nickels and noses

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Does your church count “nickels and noses”?

This hobo nickel shows a man with a large nose.
This picture of a hobo nickel shows a man with a large nose.
The phrase “nickels and noses” has been around at least since the 1960s. The phrase is used by pastors and other ministers to refer to a church’s attendance figures (those are the noses!) and the amount of money the church collects (those are the nickels!). The concept behind “nickels and noses” is that if your church’s pews are packed with people and the collection plates are heaped with money, then your church has achieved some measure of success.

On a linguistic level, the phrase “nickels and noses” is alliterative and has a nice pattern of rhythmic stress, and these features work together to give this phrase an attractive and playful sound. But at the same time the word choice of nickels and noses implies a frivolous and even callous attitude toward churchgoers and their monetary donations. “Nickels and noses” suggests that some churches regard Christians and their donations as just dots on a chart or cells on a spreadsheet.

This 1996 quotation by Ken Hemphill demonstrates a typical use of the term: “It is easy to emphasize church growth for the wrong reasons. Growth could become an issue of pride. Leaders may be lured by desire to be recognize as a church growth leader at the local, state, or national level, but that is not a legitimate or sustaining force for church growth. When numerical growth is tied to “nickels and noses,” people will lose interest. You will hear people complain that the church or pastor is not interested in meeting needs. Church members will begin to see the church as focused on numbers and not ministry.”

There are a handful of other Christianese terms with a tone similar to “nickels and noses.” For example, a church that focuses too much on the nickels and the noses might get a reputation as an “ABC church.” That means a church that is obsessed with only three things: attendance, buildings, and cash. Another figure of speech that pastors use is “the killer Bs.” This isn’t a reference to stinging insects… the killer Bs are “buildings, bodies, bucks, and budgets.” The idea is that the killer Bs are the key factors that will make or break a church.

Have you heard of other Christianese sayings for the “business” end of running a church? Feel free to share them in the comments.

(And last but not least, thank you to Craig Rubley for writing in to suggest that I research the history of the phrase “nickels and noses.” Great suggestion!)


