Numbers and nickels

A couple of days ago, David Hayward, aka nakedpastor (see the link to his website over on the right) posted this cartoon that struck me as so insightful that my first response was “gosh, I hope he puts this one on a T-shirt, ’cause I’d love to wear it some places!”  David is the pastor of a Vineyard congregation in New Brunswick, Canada, so he knows whereof he speaks.  (I may have said in an earlier post that it was a Calvary Chapel; it’s not, it’s Vineyard.  There’s not a lot of difference between the two, but I just wanted to have the facts straight for you.)

If you know the Gospels, you’ll know that David’s illustration is accurate, at least from the start of Jesus’s ministry through His arrest and trial.  (After the Resurrection, things picked up, of course.)  You’ll also know that many times, Jesus preached messages to the multitudes that seemed expressly designed for crowd-thinning.  Once, after a particularly difficult-to-accept message (see John 6), not only did a lot of people bail out, but He pointedly asked his closest disciples if they wanted to as well.  You get the impression that He wasn’t much interested in boosting his numbers, of followers or anything else.

Which begs the question: if Jesus wasn’t interested in numbers when it came to His followers, then why are we so obsessed with them?

And believe me, I’m not using the word “obsessed” loosely.  Almost every congregation I’ve ever visited has had some mechanism for counting weekly attendance, number of “conversions” (read: people filling out cards after service), people in Sunday school and the like.  Churches large and larger brag about how many thousand members they have and how much money they bring in.  There are lists of “megachurches” with their average attendances on the Internet.  (Don’t believe me?  Here’s one …)  Senior pastors of those congregations are held up as leaders of the American church, even when their theology and private lives may be sketchy or worse.  (Click that link and see who’s first on the list.  Yeah.)

Nor is the focus on “numbers and nickels,” as I’ve heard it called, confined to larger congregations.  The Supermodel and I used to be Sunday school superintendents for a local congregation that, at its peak, had about 120 people attending.  But we were required — required — to keep accurate attendance figures and report them to the senior pastor, so he could report them to the local district of the denomination (that’s where the requirement came from; I don’t think the senior pastor was worried about it).  At another congregation I visited recently (one not much larger), attendance and offering figures for Sunday school were publicly announced before the main service, with awards given to the classes that had the most people and gave the most money.

Sometimes this “Figure Filbert” mentality leads to fairly nutty behavior.  Back to that congregation where we were Sunday school supes … the last October we were there, the children’s ministry put on a “Harvest Festival” (read: Halloween party) to attract the neighborhood kids to the congregation.  Since October 31 landed on a Tuesday that year, the event was held on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, and took up a good chunk of the congregation’s budget.  The following Sunday, it was announced that ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-SIX CHILDREN GOT SAVED over the three days!  And the whole congregation cheered at the great harvest of souls for the Kingdom of God.

But there was a problem.  Remember, I had to keep attendance records for the Sunday school?  Guess how many of the 136 CHILDREN THAT GOT SAVED came back the following Sunday to learn more about the new life in Christ they’d supposedly signed up for?  Go ahead, guess …

Nope, too high.  Try again …

Nah, still too high …

Yep, you got it.  Zero.  136 kids may have come forward for an altar call, or even filled out cards saying they’d repeated a prayer with somebody.  But none of us ever saw evidence that any of them were actually converted.  I’m not sure any of them were even seen in the church building again.  And the only follow-up done was a form letter mailed to each kid’s address, so it wasn’t like anyone was really trying to disciple them.  But it didn’t stop the children’s minister from bragging about the 136 children that “got saved.”  (It did, thankfully, stop the new pastor, who came in the following summer, from allowing the children’s minister to put on another “Harvest Festival” the next year.  That, and the congregation couldn’t afford the expense.)

This is not a unique instance, alas — many congregations either inflate numbers or use them selectively to put their organization in a better light.  Larry Lea once made a joke about his old hometown of Waco, Texas having more Baptists than people; I suspect that if you added up the attendance and conversion figures of the Baptist congregations there, that might be how the totals read.  Likewise, religious-right-oriented political groups often claim that they represent large numbers of registered voters … most of which, I’d wager, have never even heard of the groups and certainly wouldn’t agree that they speak for them in Washington.

