Body Count Syndrome: How both the Vietnam War and the Church Growth Movement failed

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ new documentary series, The Vietnam War. It’s ten hours of unrelenting political/military folly and unadulterated human misery. But it’s fascinating.

I was intrigued to discover in Episode 4 that one of the biggest challenges for US military leaders in Vietnam was figuring out how to assess their progress (or lack thereof). Vietnam was like no war before it. Those Americans who waged it were World War II veterans who were used to assessing the progress of a military campaign by how much ground had been taken from the enemy, by how many of their cities had been captured, and how many military and industrial installations had been destroyed.

But none of that applied in Vietnam.

The Viet Cong and the regular North Vietnamese army waged something more like a guerilla campaign. They would ambush American forces, attack them swiftly and then melt away into the jungle. If the Americans bombed their networks of trails and tunnels, the North simply built more nearby. There was no traditional “front”, so there was no way to measure whether the Americans were advancing. No one could tell if they were winning the war or not.

Back in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his coterie of whiz kid number-crunchers needed data desperately. With the anti-war movement building, they wanted to be able to assure the public that progress was being made and that the terrible human and financial cost of the war was worth it.

The grisly answer was body count.

The leader of the American campaign in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland and Secretary McNamara decided to start measuring the progress of the war based on the number of enemy forces killed. Their goal was to reach the tipping point where they had eliminated more bodies than the North could replace.

Soon, soldiers in every battle and skirmish were required to prepare accurate counts of the number of enemy casualties. These numbers were analyzed back in Washington to show evidence of US progress. Westmoreland and McNamara needed body counts, and the higher the better.

You can guess what began to happen.

Body counts are easily manipulated, and difficult to verify. To justify themselves, or to cover up their mistakes, military leaders in Vietnam would sometimes instruct their forces to add civilians to the day’s body count. In some cases, there was out-and-out inflation of the numbers.

If your success is measured in body counts, you count everyone you can.

General Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander in the Persian Gulf, and himself a Vietnam veteran, said he abhors body counts as a measure of military success, stating, “These statistics are not only meaningless but misleading because body counts can push junior commanders into a numbers game that compromises their integrity.”

In Ken Burns’ documentary, a Vietnam vet says sagely, “If you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important.”

This isn’t only the case in war. The body count syndrome effects all kinds of industries. Instead of measuring what the company, church or organization is meant to be achieving, it is simpler to count heads or dollars.

For church leaders, it’s really difficult to develop metrics for assessing spiritual growth or the growth of missional effectiveness. It’s easier to count stuff that’s, well, countable.


I can’t help but wonder whether the leaders of the church growth movement of the 1970s and 80s weren’t our General Westmoreland and Secretary McNamara. America had been through huge social upheaval in the 60s and 70s. The nation’s values were shifting significantly. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement had changed the way society and families were being understood. Church attendance was plummeting, and church leaders struggled to know how to understand their place in this strange new world. How were they to measure their effectiveness in this emerging landscape?

Enter Donald McGavran. He was a nerdy numbers man just like Robert McNamara. As a missionary in India he developed a paradigm for measuring the effectiveness of missionary work essentially in terms of multiplying Christian churches in number and in size. He produced tables and graphs and detailed lists to show where the church was flourishing in India and where it wasn’t.

It was an ecclesial version of body count.

When McGavran moved to California to start teaching at Fuller Seminary’s School of World Mission, he brought his new metric with him, and adapted it to the American scene. And it was an instant hit.

Counting attendance now became the primary means of determining if the church was “winning” or not. Everything, it seemed, started to be run through the grid of how many people attended. And just like in Vietnam, it meant local leaders starting fudging the numbers to impress their superiors.

And, as the Vietnam vet said, if you can’t measure what’s actually important, you add false importance to measurable things.

The bitter irony is that while Westmoreland’s forces in Vietnam were assiduously counting Vietnamese bodies, trumpeting the fact that they were inflicting ten or twenty times more casualties than incurred to American forces, they were slowly but surely losing the war.

It’s the same with the church.

Since the introduction of McGavran’s church growth movement to the United States in early 1970s, pastors have been persistently counting congregations, submitting statistical returns, and crunching numbers, and yet overall church attendance has continued to fall. In the 1980s, membership in the church dropped almost 10%; then, in the 1990s, it worsened by another 12% – some denominations reporting a 40% drop in their membership. It dropped even more through the first decade of the 21st century. In 2002, only 18% of Americans “frequently” attended church. On current estimates, church attendance is forecast to drop to 15% 2025, and a further drop to 11% or 12 % in 2050.

But you don’t hear stats like these very often. Most Americans think something like 40-50% of the population regularly attends church. Can you see the parallels with Vietnam?

Like the US forces in Vietnam, we’ve been counting our way to oblivion.


As long as we focus on numbers, we’re not focusing on what we’re meant to be doing as the people of God. What the church needs is a fresh new metric for determining its effectiveness, a measuring device that releases church leaders from focusing on how many people attend, and starts mobilizing them to greater missional effectiveness in their neighborhoods and communities.

Because, let’s face it, what you count, counts.

