Five Ways to Avoid Lying about Church Attendance

I have used these lines many times in speaking venues. I ask the audience if they know how Baptists count weekly worship attendance. The knowing smiles break forth on most faces. I then began counting each person in the conference by saying 2, 4, 6, 8 . . . As the audience waits for the punch line, I say that every believer is indwelled by the Holy Spirit, so each person counts as two.

Laughter. But it's laughter because there is some parcel of truth behind my attempt at humor.

Let's say it clearly without equivocation: Sometimes church leaders lie about the weekly church attendance.

Sometimes the lies are the result of an inflated ego where a leader gets his self-worth by leading a bigger church. Sometimes it's the result of the sin of comparison with other leaders and other churches. Sometimes we rationalize it because our denominations or publications make such a big deal about it.

In all cases it's wrong. Inflating attendance numbers is committing the sin of lying.

How Did We Get Here?

In a previous post, I noted the history of how churches count. For most centuries, total membership was the primary gauge. Until the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, counted Sunday school attendance.

But today, the primary metric is weekly worship attendance. As I noted in my earlier post, it is even difficult to get all churches on the same page in counting worship attendance.

As worship attendance became the primary metric, it became easier to report numbers that were not precise. And if numbers are not precise, they tend to be inflated rather than deflated. What, then, are some safeguards we can put in place?

What Are Some Solutions?

Reporting inflated numbers is a temptation. And one might simply declare that the best way to avoid the sin is to stop doing it. But, like other sinful temptations, a declaration of abstinence from the sin does not always work. Here are a few safeguards we can put in place.

1. Do not estimate. I see churches of all sizes provide precise counts of worship attendance. They have counters responsible for designated areas of the worship center or sanctuary. A literal head count takes place for every area. Some churches are doing the same thing from videos after the services.

2. Have no less than two counters. If the counters are responsible for specific areas as noted above, have them rotate areas each week. Any aberrations can then be identified to a specific person. For example, if an area always has a high count when Charlie is counting, Charlie is probably the problem.

3.Be clear on how you count. Do you count people only in the primary worship services? Do you count children, students, or preschoolers who may not be in the primary services? If you are counting multiple services or locations, how do you count a person who shows up at more than one service (like the preacher and the musicians)? I noted my own preferences in an earlier post.

4. Keep in mind that anything other than truthful reporting is committing the sin of idolatry. Those attendance numbers become your idol because of the accolades of men and women you might receive. This sin is not something small; it is a sin that replaces the worship of the one true God with an idol.

5. Ask yourself how you can use these numbers to bring glory to God. Those questions alone will engender a check in your spirit before you exaggerate any numbers. Can the numbers remind you to pray for people? Can the numbers give you a burden to reach more with the gospel? Can the numbers give you indications on how your church may do things more effectively for His glory?

What Does the Bible Say?

The Bible reminds us that numbers and counting are neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil. David counted with the wrong motivation, and it was clearly sinful (2 Samuel 24). Luke records the numbers of people who became believers and its count is clearly celebratory (Acts 4:4).

If we report our attendance numbers to show how big and good our churches are compared to other churches, we are clearly counting and sinning. If we add one more to the count than is really present, we are clearly sinning. But if we use the numbers as a way to celebrate God's goodness, and if we use them to motivate us for greater service to Him, we are clearly using the numbers for God's glory.

How do you count attendance? Do you think attendance numbers are used often in a way to boast and demonstrate pride? Do you think some leaders lie when they report attendance? What is your opinion about this entire issue of counting and attendance?

Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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