An Excellent Question

By Bishop Mike Rinehart

A bright, young pastor asked the question again this month. I’ve heard it many times over the last ten years. It’s a good question, and it deserves a good answer, one better than I gave on the spot. Here are my honest thoughts. This was the question:

“Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Count them,’ right?”

This is a comment I first heard from Douglas John Hall, a theologian for whom I have great respect. He said it at one of our Tri-Synodical Theological Conferences many years ago, perhaps as many as ten. The pastors present erupted with applause. In a culture characterized by plummeting worship attendance and declining influence of the church, this may be just what we all wanted to hear. This may not be what he meant, but the meta-message was this: It’s okay that the church is ineffective at making disciples, irrelevant to the culture and bleeding members by the thousands, because, after all, Jesus said “Feed my sheep,” not “Count them.”

I know what he meant. Quality is more important than quantity. Substance is more important than attracting a crowd. Or like Billy Sunday said, “Sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” We don’t want attendance for attendance’s sake. Preach the gospel and let the cards fall where they may. Clearly, the gospel is more than the institutional church. It had better be, or we’re all doomed.

But is Hall right about Jesus and counting? Let’s let Scripture interpret Scripture. Jesus and the gospel writers can speak for themselves, in the King James Version, just to keep everyone on their toes:

Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the birds of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, some an hundred. He said unto them, He that has ears to hear, let him hear. -Mark 4:3-9

And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.                   -Luke 13:20-21

And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God, or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.  -Mark 4:30-32

He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ -Luke 15:3-6, World English Bible

And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them; and they did set them before the people. And they had a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded to set them also before them. So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets. And they that had eaten were about four thousand: and he sent them away. -Mark 8:6-9

Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. –Acts 2:41

“Go therefore, and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”  -Matthew 28:19

I hear this growth motif being used a lot. Jesus frequently uses agricultural parables. They have to do with growth. Healthy plants tend to grow. The Kingdom of God (Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) is like a tiny mustard seed: tiny, but grows into a great tree. (Shrub in Mark, as Barbara Lundblad pointed out to us at Theological Conference. Greatest of Herbs in the 1611 King James.)

Jesus tells parables about yeast. Growth again. The good news may seem tiny, weak, unimportant, even foolish, but it is powerful. It gets results. It expands like yeast. It grows like a mustard seed. It bears fruit. Paul says it’s an explosive power. He uses the word dynamis in Romans, the word from which we get our word dynamite. A little leaven leavens the lump. He calls the disciples, “ye of little faith,” but then insinuates it’s okay, because all it takes is the faith of a tiny mustard seed to move mountains.

Now, you can make the case that the growth Jesus is talking about here is not numerical growth of the church, but faith, spiritual growth, or growth of the kingdom itself in the world. It turns out, however, this is a false dichotomy. Of course he’s talking about faith. Of course he’s talking about spiritual growth, in people. He is talking about faith as an incarnate reality, not a disembodied principle.

To say, “Jesus said ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Count them,’” may betray a bit of ignorance on our part about the business of shepherding and sheep. The truth is, counting is at the top of the shepherd’s job description. It is one of the most important aspects of being a good shepherd. In the parable of the lost sheep, how do you suppose the shepherd knew one was missing after all? He counted. Because that’s what good shepherds do. Counting is keeping track, something we only do when it really matters.

Once as a youth pastor, we left two students at an amusement park. We all hopped on the bus, and I committed a cardinal sin for a youth worker: I didn’t count. We got on the bus. I asked if everybody was with their buddy. They were. We left. One girl and her non-member buddy were left behind. This was before cell phone days, so it was not until we were home hours later that we knew our mistake. The kids had called their parents, and the non-member parents had gone to get their kids the stupid youth pastor had carelessly left behind. I was ashamed. The parents were so angry they threatened a lawsuit. Never happened again. I learned a very important lesson. Every youth worker knows, every teacher knows this: If you care, you count.