I want to say more about how to measure missional effectiveness in future blog posts, but for now, here’s a suggestion by author and consultant Reggie McNeal. He encourages churches to consider measuring the following:

  • Number of people reporting improved marriages over time;
  • Number of people reporting improved friendships over time;
  • Number of people being mentored;
  • Number of people serving as mentors;
  • Number of people able to articulate a life mission;
  • Number of people serving other people in some venue, whether in the church or not;
  • Number of people practicing an intentional blessing strategy for those around them;
  • Number of people growing in financial giving to kingdom causes.

It’s an attempt at the kind of thing I’m talking about. Churches need to go back to the drawing board and ask God why they exist and then figure out how to measure that. Because the parallels between the Vietnam War and the church break down at this important point: the former was a lost cause from the beginning, but the latter is assured the victory promised to us in Christ.



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13 thoughts on “Body Count Syndrome: How both the Vietnam War and the Church Growth Movement failed

  1. I don’t think you can leave off your list the number of non-church people being baptised.
    I think this is the key metric as to the effectiveness of the 8 activities you have listed.
    Leadership needs to be accountable for this.
    Leadership is failing miserably on this.
    Leadership needs to stick their hand up and own the reality that how they are going about things is very wrong.
    But leadership will blame the flock……………….

    1. So it’s totally the leadership’s fault if people aren’t reaching their neighbors and friends for Christ?? I think not.

      There’s reponsibility on both sides.

      Read Ephesians chapter 4. The Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Evangelists, and Teachers are given by God to the local church to train those they lead TO DO THE WORK of the ministry. Not sit and watch leaders do it.

      We need to abolish the idea that the Pastor does everything cause he’s paid. It’s burning out pastor’s and making spectator’s and consumer’s out of congregation members.

      But leadership is responsible for training in evangelism and encouraging those they lead in it.

      We’re all in this together, each one with our own God given roles to fulfil the Great Commission.

      1. Leaders are responsible for how and where to they are leading. Absolving leaders from responsibility doesn’t help. It is the current leadership culture that resists apest and in doing so creates an impossible burden for themselves.

        1. Have you read Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna?

  2. I don’t think that the number of non-church people being baptised is particularly helpful. Once you’ve defined the term ‘non-church’ (is it unchurched, dechurched, someone from another denomination, all of these) you then have the problem of whether or not they are actually growing in their faith: is it changing their worldview, behaviour, priorities, relationships etc. If that isn’t happening (and I think that is what the list in the article tries to measure) then the fact that they were baptised isn’t really that important and is possibly misleading, at least in terms of the effectiveness of the church.

    1. Yes, I agree. I wanted to write something similar to Glen, but you put it clearly. In saying this I’m not suggesting baptism is unimportant. In certain denominational traditions is a significant marker of discipleship. But like all liturgical activities it can be seen as a replacement for discipleship, rather than a marker of it.

      1. Mik, I am not suggesting baptism is nothing more than a marker / metric. I regret that you construed that from my comments. You know better than I that baptism of new believers in to a faith community is (at least it is meant to be) an integral function of ongoing discipleship and that discipleship is not meant to cease at the point of a “baptismal ceremony” which does not represent complete baptism in itself. Rather baptism of one into a faith community may take months, years, or how however long it takes. Much the same as our assimilation into Gods family is a work in progress (evidently). Kind regards GlenN

    2. I would agree with you Amanda if we were purely speaking about numbers but that is not what I am advocating for. I am advocating for the church being real servants in the community, and being and remaining on life’s journey with people and as fruit of those relationships and discipleship the lost are baptised in to communities of faith in the way Christ intends and the relationship and discipleship and servanthood continues. I trust Amanda that you don’t mean this is not important. My accent on “non-churched” people is to differentiate between a local church that is inward looking and celebrating only baptisms of their own children who have grown up within the church (which I think is a good and beautiful thing) and lost sheep coming into the flock.

  3. […] this is random thoughts based on this post from Michael Frost.   The 2 years I lived back in Asheville, just after completing seminary, […]

  4. My understanding of McGavran’s philosophy of church growth had more to do with the homogeneous unit principle than the body count. Worship in your mother tongue, with your own people, to express yourself more fully to God in your heart language; wasn’t that closer to the original concept? But yes, as a student at Fuller in the mid-80’s, I saw church growth being turned into a numbers game by some (not all).

    Love the list started of missional effectiveness and the heart behind it. A little ironic that it, too, is all numbers. How about encouraging sent lives, locally and globally? Are churches sending people? Could we be better overall at spiritual disciplines – Sabbath, time in the Word, prayer? How could these be encouraged without being reduced to a number?

  5. One of the central msg of Jesus was the gospel of Kingdom of God and teaching of OT is reign of God. I realise how this is not much taught in the church today. If we ask ourselves what it means to seek God’s Kingdom first, there aren’t many people who can answer it as not many people understand what bible teaches about the reign of God look like in our life. I think when believers of Jesus understands what bible teaches about reign of God in Christ and when they start to live for it, it really counts.

  6. “Holy Spirit, grant us eyes to discern the scriptural revelation of what counts in heaven … and give us faith that is courage to recalibrate our values, objectives, actions, and especially, the focus of our prayers.”

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