Chapter 11

Chapter Eleven: People Patterns

"One, two, three, four . . . fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven . . . eighty-one, eighty-two, eighty-three. …" The shepherd had nearly finished counting his sheep. He counted the last stragglers. "Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine." Ninety-nine? There should have been one hundred. A sheep was missing! The shepherd looked around. He hoped to spot the missing sheep or lamb just outside the fold. But the missing one was nowhere.

Taking up lantern and staff, the shepherd retraced the day’s steps. "Where might the sheep be?" The night was settling in, with its added dangers. Would he find his sheep safe and sound?

At last the shepherd returned home, bringing his sheep with him. He released it into the fold and breathed a sigh of relief as it mingled with the others. As the shepherd cared for his sheep, the Lord cares for his people. He goes to great lengths to bring strays back into the group (see Luke 15:1-7).

The Importance of Counting

Do you ever go fishing? If so, do you count your fish? Peter, Jesus’ disciple, counted the fish he caught, at least sometimes. John 21:1-14 tells the story of Peter and his friends going fishing. They fished all night. Nothing.

Then Jesus came. He told them to fish on the right side of the boat. They quickly caught a boatload of fish—153 of them. Why did Peter and the others count? It must have been because they thought fish were important. Plus it impressed the people who read the story! Jesus had performed a notable miracle.

Earlier, in a scene by the lake, Jesus had said to Peter referring to his ministry as an evangelist, "From now on, you will catch men-(Luke 5:10). On the first recorded occasion that Peter preached, 3000 people were drawn into the net (Acts 2:41). And Luke cited numbers to indicate that more and more people were joining the church (Acts 4:4; 5:14; 6:7).

People are important to evangelists—fishers of women and men. Sheep are important to a shepherd. The shepherd in Jesus’ parable counted his sheep. That’s how he knew one was missing. People are important to Jesus—important enough to be counted. Jesus wants lost sheep found.

How Do You Count?

There are a number of important ways to count people in a congregation. A good method is to count people present on a Sunday morning. Lyie Schaller, a church-growth consultant, indicates that worship attendance is one of the better indicators of congregational participation.(note:1)

Schaller offers nine reasons, several of which I will adapt and explain here.

  1. It’s a sensitive barometer of the emotional and spiritual state of the congregation. Membership may remain constant even as worship attendance fluctuates greatly.
  2. It can provide a helpful comparison on a monthly or yearly basis. In other words, it can show what direction a congregation is moving in attendance.
  3. Worship attendance helps show how well new attenders are being incorporated as members. By comparing total regular attendance with total membership figures, a congregation can judge how well they are developing commitment in the church.
  4. Worship attendance provides a helpful index to other numbers in the church. For example, you can compare two sets of numbers, such as the number of children compared with the total attendance. Such comparisons can help congregations shape programs or employ staff to meet growing needs.

It’s also helpful to count first-time visitors every Sunday morning. This indicates how well the congregation is doing at inviting guests. Or you might count the number of visitors who returned for the second time. This will give some indication of the first impression you’re giving visitors. People will come to visit on a friend’s recommendation. But only those who liked the service will come back on their own. Why Count?

Numbers are important only because each number represents a person made in the image of God. The Scripture says: "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account" (Heb. 13:17). Counting is one form of accountability.

What would happen if your church treasurer took the same approach to financial accounting as to people accounting? For example, the treasurer could say counting leads to pride. Or insist it would lead to a numbers game. Why do we count money? To sense our commitment to the Lord and the church. To see if we are making progress. To see if we are meeting our goals. To sense the enthusiasm of the members for the church.

All these reasons for counting money are also legitimate reasons to count people. God cares about people and numbers. Counting is a form of stewardship, and people are far more important than money.

Beyond Counting

There was a time when many people, particularly in rural communities, attended the same church all their lives. But times have changed. Even in many rural and suburban communities, there is much mobility. It’s not unusual for people to attend many different churches over a period of years. Some persons refer to this phenomenon as the "circulation of the saints." One pastor commented, "Pastoring in this church is like ministering to a parade."

Such rapid turnover can cause congregations to overlook new members or short-term attenders. Who will, miss them if there is no accounting for worship attenders by name? If they aren’t missed, how will anyone show them pastoral care and concern? One solution, particularly in medium-to-large churches, is to have an attendance registry.

When introducing the attendance registry. Pastor Joe Sherer recalled his growing up on a dairy farm. His father kept a record of each cow. Joe reminded the church that a register of attendance is a way to keep track of people—who are more important than cows!

People can indicate their attendance on the fellow-
ship registry each Sunday during the worship service.

Herb Miller suggests that attendance registration be done with the following instructions each Sunday morning:

One of the things we value most in our church is friendliness. We want to know one another and extend a friendly welcome to those who worship with us. In order to help us do that, the ushers will come forward and distribute a "Ritual of Friendship" pad. We ask that you all members and visitors alike, write your names and addresses. (Avoid telling them to sign the registration pad. That word sign has negative psychological connotations from military service and school memories.) When the pad reaches the inside aisle, please pass it back to the other end, noting the names and addresses of persons who are seated on your pew. This will give you the opportunity to greet and get acquainted with one another after the service.(note:2)

He insists that this announcement be made every Sunday so visitors understand the reason for writing their names. Even people who naturally resist instructions will write their names if the procedure is handled properly. The information on the pads can then be used to discern the people patterns in the church and to "watch over" the whole congregation.

