What’s Bigger Than Your Butts in Seats

The only thing that really matters is butts in seats.

For the American church, that is the bottom line. So to speak. Large churches keep score by attendance figures. Small and medium churches fret over declining numbers in the pews. Often, when leaders talk about outreach and evangelism, they really mean convincing people to sit in a pew for an hour on Sunday morning.

Crowds coming together to hear people talk and sing about God can be a good thing. But that shouldn’t be the end game.

As the church–the Body of Christ–we’re here to love God and love others. The true bottom line is not about bottoms. It’s about hearts and souls. One by one.

I’m convinced the American church will not thrive–by any measure–until its leaders and members lose this fleshy fixation on the numerical size of the Sunday morning flock and begin pursuing that one lost sheep, and the individuals’ individual relationship with Jesus and other people.

A couple in my town have shepherded an effort to do just that in an interesting way. After Dennis and Barbara Miller started a Lifetree Cafe outreach in a local hotel, the director of a homeless day shelter asked if they’d consider setting up a Lifetree Cafe in the shelter.

The Millers jumped at the opportunity. Now, every week they provide Lifetree’s “hour of stories and conversation to feed the soul” to the community’s homeless. And the homeless are responding, engaging in the conversations, and basking in God’s love. “They’re hungry,” Barbara said. “They want to know about the Lord.”

But the Millers said their new homeless friends do not feel comfortable going to a church. “They’re smelly. They’re dirty. They’re unshaven,” Barbara said. The Millers have no illusion that these people will ever occupy a pew at their church, or become a “giving unit.”

But that’s not the bottom line for the Millers. They and their enthusiastic volunteers are rediscovering what it means to be the church.

14 Responses to “What’s Bigger Than Your Butts in Seats”

  1. Amen! We started a worship service at the local YMCA over a year ago and people who would never set foot in a traditional church building now attend in the Y gym on Sunday morning and then use the pool and excercise equipment for free for an hour after the service ends. We are learning that Jesus went to where the people were.

  2. Each of those numbers represent people, it is not good to fixate on numbers. But, if you are equipping those in your body to minister to a broken and lost world-those people represent more. So in a sense numbers for numbers sake are absurd, but people do matter. Butts in seats are important if that is not the end game!

  3. One way to deal with this dilemma is to make sure that you have people in leadership (both paid and lay) that value the cause of Christ over mammon. As odd as that may sound, I have sat in meetings where my contributions were scorned because I placed value in advancing God’s kingdom over selling the particular facets of a church organization. While there are the realities of money and bills to be paid, Christ should never be sacrificed on that altar. Tighten purse strings when needed? Yes. Place more value in filing seats so as to increase the coffers? No.

  4. The Apostle Paul disagreed with you. God wants as many worshipers as possible and the Church exits to get them. This is a both/and issue not an either/or issue.

    • Say more, Jim. What line from my piece would you say Paul would disagree with? What did he say, specifically, that shows his opposition to my words?

      • Paul’s entire lifestyle and philosophy was to grow the Church. He traveled constantly planting churches and making disciples everywhere he went.

    • There is joy in people praising God together! We worship in a public school auditorium; what a blessing to fill the space with God’s presence. As a small church, we do pray that empty seats are filled-not for gaining revenue, but to want people to have joy of worship. And as stated here, this is not the “end all” or as Thom says,”butt all”…it’s equipping us to be disciples in the real world. It’s equipping us to witness, host small groups, participate/open LTC, hold programs in prisons, help those in need.

    • The problem is that when you start fixating on the numbers you start tailoring your message.You become more worried about no offending people so they stay in the seats. You become more worried about whether they will leave than you are about preaching the pure unadulterated word of Jesus. Then people start hearing these nice platitudes that make everyone feel good but teach them nothing.

  5. Here’s where I totally agree:
    We are called to make disciples, not promote weekly events. We are commanded to love God with all we have and spend ourselves leading others to do the same. Getting butts in seats is, at best, a means to that end; at worst, it’s a misleading and distracting goal. Going where the people are is a model clearly seen in scripture–Jesus Himself, Paul, Philip, and many others did this. We rarely see anyone in the Bible planning a huge event (weekly or otherwise) and expecting the lost to attend; when we do see crowds gathering weekly and people attending (Acts 2), it’s a combination of believers getting together to worship, pray, fellowship, learn, and give. Seeing new people as “giving units” is NOT the plan.

    Here’s where I disagree:
    If a church is so unwelcoming that people don’t feel comfortable or safe there, TWO things must happen. One is to go where they are–no question. Absolutely. However, the other is to CHANGE THE CHURCH CULTURE. Smelly, dirty, and unshaven people PAY to go to sports events, movies, etc. all the time…

    Even more importantly, we need to make sure the people we reach know what they are getting into. Of course, we need to let them know that God meets them where they are, forgives them, and loves them unconditionally! Still, Jesus Himself was very upfront with people who wanted to follow Him, urging them to “count the cost”. Our goal must never be so shallow that we don’t expect them to grow beyond talking about their faith in their own little comfort zones.

    Again, we are making disciples–genuine followers of Jesus Christ. THAT is the reason we evangelize (not the size or the financial needs of any particular congregation). However, true disciples of Jesus will see worship, prayer, fellowship, learning, and giving as major priorities, and they will meet together often and give out of obedience and a desire to expand God’s kingdom.

    In other words: Getting butts in seats at the local YMCA or under the bridge where the homeless gather is not a worthy goal, either. We are making disciples.

  6. I totally agree. One of my favorite Jesus passages is John 6. Jesus feeds the 5,000 and can hardly escape the crowds of followers to go pray and spend time walking on water with his disciples. But the crowd hunts him down when they get to the other side of the lake. So what does Jesus do? Relish in his popularity?

    No. He preaches a confusing and hard teaching that leaves people saying, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” And Jesus doesn’t water down his message, he pushes it harder, until most people leave.

    Jesus didn’t care about quantity – he cared about quality. And when the numbers got high, he pared them down by seeing who had real faith and who was just there for the show.

  7. When people disagree with this and say Apostle Paul would disagree with this I feel have the wrong definition of “church”. Yes Paul and his disciples did plant churches BUT the church is NOT a building: the church is the Body of Christ. Paul did not go out and establish “pew potatoes”, he established people willing to go OUT and make more disciples, just as Christ commanded. Matthew 28:19&20

    • This is why I said its a both/and issue not an either/or.
      I am fully aware that the church is people and Paul believed that too.
      I don’t know what a “pew potato” is but if you have teaching at your church that properly helps people understand the gospel that helps the problem. Matthew 28 exactly. Make disciples and this comes from believers understanding that God has called them to be “messengers of reconciliation” everywhere. Inside church buildings, in their families, in their communities, all around the world.

  8. This discussion seems to be right on target. I may have overlooked the following point in the discussion so far. It is a point that I have been sharing with the leaders in my church for many years, since I first heard of it in a message about why most churches that are growing today are successful. The driving point is that the church belongs to God. He will send people to any place where He knows the will get what they need: His gospel message through the teachings and, more importantly, the Christian love available. To the extent that a particular church is doing what He told us to do (preaching the Gospel message to all the world), He will use our church.

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