God and Numbers
by Jeremiah Vaught
To some, the primary metrics for church health are numbers and numerical growth. Those who fit this category look at smaller churches and smaller ministries as less important or valuable. This leads some to even question the faithfulness of leaders over smaller ministries or whether God is truly “blessing” such work.
Others look at larger churches and ministries with suspicion. Those who fit this category feel that the larger the church, the more likely they are to think ‘people pleasing’ is foundational to such growth. In worst-case scenarios, jealous or suspicious individuals will spend good portions of their worship services bashing larger churches. Yes I have witnessed this!
In this post, I want to argue from scripture that God delights in numerical growth but prioritizes Gospel faithfulness to such growth. Therefore we should also delight in numerical growth but prioritize Gospel faithfulness over such growth.
Before I continue let me tell you what I am not saying:
1) I am not saying Gospel faithfulness will not be accompanied by numerical growth: My intent here is not to make a disjunction between these two, but argue for priority. Gospel faithfulness, especially in circumstances where hearts are open to the truth or in contexts where there are many that know the living God, often are accompanied by numerical growth. The two do not exclude each other, but rather one should be primary in our ministries.
2) I am not saying smaller ministries are more faithful: Being small is not proof of faithfulness either. I will get to this later. By way of example, if you are a church in the Bible belt and all of your members are related to one another and you haven’t seen an adult conversion in 10 years, chances are, something is off!
3) I am not saying this it is always easy to identify faithfulness: There are many churches that teach orthodox Christianity. This is good. But that doesn’t always mean they are faithful. They might teach orthodox Christianity, but elevate home-schooling, elevate the Republican or Democratic party, elevate eating organic food, elevate an important social issue like abolishing abortion, or even elevate the importance of the family. Yet if the Gospel, if proclaiming Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is not foremost in the ministry of a church, it is not being faithful. Thus it is important to ask of any ministry, “Is Jesus being clearly and powerfully proclaimed as of utmost importance in this place?” This is one way to tell the difference.
Now that we have seen what I am not saying let me argue the point. First let me show two clear instances of God’s concern for numbers. In Jonah 4:11 rebukes Jonah for his lack of concern for the city of Nineveh by pointing out that over 120,000 people that were lost. Clearly God demonstrates his love for large numbers of people and desires that many would come to the salvation he gave to this populous city.
Secondly, in Acts 2:41 we are told that 3,000 people became Christians on the day of Pentecost. The fact that God-breathed scripture highlights the number 3,000 as a sign of the new power unleashed through the disciples at the end of the Pentecost account is important. God does value bringing many into fellowship with Himself.
There are more passages where numbers are highlighted, like the book of Numbers, but those two instances should suffice to show God has concern for large numbers of salvation. And God has blessed his church with periods of incredible numerical growth over the millennia (i.e. First Great Awakening, Korea, and current gospel explosions in India and China).
However, one passage will be sufficient to show that God prioritizes truth over numerical growth in assessing a ministry. Consider the end of John 6. At the beginning of this chapter in John, Jesus and His disciples miraculously feed well over 5,000 people. The people are satisfied and pleased with Jesus. In the same account Jesus gives some hard teaching about the necessity of eating the true bread that God gives, that is God give His Son Jesus as a sacrifice for these people. The crowd en masse leaves Jesus. In fact, there are so few left that Jesus looks at the 12 and wonders whether they will leave as well.
Of course they do not leave Jesus at this point. It is clear that Jesus intends to start His revolution with a smaller band of followers that will trust Him in the good and the bad. At the end of the day, we should all be seeking to multiply people in our ministries that are not only present, but that will be with Jesus in both bad and good. Such people will be the ones that truly will see numerical growth that pleases God.
But faithfulness to Jesus, takes precedent over numerical growth as an internal check for effectiveness of ministry. May we all grow in number people that will be with Jesus till the end of their days!