As a parish pastor, what if someone who attends regularly stops coming? If they abruptly stop it can mean many things. They might have had a crisis in their life that has taken over their life and schedule. They might have had a conflict with someone else. Perhaps they’ve lost a job, or their marriage is in a tail spin. In a small congregation, you would hope someone would notice and call. The larger a congregation gets, however, the easier it is to disappear and no one notices. A shepherd with a large flock keeps track of attendance and giving, because it matters. The good shepherds watches for the lost sheep, and goes searching. When it counts, you count.

“All you pastors care about is nickels and noses. All you care about is numbers.” When I hear this I wonder what it would be like to say that about my doctor. I go into the doctor’s office and the doctor says (as happened to me of late), “Your cholesterol is too high.” I respond, “All you doctors care about is numbers!” It would be absurd. The numbers matter. The numbers are vital signs. Blood pressure. Weight. PSAs. Triglycerides. All these things are vital signs that tell us the health of the body. The doctor counts because it counts. Just like a doctor, those who care for the church as a body also look at vital signs: worship, giving, the number of people serving, the number of people in Bible study, and so on. They don’t do this because they’re all about numbers. They do this because they’re all about people, and they are caring for the spiritual health of the body. It would be a pretty poor doctor who ignored plummeting blood pressure or skyrocketing cholesterol.

The Great Commission doesn’t call us to “Go therefore and make congregations,” of course. It calls us to “Make disciples.” Congregations don’t have to grow, but if we’re making disciples in a community with a growing population (for example, the greater Houston area, which has grown from 2.4 million to over six million in just two decades) the congregation will grow, or we will have to start new congregations for the many disciples we have been making. If my children stop growing, there’s probably something wrong. They’re genetically programmed to grow.

I marvel at the things we say to ourselves in order to feel good about what is happening. I’m not talking about institutional survival. The institutions of the church, as we know them, are certainly passing away. Something new is emerging, and this we can celebrate. It’s about more than bodies in pews. What if declining attendance, generosity and influence is a sign of a deeper problem, that our gospel has become so intertwined with our culture that we can no longer tell the difference? What if, in our attempt to be nice, or to not take sides or offend, we no longer have anything unique, mind-expanding, life-giving to say? I’m talking about making disciples, captivated by Jesus and his life-giving message for the world. This is what we must joyfully embrace, even if it leads to selling our church buildings and cemeteries so that the movement may live. But don’t say numbers don’t matter. They aren’t numbers. They’re people.

If numbers aren’t important, why do the gospel writers tell us Jesus fed 5,000 (plus women and children)? Why does Luke tell us that after Peter preached 3,000 were baptized? Why did hundreds stand outside the church just to hear Helmut Thielecke speak? Wesley frequently cited numerical growth as a sign of spiritual vitality. So did Jesus. Perhaps we should too.

Let’s not stand by idly while the body bleeds out thousands of the baptized each year, saying, “That’s not my problem. Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Count them.’” Let’s rethink the way we proclaim our message and live it. Let’s rethink the means by which we make disciples. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else. Whether it’s reclaiming ancient practices or creating new wineskins, let’s seed, weed and feed communities that live in faith, hope, love, joy, generosity and vision. Let’s bring surprising, electrifying, and unbelievable good news to the world.

10 thoughts on “An Excellent Question

  1. The great thing about you Bishop is that you can look at a young pastor who just challenged you with a line like that and you can challenge them back in a loving way. Me? I was born short of patience and the years are whittling away what few remnants remain. At this point, I would challenge that pastor to start looking for another line of work because the life of scholarly ease, mutually comforting pastoral care and dabbling in the social justice issue of the day that they thought they were preparing for in the seminary is rapidly fading away. At best their future lies in a tent-making ministry. At worst, a church no longer hungry and willing to do anything for the sake of reconnecting with one more person drifting outside of Christian community is no longer the church. It is an ethnic social club with a penchant for pot luck dinners with a saved place at the head table for a social director they call “pastor” who is paid to be nice to people.

