A long time ago, in another life, I worked as a pastor. The highlight of my week then was finding out the worship attendance of the most recent worship service. If the numbers were up, I felt a certain joy, a hidden gladness, a secret pride of my church and my ministry.
If the numbers were down, I would think up all sorts of reasons to explain why the numbers had dropped, for example, “it’s the holiday season, and many of our folks are away.” I felt apologetic when friends visited on Sunday and the numbers were down. I was hooked on the numbers.
I do not think I am alone. Consciously or subconsciously many churches use numbers as the primary indicator of how well they are doing. Many chase the three “Bs” — bodies, buildings and budgets. Bodies — How many at worship? How large is your membership? Buildings — How big is your facility? How much did it cost to build? Budget — How much is your church budget? How much is your annual collection?
The reasoning goes something like this: the larger the numbers, the greater the success. The greater the success, the greater must be God’s approval. Therefore we ask the leaders of our larger churches to lead our denominations, and to teach the rest of us how to do church. More is good.
But not all are convinced of the primacy of numerical indicators. In an article in Christianity Today (Small is Large, February 2006), David Neff writes:
“In his recent book, The Great Giveaway, David Fitch addresses the knee-jerk way in which evangelicals admire and copy churches and ministries that garner large followings. He speaks of evangelicalism’s ‘culture of numbers’ and shows how it often owes more to free-market capitalism’s concern for efficient production than it does the gospel.”(p.74)
To justify this “culture of numbers” many would cite passages like Acts 2:41. There we are told: “So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added.” (NET) Three thousand accepted the gospel that day. Talk about a successful evangelistic rally.
Yet the bible also records verses like John 6:66 where we are told “many of his (Jesus) disciples quit following him and did not accompany him” (NET) when Jesus began to explain the true nature of His mission. Here the numbers shrank. Was Jesus a failure? Clearly the evidence for numbers as a criterion for spiritual success is ambiguous at best.
If the bible is not at all clear that numbers are a criterion for success, it is very clear that God expects His people to be faithful. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the “successful” servants are commended as those who had been faithful stewards of their resources. They were commended for their faithfulness not their numerical success.
So yes we praise God when we hear of the mushrooming of churches in places like China. Surely God is at work. But I believe God was also at work when Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a very small band of Christians stood firm against Hitler and the horrors of Nazism. God calls us to be faithful.
I am aware that faithfulness can be a convenient banner to hide behind when we have been lazy and poor stewards of our resources and opportunities. That is a different kind of danger. However it remains true that God’s primary desire is that we are a faithful people, faithful to Him, to His Character, to His Word and to His Purposes. Such faithfulness may or may not lead to obvious numerical success.
It is interesting that when God commissions Ezekiel for his prophetic ministry, God expects Ezekiel to be faithful to his ministry, whether the people respond or not.
“Son of man, I am sending you to the house of Israel, to rebellious nations who have rebelled against me; both they and their fathers have revolted against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and hard-hearted, and you must say to them, ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says.’ And as for them, whether they listen or not – for they are a rebellious house – they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 2:3-5 NET)
Ezekiel is expected to be faithful to what the Lord had commanded him to do. He is to be faithful to his call irrespective of whether the people listen. Ezekiel is expected to be faithful not “successful.”
God may call some churches to be big and to be stewards of large budgets and large buildings. Different churches have different assignments. Just as long as we do not automatically equate large numbers with spiritual success and God’s blessing.
Furthermore we also need to beware of the dangers of being hooked on numbers. 2 Samuel 24:1-17 records a major mistake in the life of King David. He initiated a census of his warriors. David had eight hundred thousand fighting men in Israel and five hundred thousand in Judah, under his command (2 Samuel 24:9).
David had every reason to be proud. He was the head of a large and victorious fighting force. He had come a long way from the farm. But this act of self glorification was sin which he eventually recognized.
“David felt guilty after he had numbered the army. David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly by doing this! Now, O Lord, please remove the guilt of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.'” (2 Samuel 24:10 NET)
David’s numbering exercise was an exercise in self glory. It was a great sin. Here is a disturbing warning about the seductive nature of numbers and how easily large numbers can lead to pride. Therefore, not only are numbers no guarantee of spiritual success, they also have the capacity to lead us into the sin of pride.
We are long overdue for a proper understanding of the role of numbers in the life of the church. For a start we need to take our cue from the Word and not from the world of business. We may need to use numbers at times but let us put numbers in their place.
Instead of being tyrannized by numbers, let there be a fresh commitment to be faithful to the Lord. Whether we face the challenge of overt persecution, or the stifling materialism of free societies, may we be found faithful.
Instead of keeping our eyes on the numbers, let us keep our eyes on the Lord. And on our hearts. Let us cultivate a culture of faithfulness.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan