Do they matter?
If you have ever been to a Christian event and introduced yourself to someone you haven’t met before you will have probably found that the conversation quickly gets round to some discussion about the size of each other’s churches. Apart from the difficulty of how to measure that (Sunday attendance, church membership roll, people attending other church activities and so on?) what does that number really say about the church? Is size a measure of success? A church of 60/70 in a village population 8,000 may be having a far greater impact than a church of 250 in a town of population 50,000 yet superficially the bigger church may appear more successful. If the numbers attending church are our measure of success then the saying that God calls us to be faithful rather than successful may be a helpful corrective. This is especially the case if like me you come away encouraged after a meeting that is well attended and discouraged when the attendance has been low.
So what does the Bible have to say about numbers? The answer is a bit mixed. There are plenty of numbers recorded in the Old Testament, not least a whole book of that name cataloguing quite detailed records of the different Israelite tribal populations! These records seem to meet with God’s approval and form the basis of allocating land equitably after the Israelites cross over the Jordan to occupy their inheritance. Later however King David is strongly rebuked by Joab, and punished by God, for carrying out a census of the fighting men.
The New Testament writers too record various numbers: the feeding of the 5,000, 10 lepers healed, 3,000 added on the day of Pentecost, the registers of widows entitled to food distribution and so. The early church seem to find it helpful to record who was a part of their growing community.
As I was reflecting on the importance (or otherwise) of numbers I was reminded of a parable that Jesus told about a shepherd who had 100 sheep. One evening as he was doing the roll call he found that one was missing. He leaves the 99 in the safety of the sheep pen and goes out searching for the one. If Jesus is concerned about the one then that should be our priority too. However large our church becomes, each of us is called to be concerned for the individual. Are there people in our church that you haven’t seen recently? What could you do to encourage and support them? Could you identify just one person who does not yet follow Jesus and pray for them consistently to meet Jesus for themself?
Yes numbers matter – especially the ones!
This blog post featured in the February 2015 edition of Lifelines