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Church Numbers: the Golden Calf in the Middle of the Room

My spirit cringes in disgust every time I hear someone boast of their congregation, “Yeah, we worship 235 on a Sunday morning.” That statement absolutely wreaks of idolatry. For one thing, as Christians, we don’t worship 235 of anything. We worship one– count em’ 1, uno, the one and only– God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may be blessed… correction… God may be blessed to have 235 worshippers gathered in a particular place on a Sunday morning to worship. But when I hear statements like that thrown around, I can’t stand it. And while I can’t speak for God, I’m sure this whole “yeah, we worship 235 or 75 or 666 on a Sunday morning” must stir the divine stomach, too.
church numbersIt’s time to call it out for what it is. It’s symptomatic of the thinking which plagues the mainline church, my United Methodist tribe in particular. It’s the numbers game. And the way the numbers game is being played these days, it’s nothing more than idolatry, and therefore is a breach of the First and even Second Commandments.

So why all the fuss over numbers? Well actually, the church has always counted numbers. There were 12 disciples, down from 72 at one point. There were 12 apostles. After Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were added to their number that day. The book of Revelation records 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel sealed for the day of redemption. (And no, I’m not a literalist on this last one. Nevertheless, it’s a numbered count, even figuratively.) Of course, the Old Testament records all kinds of numbers pertaining to God’s people.

But as for our modern obsession with numbers, I once heard United Methodist Bishop James E. Swanson say quite prophetically, “No one ever fussed about evangelism and discipleship until the money started running out.” Amen and amen, Bishop. I wish that statement could be trumpeted to every board, committee, and task force of our denomination. As the church began to decline in both financial and people resources, then we started scrutinizing our statistics and desperately cranked out catchy slogans and programs designed to promote things like evangelism, discipleship, and stewardship.

It’s the same old spiel so many of us have heard every year at our annual denominational gatherings:

Our membership is declining at precipitous rates. Our membership is getting older. We’re running out of money. We need to address this before we die out. How will we do this?
Well, we need to reverse these these trends. We need to increase our membership with newer, preferably younger people. And, of course, we need to get money out of them to keep our ship from sinking.

Idolatry. Sheer, ugly, shameful idolatry.

Instead of fussing over numbers, we need to fuss over Jesus. And therein lies the problem. As congregations became established and static, the fervor and passion of being disciples of Jesus began to ebb away. When we lost our vital connection to a life lived in Jesus, we lost our heart. When we lost our heart, we lost our passion and settled for programs, comfortable routines, maintenance-minded structures, and a club-like, members-only mentality towards congregational life.

Numbers and statistics are important, but only as a one kind of thermometer. For example, let’s say I take my temperature, and it reads higher than it should be. If I were to use today’s church mentality, I’d be saying to myself, “My goodness! This number is too high… I need to find a way to lower this number” and then proceed to shake the thermometer to a better, lower number. (Never mind it was a digital thermometer…) You can see the problem. I’m fussing over the number without diagnosing and treating the causality, the real sickness.

The real sickness within today’s mainline church is our lost fervor for being Jesus’ disciples who strive after him while expecting great, awesome things from his kingdom here on earth and in heaven to come.

Numbers tell a story, but they do not cause or fix problems. Numbers are a gauge of spiritual activity, but they are not our chief, primary focus. Jesus is. The moment we learn that lesson is the moment we can be freed from the bondage of worrying over numbers. Numbers are not to be reveled in when they’re good. We revel in and give glory to God; giving glory to numbers is self-serving idolatry. And, conversely, numbers are not to be consternated over when they’re bad. We wouldn’t worry over a thermometer. We would address the sickness and seek a remedy for it.

In our case, we have a merciful, bountiful, fiercely loving God who is ready to pour salve on our wounds, wash away our sins, cure our spiritual blindness, soften our stony-hearted apathy, smash up our self-seeking idols of worldly success, and fill us to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of Jesus. We have an Abba Father who runs breakneck towards us prodigals the moment we decide to return home. That’s true for us as individuals, and certainly true for our faith communities, too.

In order to smash up the golden calf of the numbers game, we need a revival of biblical discipleship in which we re-learn our identity as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. As disciples, we worship with passionate abandon (no matter the form of worship, form of worship being yet another manifestation of self-serving idolatry). As disciples we build authentic, caring relationships of support, learning, and accountability with other disciples. As disciples, we learn and live the Word of God contained in the pages of Scripture, crafting a thoroughly biblical lens to view God, the world, and ourselves. As disciples, we are passionate about bringing our lost neighbors to a healing relationship with Jesus, fighting for justice, binding up the broken and injured, all the while living in hopeful expectation for the kingdom of God to come. As disciples of Jesus, we seek to be like Jesus Christ, to be the living flesh, bone and sinews of  his way, truth, and life.

When we get at that, the numbers game will care for itself. After all we worship only One.

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