We live in a world that is governed by numbers. Statistics, revenue, attendance and bottom dollar are how we discern our success in most areas of life. It is normal and right in most situations to evaluate our business practices, spending habits and effectiveness by response and budgets. If we do not keep our spending in check, we will run out of money. If we do not tailor our businesses to the market, we will never make a profit and fail. We can learn much about culture, history, trends and predictions from statistics and make informed decisions for our every day lives and also for our nations. Numbers can be extremely helpful.
But there are also times that numbers are extremely detrimental. Sometimes for the sake of data collection businesses will dishearten customers by requiring registration. Sometimes people will double or triple register for benefits, and thus the numbers are inaccurate. But for us in the church, we regularly evaluate our effectiveness by numbers – either intentionally or unintentionally. We might count our attendance, or our new baptisms, or tithes and offerings and consider that a direct reflection of our success and/or Spiritual impact.
To evaluate the work of God by numbers is extremely dangerous.
Western 21st century culture is that of the entitled consumer. We want to be successful, beautiful and comfortable. We buy more than we can afford and we expect the world to recognize how wonderful we are. Thus the extremely successful people are entrepreneurs at heart: they figure out what people want and they sell it to them, convincing them that they will have a better life in the process.
We are consequently seeing churches follow the same pattern. There is an entire movement of so-called churches that are drawing a crowd by preaching the health and wealth gospel: God wants you to be successful and healthy, and all you need to achieve it is faith. These churches draw huge crowds of people hoping to find a quick fix to a better life.
We are also seeing churches that might have started strong but find that people are “changed” and stick around in response to self-help style messages and books. Every sermon is another three-step guide to happiness, contentment or self betterment.
Most tragically, however, we are observing the culture at large make peace with sin and continue to alter the moral compass of our country as a whole. For the sake of not wanting to offend, to be seeker-friendly, and to allow people to define right and wrong on their own, churches are taking no position on sin or the concrete doctrines of the Bible like Hell, depravity, our need for a savior, or grace. We just preach a secular love and make people feel good. The old adage rings true:
Even a circus draws a crowd.
We are making ourselves a circus. And a pretty bad one, most of the time, to be honest.
Let us once again consider Jesus: our perfect example. Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus drew extremely large crowds. People came to Him to hear Him speak and for healing. One day Jesus was out with His 12 disciples and a large crowd was following Him because He had been healing people. Scripture says that there were 5,000 men – plus women and children. This was a huge crowd – at least 10,000 people. Just watching and waiting to hear what Jesus had to say. Jesus felt compassion for them and proceeded to take five loaves of bread and 2 fish and multiply that food to feed the entire crowd – to the extent that there were twelve baskets full of leftover food.
Jesus saw a need in the people, He met that need, and worked a mighty miracle. The crowd was amazed and wanted to continue to receive the benefit of being near Him. They were following Him. In everyone’s eyes then – and by all methods of modern evaluation, Jesus was extremely successful at that moment in His ministry.
That night, Jesus left the crowd and went to a town without telling them where He was going. The crowd figured it out, however, and followed Him. The very next day He began teaching the same crowd about eternal life, true bread and following Him. His teaching was so difficult to hear and in vocabulary so offensive that the entire crowd left. Jesus turned to His twelve disciples and asked if they were going to leave as well, and they said that they had no where to go, and Jesus simply observed:
– John 6.70-71
In twenty four hours or less, Jesus went from having well over 5,000 people follow Him to 11. All of the peripheral followers left, and even one of those who appeared to be devoted was deemed worse than all the rest. The 5,000+ could not bear His teaching and one of His hand-chosen twelve was wicked to the core, such that Jesus called him a devil.
Have you ever been a part of a church that is dwindling? Do you wonder if it is dying? Have people started joking, or worse yet – believing – that “Ichabod” has been written over the door? Are your loyal congregants and even leaders pouring out of the door to find other churches or to just stop going altogether? It is definitely a good and right thing to evaluate the tendencies of our congregation. First of all we need to pray. We need to remember that our churches are not our churches. The only person who can truly call the church “my church” is Jesus. He is the head. He directs, He guides, He is sovereign over them. And we must submit to His leadership. We also need to find out why people are leaving. Is something sinful or heretical being taught? Is there a faction within the church? Is there a predator working with our children? Or are people just bored, or convicted, or looking for more friends? In short: are they being driven by the Holy Spirit or by their flesh?
Jesus’ teaching and the Gospel in and of itself is offensive and difficult to hear. Jesus was charismatic enough and preformed so many miracles that the crowds continually grew and were even oppressive by their vast numbers, but they regularly receded back – even to just the disciples – when Jesus began to preach the Truth. People do not naturally want to hear the truth. They want to have their ears tickled, their bellies filled, and their backs patted:
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”
– 2 Tim 4.3-4
Jesus appeared to be unaffected by the crowds. In fact, when the crowds grew to be certain sizes, He often left them to go off to pray by Himself or to go somewhere else to teach and heal. This is the exact opposite of our goal in western Christianity. We want to be successful, we want to draw in the masses and be a big dynamic church. We will start multiple campuses and use videos to broadcast our pastors, we will make our mark on this city.
Churches in persecuted areas understand much more clearly the heart of Jesus for His church on many levels: they are wary of big numbers, they facilitate strong discipleship, the stick to the truth, and they launch small groups of believers all around the cities rather than establishing themselves in a big, worldly, and visible way. You would expect to hear that they are slower to evangelize, but quite the opposite is true in most circumstances. We are complacent and expect “the church” to reach the lost, so we rarely share the Gospel and only on occasion invite people to join us at church hoping they will get saved inside the walls of the church. The persecuted church has experienced Jesus changing their world, and they seek to protect the church by only bringing in other believers, but yet they are excited to share what God has done in their lives so they get out and talk about the Gospel on their own. We have much we can learn from them.
But while we live in our “bigger is better” society, we are given clear instructions of how we are to respond to a difficult culture that does not want to hear the truth:
“But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
– 2 Tim 4.5
We should approach every decision, including our church devotion, by prayer. Where is God leading you to serve? There are certainly times that churches die. It could be because of false teaching, it could be because of sin within the congregation that is not being addressed, it could be because the members are complacent and God is scattering them to get them out of their comfort zones and making the useful again, God could allow a church to die for any number of reasons. But if He has called you to a body, then you must be faithful and follow His leadership even if it is difficult and if other people are leaving.
We must also fight the temptation to evaluate our success by numbers. If we follow the example of Jesus, we will find that people might be intrigued by the good deeds that we do, but the vast majority of them will not stick around. We will even find that within our “core” and faithful few, there will be devils who are there for the wrong reasons and will fall into gross sin.
We must be sober, and we must endure hardship. We must share the Gospel boldly and we must fulfill our ministry, even when it appears unsuccessful to the world. God is our judge, not man. And in the end it is only His opinion that matters. You will always do right if you obey God and do what He teaches. And if we look like Jesus, chances are we will not have a crowd the size of the one the circus draws.
“But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.”
– 1 Cor 4.3-4