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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Big Numbers and The Gospel

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus...
Last week I heard a well known preacher praise big numbers: "Nineteen Thousand", "Seven Million." It got me thinking, or rather meditating....  

The Pull of Numbers
We are intoxicated by numbers. All of us. Numbers impress us, and if we are not careful, seduce us. The world, of course, runs by numbers. Which company is making the greatest profit, which country has the greatest GDP, which nation the strongest army and which party the largest share of the vote. At street level numbers still matter:  Who has the most money, who gets the most hits.... he who dies with the most toys, wins.

Numbers in the Bible
So how is a believer to think about numbers (not the book)? Are we to be impressed when high numbers are paraded in front of us? Is a church with a thousand, greater in God's eyes than a church of 10? Is a book that sells ten copies less valuable in God's eyes than a New York Times best seller? The answer isn't straight forward - and it certainly is not how the world would think - big numbers means big success.

Numbers do count
On the one hand numbers do matter. There are far too many small and small-minded churches that excuse  their smallness to 'faithfulness', whereas in fact their smallness owes itself to nothing other than self-centred spiritual apathy towards the lost. The Gospel should produce converts, the church should grow like the fourth Kingdom in Nebuchadnezzar's dream which became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth (Daniel 2).

Churches should expect, under normal circumstances to see the Gospel flourish and bring forth a harvest, they should see their numbers increase with time.

Number don't count
But on the other hand, not all growth is Growth, not all Big Numbers are Gospel Numbers. For one thing, it is possible for a church to grow numerically for no other reason that it is the 'flavour of the city/town'. This happens. It could grow simply because it offers entertainment dressed up as worship. It could grow because the pastor has a magnetic personality. It could grow because it has found the lowest common denominator and words such as sin and repentance and hell are banned under holy order.

For another thing, there is a whole strand of Biblical teaching which reminds us that God pleases to bless and choose the poor, the lowly, the outcast, the small, the frail. Indeed he has a great habit of bypassing those who are great in the eyes of the world and latching onto the weak and frail, so that he gets the glory. One will chase a thousand, one Elijah takes on hundreds of Baalites, and so on. Twelve men turn the world upside down.

And here is another truth. Nowhere in the NT are big numbers any sign of success. So sparse are numbers that we must read from the numbers that are there a profound significance: the early church that grew from 120 to 3000 to 5000 grew in that way to demonstrate the supernatural origin of this institution. It does not follow from that growth that every other church will move in the same direction.

The final judgement
So what are we to make of Big Numbers? Like all spiritual matters, discernment is the key.  We are not despise small things, but ask why are they small? We are not to be impressed by large numbers but ask why are they large?

There is no straight line between numbers (small or large) and God's blessing.

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