nickels and noses n. Pastorese Numeric data about the money a local church receives (as through tithes and other donations) and the weekly attendance at church services; thus, by extension, any of various types of numeric data that measure the health and success of a local church.
1967 Lutheran Forum 1/8 (Aug.) 18 : It seemed significant that three out of four of the items used in validating people he “serves” let him know that they are primarily interested in “nickels and noses.” And why are they so interested in that? Because they have heard from all kinds of sources within the Church (church headquarters, other pastors, district president, various publications, etc.) that “nickels and noses,” “brick and mortar” are “the way it really is.” So, they come to want a pastor who will get more people and more money. 1971 Lubbock Avalanche-J. (TX) (27 May) A11 : “The church has been a taker. This is a real opportunity to be a giver,” is how the Rev. Bill Bearden, Bethany’s minister, explains it. “Something like this [=a free health clinic] goes a long way towards changing the image the church has had for 25 years of counting only nickels and noses. Not all of a sudden it’s interested in people. 1973 Towns Is the Day of the Denomination Dead? 28 : The Protestant church “bust” of the 50’s brought a warm glow to the hearts of churchmen. The future was rosy, and all indicators pointed upward. Church membership reached an all-time high, and offerings were greater than ever…. A decade later, gloom settled over denominational offices. The rosy prospects of the Kingdom had wilted. Worried church officials watched the arrows edge downward in “nickels and noses,” the twin indicative thermostats to measure religious fervency. Attendance was off, and offerings were down. 1983 Carter, ed. A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology: Biblical, Systematic, and Practical 844 : Without adequate training in the tools of disciple building, many churches are left with only a “paper Christianity”: dry doctrine, empty moralisms, and endless lessons on the history and geography of the Holy Land. Success for them is measured in “nickels and noses” rather than in spiritual depth and mature Christian character. 1989 Mitchell You Can Take It with You: The Excitement of Personal Witnessing for Christ 109 : In 1988 construction on a new auditorium began. It will seat twenty-five hundred with plans for expansion later to thirty-five hundred. When we discuss figures and baptisms some people poke fun saying “All you do is count nickels and noses.” Each nose has a soul behind it. It takes nickels and dollars to minister, witness, preach, disciple, and teach. 1993 Guinness Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity 49,50 : Quantity does not measure quality. Numbers—or what the Southern Baptists call “nickels and noses”—have little to do with truth, excellence, or character…. Church growth viewed in measurable terms, such as numbers, is trivial compared with growth in less measurable but more important terms, such as faith, character, and godliness. Having growth in terms of numbers, of course, does not rule out the more important spiritual growth. But it does not necessarily include this type of growth either. 1996 Hemphill Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century 50 : It is easy to emphasize church growth for the wrong reasons. Growth could become an issue of pride. Leaders may be lured by desire to be recognize as a church growth leader at the local, state, or national level, but that is not a legitimate or sustaining force for church growth. When numerical growth is tied to “nickels and noses,” people will lose interest. You will hear people complain that the church or pastor is not interested in meeting needs. Church members will begin to see the church as focused on numbers and not ministry. 2000 Stockton Decent and in Order: Conflict, Christianity, and Polity in a Presbyterian Congregation 29 : It is common for churches to look nostalgically to the glory of their past when their pews were full and their youth programs bulged. All churches feel they need more members and more money, but going too far in this direction can produce what Gary Dorsey calls a “nickels and noses” mindset. An organizational imperative can push aside the spiritual and human dimensions at the heart of the faith. 2001 Peter Lord in DeHaan The God You Can Know 88 : If a person believes that God gets all excited about nickels and noses on Sunday, then that person will respond by building a large church financially and in attendance. 2002 Charisma and Christian Life 27/8 (Mar.) 10 : Long ago, many churches lost their way to the Savior and went their own way. Maybe we should do as Jesus did. We could hold church on a flat rock, and instead of counting nickels and noses we could just preach the gospel, lay hands on the sick, set the captives free and look after widows and orphans. 2003 Wideman Children’s Ministry Leadership: The You-Can-Do-It Guide 15 : I get criticized now and then about being so concerned with tracking the numbers at my church. I know how many people come each week. I know how effectively we’re reaching each age group. I know how much our budget is growing. I keep the numbers in front of me. Some people complain, “All you care about are nickels and noses. You live in the book of Numbers and you should live in the book of Acts.” Well, here’s something I’ve learned: It takes nickels to reach noses. If your budget doesn’t grow, there will be leadership opportunities you can’t pursue. If your Sunday school classes don’t get more crowded, there are kids you aren’t reaching. 2006 Cooke, Goodell Permission Granted to Do Church Differently in the 21st Century 274 : The more nickels and noses you can count, the more bucks, budgets, and buildings you can raise, the easier it becomes to be detoured from the freeway of intimacy and abiding, and take you down the off-ramp to the works orientation frontage road of “doing” those bigger and better things for God. 2007 Catt Prepare for Rain: The Story of a Church that Believed God for the Impossible 27 : Too often Christian leaders are guilty of the “look good at all costs” syndrome. We want to appear on top of our game at our denominational meetings. We want an impressive résumé for our next church. We are interested in numbers, nickels and noses. After all, the first question you get when you are with your peers is, “How many are you running in Sunday school? How many are you baptizing?” 