  2. I believe that pastors have become lazy and don’t really care about the numbers or the people. Not all, I hope, but some that I’ve experienced. I will never forget Dr. Oliver Harms who was the pastor of Trinity Lutheran on Houston Ave. in the 50’s. My husband and I were very young at the time and attended Trinity (Missouri Synod). There were probably 400+ members, but Dr. Harms who later became the president of the Missouri Synod came to our small apartment to visit us and welcome us. My husband became Lutheran as a result of this. As we moved around the country a couple other pastors visited us also, but that is almost unheard of now. Pastors and their caring and dedication make a huge difference in congregations. I don’t see that anymore. Attendance at Bible studies is another problem. Pastors have to set an example of caring and interest in their members. A pastor makes a huge difference in the growth of our churches.

    • My personal experience is that most pastors are deeply devoted to the church. They’ve given their heart and soul to Christ and his church. The mission field, however, has shifted dramatically. the strategies, scripts and formulas we were taught, which worked in days not far past, no longer work. We feel ill-equipped and a bit guilty. I’m hoping we’ll keep struggling to find ways to preach Christ in this new context, and not cave into a fuzzy mission sans accountability.

    • I do not think it is fair to blame pastors for the lack of growth. ALL Christians are disciples. A congregation belongs to the people that attend, not the pastor alone. A new visitor does not determine whether they will attend based upon the sermon alone, but more so if they feel welcome by those sitting next to them. The church is a faith community, where EVERYONE is a disciple. I am actually in the middle of reading the book of Acts that I have unfortunately neglected for many years. When Jesus died, the remaining 11 did not sit on their hands or shrug their shoulders with an “oh well, so much for that” response. They went out, preached, healed, raised the dead (yep, all the stuff that Jesus did, they also did in His name), and grew the “church” exponentially. I have yet to come across any passages that said they held a Capital Campaign and contacted the Mission Investment Fund to construct a building. In fact, the believers sold their possessions and they were distributed to the community as there was need. I have also not come across anything that said once the disciples left the communities where they established new believers, they had to form a call committee and wait for another disciple to show up before they could “do” anything. Perhaps we all need to set better examples in our lives, so that we can attract that growth ourselves.

  3. Thank you for your motivating and timely words! My own experience has been similar. We spend a lot of time at our church discussing possible reasons why participation has slowly but continually decreased over the years. It is easy for us to blame external forces – people are so busy today, the diverse and plentiful ways that people can hear a sermon or participate in bible study, not as many of today’s young people were brought up in church, etc.

    The fact is that people give their time, talent, and treasure to what they feel is most important. When we make excuses for people, we ignore the root of the problem – people do not participate in our church because our church is not a high priority in their lives. In my opinion, the root questions is always, “What can we do at our church to be a high priority in people’s lives?” Unfortunately, many of our knee-jerk reactions over time have been counterproductive. We try to make church more entertaining. We remove barriers of membership. We avoid any form of accountability. Our leadership concentrates on administration. Most of all, our faith is weak because we have watched our beloved church fade and we are either depressed or complacent.

    Popular sociologist Rodney Stark has made some extremely provocative comments about historical church growth over the past few years. One theory of his that really rings true to me is this: when there is a lack of contrast between a church and its surrounding culture, failure is imminent. This makes sense – if people are not receiving a noticeable benefit from the church, why would they take time from their busy schedules or sacrifice their hard earned money in a tough economy? The answer is simple, they don’t.

