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A Church’s Success Isn’t in the Numbers

Years ago, I used to really care about the “numbers” of our church. And if we were playing the numbers game, my church would have certainly won. We were the biggest organization in our town; our events brought people in droves, and our volunteers could have created a small army (a slight exaggeration, but you get what I mean).

We were big and powerful and influential. When we took on a project, it got done. When we raised money, we exceeded our goals. We were winning the numbers game, and to me, that felt like success.

But one day I was stopped in a local restaurant by the mayor of our town. He asked if he could speak with me and told me some things that rocked my world.

His words changed everything.

He told me people think of us as the competition, that the people in our town felt small compared to us, not empowered by us. He pointed out that the town hosts events like the ones we host, but everybody comes to ours instead of theirs.

In short, we had won at the numbers game, but lost at serving our community—the very goal we set out to accomplish.

I wanted to brush his words under the rug. I wanted to keep doing things the way we were doing them. I wanted to keep feeling like we were doing something right, that we were winning the numbers game.

But he was playing a different game altogether, and I realized that we had been playing the wrong one all along.

That’s when I realized something had to change.

Even though we were doing “good things” in our community, the way we were doing those things wasn’t serving the people we had committed ourselves to serve. In fact, we were actually stunting them in the process.

This wasn’t a competition. It didn’t matter who was “winning.”

I had let my pride and selfishness get in the way.

I met with our church leadership immediately and we began brainstorming some different ways to do things. This was incredibly difficult—maybe even harder than it sounds. After all, we had been playing by one set of rules for years, and doing it well, and now we realized we’d been playing the wrong game.

We needed to change games, or at least change the way we were keeping score.

So, we cancelled our fall festival for that next year. Instead of hosting our own festival, we joined up with the town’s festival. We brought our volunteers, experience and ideas, and we offered them without expectation to the community around us. We made one festival instead of two.

The turnout was unprecedented.

Instead of starting our own programs to feed the homeless or providing after-school care for the kids of single mothers, we joined with those who were already doing this incredible work—people we had never taken the time to see before.

We’re a church, and a large one at that. But we were foolish to believe we were the only ones who knew what our community needed.