When facts aren’t really facts


An Ed Stetzer blog article and tweet about megachurches caught my attention the other night, but I haven’t had time to write about it until now.

The tweet caught my eye first. Ed wrote, “Christians choosing megachurches & megachurches thriving is not a matter of debate, it’s just math.” I responded to his tweet, by suggesting that two terms in the statement need to be clearly defined biblically–Christians and thriving. Trying to seek agreement rather than argument, I suggested we both agree that attending a church is not the equivalent of being a Christian and that numbers are not the measure whether a church is thriving or not. Now, I did this in tweet form, so it was much more tightly constructed than this due to character limits.

Ed responded simply that he was comfortable with how he used the words. That response that was really more of non-response–it seems pretty obvious that he was comfortable with them or he wouldn’t have used them. I know that Ed traffics in a world which is unlike mine in a number of ways, the most pertinent to the issue at hand is the tendency to treat church growth issues as a matter of objective quantifiability. The “it’s just math” part of his tweet is what I mean.

Where I think I part from Ed, at least based on what I read and his response to me, is that I don’t see how assessing the health of churches (which clearly is implied with a word like “thriving”) can be a matter of “just math.” Thriving is a word that presents us with a judgment on how something is doing, and to draw that conclusion from the numbers alone is woefully misguided. My friend, Les Ollila, used to say that there is a difference between growing and swelling–your head will get bigger if you bang it against the wall, but that wouldn’t be considered growth. In a similar way, a church could be getting bigger for unhealthy reasons, so “math” is not the only or even main way to evaluate whether a church is thriving.

This false sense that you can quantify church health (thriving vs. not thriving) shows up in the article that Ed was tweeting about. There he uses the word “fact” to describe his conclusion that megachurches are thriving. By using that word, he attempts to move the discussion from the realm of opinion, telling his readers that everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. I agree with him on that point, but the flaw in his article and argument is that he isn’t talking about facts.

It is a fact that more people are attending megachurches. That is a math issue, so we can count them and draw a firm conclusion. But when he introduces two subjective variables into his assessment (that it is Christians who are attending and that increased numbers means they are thriving), this is no longer a mere statement of fact, it is a value judgment. He has assumed that all megachurches are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and that the growth in attendance is not only from genuine believers, but that larger attendance equates with greater spiritual health in those congregations.

If it is at least a possibility that some number of those churches which make up the megachurch category are in fact not faithful to the gospel, are in fact drawing crowds without a genuine faith commitment to Jesus Christ, and/or are marked by any number of internal spiritual deficiencies (e.g., frustrated, burned out leaders or members, growing financial burdens and pressures, etc.), then his “fact” statement is not accurate. If Christian, however, is being used simply to mean something like non-Muslim or non-Buddhist and thriving means only that they have more people there now than last year, sure, he is probably right. “Christian” congregations of over 2000 seem to be drawing bigger crowds than ever before.

For myself, I don’t see much value in “facts” like that. They may tell us what a numerical trend is, but they don’t actually enable us to think about church growth helpfully. Church growth, conceived of biblically, is not value-free. Who makes up the church and how the church is functioning are important biblical factors in determining whether a congregation is really thriving. It is never just a matter of math.

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