I Don’t Want To Write This Post: Miley, Robin and the Lure of Numbers

rat race 200cI hate bandwagons.

Writing about something because everyone else is writing about it is repulsive to me. But not writing something that matters just because everyone else is writing about it is equally problematic.

So back that bandwagon up, open the door and drop the rope-ladder. I’m climbing aboard.

There was no bigger bandwagon on the internet this week than all the hand-wringing over the Miley Cyrus / Robin Thicke performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards. Forget the atrocities in Syria and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s blindingly brilliant “I Have a Dream” speech, this is what we really care about!

The icky spectacle of a sleazy, hipster Beetlejuice simulating sex with an emotionally lost post-teen didn’t really break any new ground for MTV. And the societal double standard of the woman taking almost all the blame while the older, adult male gets off (pun intended) almost scot-free is no shock either. But the massive response it’s received does carry a lesson for leaders about the lure of numbers.

Although it’s been denounced by almost everyone, by all quantifiable measures the performance was a raving success. It set world records for tweets, Facebook status updates and blog posts (and now I’m contributing to it – thus my revulsion).

The songs they performed were already mega-hits, but now they’ve had a massive resurgence in sales. Ratings for the VMAs were the highest in years, and YouTube views of the performance are also at record levels.

No, that’s not a surprise. That’s why they did it.


So Here’s the Lesson for Church Leaders

When numbers become our primary measure of success they tempt us to compromise our values. And if we think we’re immune to their appeal, we’re not. It’s very easy to give in to the lure of numbers, both when we have them and when we’re chasing them.

As Carolyn W. Metzler, vicar of  St. Thomas’ Church in Minn, Maine says, “Numbers are terribly seductive idols.”

This is one reason I have such admiration for megachurch pastors who keep their biblical moorings and moral values. It takes great character to stand strong when massive numbers start tugging at your sleeve. 

People have asked “do you think this will finally get MTV to start policing itself and dial back on the sleaze?” Puhleeze!! With these ratings and buzz?! They’re probably negotiating with Thicke and Cyrus to give them their own series.

Miley’s management is thrilled, calling it a huge success. And why not? The money is pouring in.

This should serve as a giant caution for Christian leaders. Not only should the church resist buying in to the “bigger is better” obsession, we should actively fight it. Not with boycotts and blog posts (yeah, I know, I know…), but by living differently. By living humbly. By promoting the value of the small, the weak and the meek (I think someone called them “blessed” once), especially when our ministries and churches are blessed with numerical growth.


Measurement Matters – But It’s Not the Most Important Thing

True success isn’t measured by clicks on our blog, likes on Facebook, retweets on Twitter, butts in the seats or bucks in the offering. If it was, let’s get Miley and Robin lined up for our next pastoral conference!

Yes, there are things we need to measure in the church. But we can’t let numbers cloud the more important issues, and I fear that sometimes we do.

It’s easy to tsk-tsk the VMA performance and their obsession with ratings. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’d never betray our values for greater numbers. We’re not immune to that temptation, so we need to tread lightly with it, especially when the numbers get bigger.

When butts in the seat and bucks in the plate become our primary measuring stick, the temptation to compromise grows.

The sad, broken lives behind this shock-for-the-sake-of-shock performance and those that came before it – not to mention those yet to come – should serve as a reminder that numbers are never the best measure of success.

For another take on the danger of pursuing numbers (without the yuck factor of references to Miley Cyrus or Robin Thicke) check out this very good, new post, Accountable for Attention? by Lane Severson at OutOfUr.com.

So what do you think? How dangerous is the push for more and bigger in church leadership?

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(Rat Race photo from Darin McClure • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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10 thoughts on “I Don’t Want To Write This Post: Miley, Robin and the Lure of Numbers”

  1. Talk about a cold way in your face article. Thanks for the wake up call. While I did not view the via performance, your blog highlights the sad reality that we are a celebrity promoting culture. This is seen in every area of life. In Canada for example, we have a political leader who is poised to become prime minister based solely on his celebrity staus. His claim to fame, he recently admitted very matter of factory that he smoked drugs while serving as a sitting member of parliament. The media has lauded him for his transparency. Nevery kind that he is breaking the law, and has not once given any indication as to his party’s position on Syria, the economy and the national debt.

