enjoy the blessings, join hands with others in service, and consider it a privilege to be counted among the faithful.
- As a postscript, if you're interested in this idea of counting, check out an older post I wrote concerning the 2010 U.S. Census. You can find it here: http://johnmccallum.blogspot.com/2010/03/you-count.html