Keeping Records

Particularly in a day when spontaneity in worship is valued, record-keeping seems dull and boring. But somehow, for the early Methodists, it imparted life. Keith Bailey writes, "Modern evangelicals often believe that regulations and records are the death of spirituality. History demonstrates that the absence of regulations and records are more likely to be the death of spirituality."(note:3)

John Wesley was rigid on promptness, requirements for membership, attendance, discipline, and record-keeping. He required new Christians to belong to a "class meeting." These class meetings were the key to real caring and accountability. Each class meeting had a leader who looked after each member of the group.

Keeping Computerized Church Records

Many churches have discovered that a computer can help keep accounts, both of finances and people.

Here’s a sample of ways a computer could work for your church.(note:4) It can:

  1. Print a full set of church and Sunday school class rosters.
  2. Make lists of people who have missed three times in a row.
  3. Tell you whose birthdays or anniversaries are coming up.
  4. Tell you how many members there are and how many joined this year.
  5. Tell you who hasn’t received a pastoral call in so many months.
  6. Print contributions statements as a year-end report for taxes.
  7. Tell you who is available to do neighborhood canvassing.
  8. Print checks for bills, then adjust the cash-on-hand figure.

However, a computer cannot:

  1. Smile and greet visitors warmly.
  2. Serve tea at committee meetings.
  3. Assign the most suitable committee members.
  4. Do follow-up calling.
  5. Work out disagreements between church members.
  6. Tell you who is growing spiritually, and who is not.

It’s crucial that the computer program be compatible with your church’s needs, interests, and goals. Otherwise, it will be of limited use, and may become a liability. If you want to try using a computer, consider these suggestions:

  1. Write out a purpose statement for your church.
  2. Write out a set of goals you are trying to achieve as a church.
  3. Make a list of tasks which you would like to be able to do with a computer, which can help to reach those goals.
  4. Find a person who can systematically and regularly enter data. (Without all the right updated data, your computer will be almost useless.)
  5. Shop around for church computer programs, and find one that will do the tasks you need.
  6. Shop around for a computer that will run the software program.

The Audit of Mission

Auditing is a way of dealing responsibly with financial records—to see that they are accurate and honest. Churches and businesses regularly have their financial books audited. But churches seldom audit their "people records" to see how accurately they reflect the life of the church.

A good auditor doesn’t simply check facts. She will look at the system of record-keeping and see how well it’s working. An audited report is often called an "opinion" since it represents an auditor’s judgment of the financial records. Similarly, churches would do well to have an auditor judge their way of keeping "people records."

Some congregations have audited their entire approach to mission. For example, Mountville Mennonite Church in southeast Pennsylvania did this with the help of an outside agency. They did a comprehensive study to discern the changing "people patterns" in their church and neighborhood over a period of years. At a seminar, an outside consultant helped the pastor and congregation interpret the facts and decide what priorities to pursue.

Such a study can help congregations focus on their relationship to Christ and their community. In the words of another consulting agency:

The undertaking of Mission Audit represents the recognition of mutual responsibility for the task of the church and a common accountability to the Head of the church for the obedient furtherance of the purpose of the church.(note:5)

Insofar as disciples or congregations think they have nothing to learn or no improvements to make, they have already forfeited any claim to being disciples at all. Mission Audit is central to the discipleship of every person, group, congregation or institution bearing the name of Christian. Mission Audit is the process of listening to what we are, what we do, and how we relate with the world as it really is in the light of the overarching mission of God.(note:6)

Ask Newcomers How You Are Doing

As noted above, some congregations have benefited from systematically examining their church life and priorities to see how well they are incorporating new members. One way to examine your church is to discover how newcomers feel about it. And the way to find out is to ask.

Oswald and Leas studied assimilation patterns in a number of congregations. They determined that it’s better not to have members interview newcomers to their own church for several reasons.(note:7) Perhaps the interviewee has had a negative experience with the interviewer or someone closely related. Or perhaps the interviewer will assume the answer to questions, based on previous experience. Furthermore, the interviewer may feel personally responsible for the newcomer’s problems with the church. Feeling guilty or becoming defensive, the interviewer may block out information.

Oswald and Leas suggest that churches work together to interview each other’s newcomers. Churches should be matched in terms of church size, denomination, cultural grouping, and philosophy of ministry. The two churches can then work together to decide what to study, what questions to ask, and how to report their findings.

By studying responses, you can determine ways to minister more effectively to new people. And you can work to change wrong patterns and become better stewards of the most important gift God can give a church—people!

For Review, Study, and Action

  1. Why do you suppose the Bible uses so many numbers? Can using numbers be spiritual? If so, in what ways? What are the dangers of counting?
  2. What kind of counting is your congregation doing? How are these numbers made public?
  3. How does counting relate to accountability? How accountable is your congregation?
  4. How do you feel about comparing counting people with counting money? How do they both relate to good stewardship in the church?
  5. What "people patterns" would be helpful for your congregation to see? How might you discern those patterns?
  6. How do you feel about Wesley’s emphasis on record-keeping? What kinds of records does your congregation keep? How do you use them?
  7. Would a computer be useful in your church? Why or why not?
  8. How might a "mission audit" be helpful to your church?
  9. What congregation might you work with in interviewing new members? What might you learn from such a venture?

For Further Help

How to Diagnose and Renew Your Church, a seminar offered by Church Growth Incorporated, 709 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, Calif. 91101. Churches who register for this seminar are sent a manual to use in gathering facts about the church and community. At the seminar, the facts are interpreted to help the church determine priorities for action.

Looking in the Mirror: Self-Appraisal in the Local Church, by Lyie Schaller (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984). This is a self-appraisal program for churches large or small.