But why would we as Christians report about ourselves larger numbers than actually exist?  For that matter, why are we so caught up with such numbers, even when they’re perfectly accurate?

For the first question, I’d tend to say it’s a natural part of human nature to exaggerate one’s own (or one’s group’s) importance, and exaggerating the number of people on your side is one way of doing that.  Still, just because it’s part of our nature as sinners, products of the Fall, doesn’t mean that as Christians — supposedly redeemed from that nature — we should continue to live that way.  Quite the opposite, in fact — we should be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit and repent of what is essentially lying.

As to the second … I think it comes down to taking the easy way out.  Think about it, which is harder to do:

  1. disciple a person, getting involved in their life, helping them to change their behaviors and learn new and better ones, and leading them to become more stable and mature people, drawing closer to the perfection God calls us all to, or
  2. counting?

Right — the second one.  Discipleship is hard, time-consuming work, equivalent to raising a child but without the authority a parent has over their offspring.  Counting is ridiculously easy.  Given the choice, most of us would rather prove our worthiness by saying “I preached, and six people came forward!” than by actually spending the effort to disciple six people.  (And on the flip side, many people would rather be counted than make the effort to be discipled and to mature.  It’s a two-way street.)

Furthermore, there’s denominational issues involved in many cases.  Recall that I talked about having to tabulate Sunday school attendance because the denomination wanted the stats, not because our congregation found them useful.  Denominational leaders often bring a certain amount of pressure to bear on their subordinates (local pastors) to “produce.”  In other words, get more people in your buildings and more money coming into our coffers.  If your bosses say you need to pull in more people, and it’s not happening, it’s only logical to do whatever you can to make that number increase — even if it means counting people who only come once as “adherents”, or counting members who never show up, or bumping up your conversion rates by including everyone who comes to the front and fills out a card … even if they’re never seen again.  Because, after all, how are you supposed to quantify discipleship?  Where do you find stats for how much someone’s life has been changed?

And yet, and yet … what was Jesus’ charge to his disciples (that’s right, disciples — not members, or converts, or anything else) before He returned to Heaven?

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Making disciples is what Jesus expects of us.  No matter what our numbers look like, if we aren’t discipling people, we’re not doing the will of God.  And if we are discipling people, we are doing what He wants, and the numbers still don’t matter.  When we fixate on the numbers, we miss the point completely.  This isn’t baseball, where stats can give us fairly (though not perfectly) accurate ideas of a player’s ability and production.  This is the Kingdom of God, where what matters is the condition of our souls, and our relationship with our King.  You can no more reduce that to a statistical formula than you can a marriage or a friendship.  And if you’re smart, and you recognize God’s work for what it is, you don’t try to.

I was talking recently with a pastor of a local congregation, who told me about a regional conference his denomination holds every year.  At those conferences, each pastor is given a binder that includes (among other things) statistical reports compiled for every congregation in that district, and most of the pastors turn to those pages first.  He says he no longer looks at them, because he realized two things fairly quickly.  One was that most of them are invariably inaccurate, with many of his fellow pastors stretching the stats to make themselves look better in the eyes of their supervisors and their peers.  The other was that the numbers said nothing about any real growth in people’s lives — greater maturity, increased freedom from sin and addiction, more closeness in relationships with God and each other, real surrender by people of their lives to the Almighty.  You know, the things that really matter to God according to the Scriptures.  The things that are supposed to matter to us.

Would that we all had that kind of wisdom.  And acted accordingly.

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2 Responses to Numbers and nickels

  1. theoldadam says:

    We ought not be (concerned with numbers).

    The fact that we are reflects the ‘theology of glory’ which is so prevalent today.

  2. theoldadam says:

    PS- It’s human nature, I think (also), especially for Americans.

    Bigger #’s equates to greater success.

    When it comes to the faith (in Jesus), we know that is not necessarily true.

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