  4. I am a pastor, deeply in love with the church and my call to serve God’s people, and I have said the “Jesus said ‘feed my sheep’ not ‘count my sheep'” line before. Why would I admit this? Because when I have said it, I was speaking with and ministering to people who had become obsessed with numbers. My church council can be overly concerned with the budget and the giving patterns to the point that they believe things are so scarce they better not try a new program or spend any money on anything…ever. This kind of behavior keeps us from taking risks, and sometimes, it keeps us from feeding people, which is what Jesus calls us to do. In the church, we can also become really good at comparing our numbers to someone else’s. Well, the Methodist church down the road has more children enrolled in their preschool than we do. And, the non-denominational church across the street has to hire a police officer to escort all their worshipers out of the parking lot on a busy Sunday morning. So, we compare our little church to their’s and we conclude that we have failed. And this keeps us from taking risks. And, it teaches us to fear. I think numbers are terribly important. I love the reminder that Jesus knew one was missing from the flock because he counted them (Nice one!), but I think we have to be careful how we measure success. Can we be successful even when we don’t have 1,000s of members? I think so. Do we still go out and seek them? Of course! And we don’t let fear get in the way!

    • This really resonates with me. The church which sent me to seminary closed. We were a mission congregation that grew to about 80, had conflict, split to about 40, and never recovered. We were so obsessed with the numbers we couldn’t see past our own nose and I’m sure visitors smelled it when they walked in the door. However, when we finally accepted that we were finished as a congregation and quit trying something very odd happened. We took the season of Lent and used it to help us deal with the grief and loss of the congregation. We did, what we thought, was a very selfish thing and turned in on ourselves to take care of our own wounds. We had meals each Sunday and Wednesday after service and brought in a facilitator to lead us through grief work. In reality, we had finally become real, and authentic, and relevant, and powerful. In the one season of Lent we doubled in size. No one understood it. But from our dealing with death came new life. The church still closed, but we touched so many more lives in those few weeks than we had in three plus years. Stop counting numbers, be real, be meaningful, and the numbers will follow as people are deeply touched. And use number counting as guide, not as an end.

  5. Very thoughtful response. Thanks be to God for your leadership. I concur with Kerry above. I would respond with a hammer when a chisel is needed. With that said, I would hope that our congregations could at least grow 1% beyond the growth — or decline of our communities — which, if was the case in metro Houston, the Gulf Coast Synod would be BOOMING rather than declining. I am just back from from the midwest and a collegue there cannot believe congregations in Houston are not rapidly growing. What’s up? Cynically, with tongue in cheek, in reference to Douglas John Hall, do we need a new cute, self-serving neo-remnant theology?

  6. Much of what you say resonates with what I hear often from friends in the house/organic church movement; “If you plant a church, you may get disciples, but if you make disciples you will get a church.”

    As to numbers, I think sometimes they tell us things we’d rather not have to face. Willow Creek forced itself recently to face it’s own numbers and to their credit made fundamental changes to their ministry strategy as a result: they no longer separate the “seeker” and “believer” worship services and no longer advocate small groups *per se* as the linchpin for spiritual growth. (The numbers they encountered and the changes they made are detailed in the book “Move.”) By contrast, in my own Synod I found resistance to even trying to collect the number of adult baptisms per 100 worshippers, as a way of identifying congregations we might be able to learn from. (I did a pilot study on that some years ago that was eye-opening for me. You can find it here and I trust you’ll forgive if that’s shameless self-promotion.)


  7. The last church I served had over 600 people “on the rolls” when I arrived. It took just about a year to go through and call all the names on that list (minus the 130+ people I saw every Sunday) and find out what had happened to them. Some people started coming again. Some even became involved. Some had moved on to other churches and I rejoiced with them. Some were angry that it took so long for someone to find them. I never saw this as bean counting or church growth. I saw it as genuine concern for God’s people, which is what I see Bishop Rinehart saying in this article. Sadly, what originally would have been a moment for pastoral care and re-connection with a community of faith turned into “you waited too long to find me, and now you’ve lost me.” Forgive us, God, for those we have lost along the way. Help us to be both feeders and counters of your people. Come quickly to those who feel as if they have been abandoned or forgotten.

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