Do numbers count?

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A number of years ago in a leafy suburb of Melbourne (Australia), a Jewish boy becoming a bar mitzvah began his first public Torah reading by asking: “How does God count people? Why does God count people? If He knows how many hairs are on your head and mine, why did He make the Israelites count many thousands of men by tribe?” The young man’s hands gripped the sides of the pulpit. He took a deep breath, steadied himself, and began an insightful and moving exploration of the book of Numbers. 

A few minutes into his sermon, one point made the congregation collectively catch their breath: “The most recent person in history to count our people was Adolf Hitler.” The parallels are sharp and they illuminate very different models of counting. God counted His people by name. Hitler counted the Jewish people by number. God desired to write His law of love on foreheads and hearts. Hitler tattooed numbers on forearms. God’s counting gave His people an identity and brought them together. Hitler’s counting dehumanised, tearing families and loved ones apart. 

We are called to be disciples and to make disciples of all nations—is this happening? Is the membership of the Church really growing?

Do numbers matter? Maybe. Maybe not. Do the “why” and “how” of counting matter? King David’s census of the Israelites indicates that motivations matter deeply to God. In this case, Satan played on the king’s pride, inciting him to take the census against the counsel of David’s best advisors and bringing heavy judgement on Israel.1 Centuries later, the call for yet another census would bring Mary and Joseph to the city of David in fulfilment of a messianic prophecy.2 In all of these scenarios God’s people were counted but each call to measure produced very different results. So do numbers count?

When it comes to measuring spiritual growth—some call this “spiritual metrics”—there are at least two strongly opposing positions. The first goes something like this: “Most of us are horrified to think that someone might attempt to ‘measure’ spiritual life. How can anyone know how spiritual a person or a group is? And if someone could know such a thing, is it the business of anyone but the individual and God?”3 The second offers another perspective: “If faith does not ‘work’ it lacks value . . . If you can’t graph positive results what is the point?”4 In between these strong views are other, more moderate positions—for example: “Measurement can be unspiritual but the best leadership is informed by facts, not practised in a vacuum.”5 

Reading these statements do you find one resonates with your point of view? Do terms like “spiritual inventory” make you shudder? Or do you put aside time each year (or day or month) to prayerfully consider your growth into the likeness of Jesus’ character? Is “measure” even the right word to use or does it put us on the defence before we can engage meaningfully in this discussion?

Another issue to consider is our leaders’ role in keeping us faithful to our commission and collective vision. We are called to be disciples and to make disciples of all nations—is this happening? Is the membership of the Church really growing? Numbers can answer these questions but they often fail to reflect the deeper and more complex realities of what it is like to live daily in a posture of humility, of temperance, of sacrifice, and to experience the joy that characterises the life of a true disciple. The book of Acts can give some guidance here. Luke records not only numbers of lives daily transformed by the Spirit of Christ, he also characterises the new disciples by their actions: they were one in heart and mind; they shared everything they had; they sold their houses and put everything at the apostles’ feet . . . 6

Traditionally, Adventists measure discipleship by persons helped, literature distributed, letters written, missionary visits and persons taken to services—among other things. In case we are tempted to condemn these forms of counting as legalistic, we should pause and humbly reflect whether our spiritual disciplines are in a better or worse state today. But how would we even begin to answer that question? Do metrics matter?

US author/speaker Mike Bonem makes the point that growth in numbers is not always a good indicator of spiritual health. He gives the example of Christ Fellowship in South Florida, a “multi-site church” that decided to look closely at the fruit of their discipling labours. As one church leader explained: “The numbers were strong. We had a lot of people in life groups and taking classes but we didn’t seem to have the life we needed.” Bonem continues: “Despite ‘positive numbers’ Christ Fellowship’s leaders knew that the old model was producing participation but not the spiritual growth God desired.”7 On the other hand, a different church report boldly states: “We are all about the numbers. Because every number, every statistic, represents a life that was changed, a life filled with hope and purpose, a story of redemption and grace.”8 Clearly these numbers count.

It seems then that measuring discipleship has its advocates and opponents. But are metrics really the issue? It may be difficult to get past the theological-intellectual pros and cons but it might also be worthwhile to look closely at what our responses might reveal about our hearts. Are there any underlying reasons for pulling away from self-reflection—either individually or corporately as a Church?

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.9 In the next few months, the South Pacific Division plans to take Paul’s counsel literally and to ask whether or not they as our leaders, and we as the Church, are fulfilling our mission statement: To make disciples for Jesus Christ of all peoples, communicating the everlasting gospel in the context of the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12.10 The plan is not to take a census but to humbly and prayerfully invite the body of the Church to reflect on—and yes, to measure—its spiritual health. Because in the end it’s not really about the numbers. Note the end of Paul’s counsel: “Test yourselves. Or do you not realise this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5).” This then is what counts: Is Jesus at the centre of our lives and our Church? And are we—truly, daily, accountably—His disciples?

So very soon you will be asked to stand up and be counted. You may join in the personal and corporate measurement of our commitment to be—and to make—disciples. You may not. The choice is yours. But before deciding whether or not to participate, please spend some time considering for yourself: do numbers count?

Finally, the young bar mitzvah’s questions were not rhetorical; the answers can be found in Numbers 1:3. God didn’t need the metrics. He was preparing His people for their biggest test, and they needed to know their army was prepared before they took their final march into the Promised Land.

Bonem, Mike. ‘Measuring What Matters: Despite the Barriers, Churches Are Finding Effective Metrics of Soul Transformation’. Leadership Journal 33.2 (2012): 70–75. Print.

Nelson, Peter K. ‘Impractical Christianity’. Christianity Today 49.9 (2005): 80. Print.

Ware, Corinne. Discover Your Spiritual Type: A Guide to Individual and Congregational Growth. Alban Institute, 1995. Print.
 

1. 1 Chronicles 21:1-7

2. Luke 2:4

3. (Ware 2)

4. (Nelson 80)

5. (Bonem 72)

6. Acts 4:32-35

7. (Bonem 73)

8. (Bonem 74)

9. 2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV

10. South Pacific Division Strategic Plan 2010-2015
 


Dr Lindsay Morton is a lecturer at Avondale College of Higher Education.