  2. Wow Karl! Drinking too much coffee this morning?? You took a cultural moment and drew a great learning lesson from it. I think that fame, popularity, pride, and greed are all first cousins. Numbers, both both butts and bucks, are unfortunately dangerously intertwined with all four of those negative traits and attitudes.

    How can avoid the dangers of popularity, pride, fame, and greed? Say your church has grown by 50% in the last year – what habits or practices can help us steer clear of them? If a pastor has never had that kind of growth, I think he or she just doesn’t understand the temptation. Covetousness might be their biggest problem.

    I wonder if any of your readers have experienced that kind of growth – what did they do to prevent them from falling into those traps? I know you have experienced just that, Karl. I wonder if there is one major guardrail to keep us from falling off the edge?

    1. There’s only one way to avoid those traps. It always comes back to Jesus.

      I’m not much for quoting old hymns and choruses, but Helen H. Lemmel said it better than I ever could.

      Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face
      And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace

  3. Great post Karl!!! I do think that the celebrity status phenomenon is one that the Church is definitely not immune to. You have written about it before, and I have commented on it, that almost all the conferences and literature that exists out there on “Church Leadership” is written not by those in the trenches with the majority of us, but those who have either been blessed, or worked the system well enough to be able to be one of the loud voices who more often than not pray the mantra “bigger is better”. Numbers to be sure, are a temptation.

    The think I always fear in a discussion like this though is this: Being scared of numbers.

    I agree that the pursuit of them for sheer mathematical reasons is sheer lunacy, and the number are not necessarily an indicator of health at all. But on some level numbers do have something to do with influence, and leverage when it comes the message of the cross. So pinning ourselves in a corner in fear of them is not the right thing to do as well. I know thats not what you are really addressing here Karl, but I still think that it needs to be said that fear of numbers doesn’t equate to fear of the Lord, and is most certainly not the beginning of wisdom.

    So we have a fine line to walk when we are applying efforts to be attractional, we have to be wise about what we do to try to broaden our influence as we become tools of leverage for God and the Gospel of Jesus.

    For me, in my present circumstances, that line is represented by avoiding the “bait and switch” tactic. Let me give you an example:

    We have the chance to hold a service, in public, in a highly attended community event, the Sunday before our official “Launch” service on the 22nd of September. So…what is the goal there? For me, getting that opportunity gives us the chance to put ourselves out there and let those people in our community who don’t know us, or have questions about us, interact with us in a low stress fun environment. The temptation, and one that has been offered up as an opinion from my leadership, is to bring a band in from somewhere else, a professional band or at the very least a band that is well rehearsed and can put on a high quality “show”. This is something that I can do easily because I am actually a drummer and have several friends that I could get together at a moments notice and really do it up big. But is the congregation that I serve really that “kind” of Church? I mean, if those people come and see that “show” then they say to themselves “hey, this is cool I think I might go to their launch service” and then they show up and see that we have a worship leader on guitar, and another guitarist following her, and someone on a Djembe, then what have we just done?

    We lied. We said we were one thing, a thing that we most definitely where not, and we misled people into believing that if they let down their walls to come spend time with us that they would experience the same kind of thing, and then we turned around and didn’t put on the same “show”, then we just lied to them.

    Now, I am not saying that we don’t have to morph a bit to accommodate the different venue and such, because we do. But we have to be very careful in how we do it.

    That sentiment should run throughout all that you say and do. Not just for special events, but also for:
    The language in your belief statements…
    The content and delivery of your sunday services…
    The kinds of specialized ministries that you offer to people…
    I firmly believe that everything you do as a Church has to have the bait and switch filter on it. I think if you do that, you can operate empowered by pursuing numbers and greater influence, but at the same time keeping your motives and values in check.

    1. Gary, I love your illustration and your caution about the “bait and switch filter”. I’ve been working on a post on this subject for a while now. Churches do bait-and-switch a lot more than we think we do. We do it when we tell everyone “sit back, relax and we’ll do everything for you” – and then switch to “the members of the church are supposed to do the work of ministry” in the membership class. And we can’t figure out why they don’t jump right on it and start ministering!

      We also do something similar to your story about not featuring a band at your launch. We don’t do any “special” music for Easter or Christmas because no one expects that if they come the following week – so they don’t come the following week. So on Easter, Christmas and other special days we just give them us. No bait-and-switch, If they like the worship, the speaker an the fellowship at Easter, they know they’ll get the same thing if they come back next week. Smaller crowds, because there are no “special” events, but better retention – and a more honest representation of who we are and what we do.

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