2008 (16 Apr.) : Wade Hodges recently wrote about knowing what to count and what not to count when evaluating a church. He suggests that the two most common things that churches count are nickels and noses—number of people that come and how much money they give. We don’t count these two things because they are the most important things about a church—they are simply the easiest things to count. Hodges suggests that more important that the number of people present is the number of guests who come each week. 2008 Briner, Pritchard The Leadership Lessons of Jesus 191 : Competition in and of itself isn’t wrong or evil. But when all you do is count “nickels and noses” or when your only measure of success is the bottom line, you risk measuring everything you do by the standards of the world. 2009 Bezanson Go to Jail 73 : Pastors have been trained to count nickels and noses rather than mentor disciples for Christ. 2009 Dockery, ed. Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future 163 : The second type of church worldview is pragmatism. These are the churches whose primary question for church life is: “Does it work?” The emphasis on quantifiable success (nickels and noses) can relegate such weighty matters as sound doctrine, spiritual heritage, and sacrificial service to the hinterlands of congregational life. 2010 Rissinger The Crucified Church 128 : It’s no secret; pastors count “nickels and noses” every week. Pastors know that if noses go down (attendance drops), nickels will surely drop (giving). 2010 (2 Aug.) : Within minutes after two ministers meet on the street, the conversation usually turns into an accounting of nickels and noses. Our church is growing. We count noses every Sunday and attendance is up by 10 percent this year. A response might come with a shrug of the shoulders; our church is in a decline. There are fewer noses in church every Sunday. On the other hand, we keep track of the nickels placed in the offering plate. Our giving has remained strong in spite of the economy. Or sadly, we cannot pay the electric bill. This economy is killing us.Numbers do matter to God. Jesus and the early church counted numbers. Jesus fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. 2011 (26 Jan.) : Every year our parish files a parochial report and stewardship summary. These reports are, as a colleague of mine likes to say, focused on “nickels and noses.” We report the annual income, number of pledges, pledged amount, the number of members, new members, members who left, average Sunday attendance, and the number of Eucharists, daily offices, baptisms, weddings, funerals. 2011 (19 Oct.) : Input results in the church world focus on the number of people and dollars that “come into” the church. Input results are important. You don’t have a church without them. It’s also important to measure input results. You can’t lead well without knowing them. Common ways we talk about input results include the “ABC’s” (attendance, buildings and cash) or “nickels and noses” or “butts and bucks” Every week, thousands of churches across the land will print their input results on a worship bulletin or review them in the next elders meeting. Input results inform the functional dashboard of the American church. 2012 Hettinger Welcome to the Big Leagues: Every Man’s Journey to Significance: The Darrel Chaney Story 158 : It was my observation that the church-growth era was ramping up at that time [=the 1970s]. Denominational leadership, and a lot of other guys like me, were all falling in love with big ministries, and success was verified by increases in dollars and growing numbers of members and attendees. Some referred to the measurement as “nickels and noses.” Books, magazines and journals were about growth methodology, leadership skills, vision casting and targeted marketing, written by those who were in big and successful ministries. 2013 (23 Aug.) : For many years churches have focused on two key measurements: “nickels and noses”. I know it sounds a little irreverent, but when churches would be evaluated for their effectiveness, the focus was how generous (money-wise) is the church and how many people (noses) are coming. 2014 Rendle Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness, and Metrics 57 : It is no longer sufficient to count only dollars and people (“nickels and noses” as one bishop refers to current denominational benchmarks); we must now devise new metrics and then build the tools needed for the new measures. 2015 (10 May) : At Community [Christian Church], we have exploded the old scoreboard of counting only nickels and noses, and are now keeping track of what we call the “family tree.” Each campus, on an annual basis, is asked to account for the attendance of not just their campus, but of all the campuses and churches they have helped plant and reproduced. 2015 Caskey Eat Your Way to God: Discover the Tree of Life 91 : The four “Killer B’s,” which are banks, buildings, budgets, and boards, have led the church to function more like a business than a body—the bridge of Christ, and dwelling of the Holy Spirit. Much like in the food industry today, a lot of the “church growth industry” focuses on profit and numerical growth (“nickels and noses”) rather than on spiritual health. 2015 (22 Jul.) : Last month, I wrote in this column about the limitations of the old metrics for tracking congregational vitality: attendance and budgets (or, if you prefer, nickels and noses). These numbers record some things, but perhaps not the most important things. 2015 (4 Oct.) : In the past, there have been various kinds of assessments, including the notorious B’s (building, budgets, baptisms) and N’s (nickels and noses). These are not entirely wrong, but they are also not necessarily helpful either. They don’t tell the whole story. 2015 (2 Nov.) : We are much more than our “nickels and noses” (to borrow slang from church leaders/planters). Budgets, client numbers, and staff sizes are poor metrics for evaluating mission effectiveness. Subjective things like degree of professionalism, purity of mission focus, and client outcomes are also weak indicators for people setting out to participate in the Lord’s life-giving work.
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