The fourth book in the Bible is the book of Numbers. It comes after Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus. The Greek word for “Numbers” is “Arithmoi.” As you can guess that word is somehow related to arithmetic. The Hebrew word for “Numbers” on the other hand is “Bamidbar.” It means “in the desert of.” The book was compiled when the Israelites were in the Sinai desert. In fact the name of the book comes from two censuses of the Israelites. Numbers is essentially census results. That’s why it can be numbing to read. But it’s a historical document, the equivalence of a data base.Numbers measure the strength of a population. Numbers determine the capacity of a group. Numbers reference potency. But numbers are not necessarily a measure of effectiveness, and this is where we might have got it wrong in the modern church when we talk about the size of our church.
There are many church growth seminars and programmes, and these are all well and good. Churches need to grow. Churches do good in society. They educate, encourage, empower, give hope, bring relief, give succour, comfort, rescue, impart values, train, motivate, expose talent, and provide connections. Church growth is sometimes a measure of the effectiveness and capabilities of a pastor. But those numbers cannot be treated as absolutes or else the early apostles must be regarded as failures. The early church didn’t have large numbers. They didn’t really have large churches at the commencement of Christianity. That’s probably because you sign your death warrant when you declare yourself a Christian in those days. It took bravery to be a Christian. And if anyone doubts that he or she should read Hebrew 11. We tend to constrain ourselves to just one verse in that book – the first verse, because Hebrews 11:1 contains the classical definition of faith: “Now faith is the assurance, title deed, confirmation of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen, the conviction of their reality.” Hebrews 11:1 AMP.
Scroll down a few verses in Hebrew 11 however and you’ll meet the people who lived IN faith: “And others experienced the trial of mocking and scourging amid torture, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were lured with tempting offers to renounce their faith, they were put to death by the sword; they went about wrapped in the skins of sheep and goats, utterly destitute, oppressed, cruelly treated…” Hebrews 11:36-37 AMP.
We cannot fully appreciate the value of being able to practice Christianity without repression. Most of us don’t know the otherwise. It’s why we focus on inanities. We even threaten God with backsliding if he doesn’t grant a petition. The early Christians were the nationalists of the Christian nation. They paid the gruesome price. They gave birth to our freedom.
Biblically speaking we cannot talk numbers therefore, or talk about the size of a church or ministry without a consideration of political context. Numbers are relative. For example the numbers in the early church would today be considered abysmally low. Will be very discouraging to some pastors. Churches met in houses, much like house fellowships today. When you consider the context in which the disciples preached those were great numbers however. Those few people took the gospel around the world, and against all odds. Their feat is incredible. Just a bunch of people set the world on fire for Christ. There’s quantitative numbers therefore and there’s qualitative numbers. What the church needs is qualitative numbers – people on fire for God, people who will dare, people who will go, people who will accomplish, against all odds.
What those early Christians faced was state sponsored terrorism. Emperor Nero is particularly distinguished in this regard. The first persecution of Christians organised by the Roman government took place under him. That was in AD 67. He gave the order Rome should be burnt. Some say he wanted to rebuild Rome and make it architecturally splendorous. But while the imperial city burned he went to the tower of Maecenas, played upon his harp, sang a song about the burning of Troy, while openly declaring “he wished the ruin of all things before his death.” Several thousand perished in the Rome fire. It lasted nine days. When the political recrimination arose Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire.
And the persecution was gruesome. Emperor Nero was infernally imaginative in his barbarism. He had some Christians sewn up in the skin of wild beasts and set dogs after them. They died from exhaustion as they fled the dogs. He fitted some in wax shirts, fixed them to trees and turned them into human lantern. He would go on to execute Peter and Paul, decapitating the national and international thrusts of the church.
So when we talk about church growth and size we must consider the political environment in which we operate. We must ask ourselves, given the freedom we enjoy are we doing enough for God? Those numbers about church size are not absolute. The first context of church numbers is political.
The second context of church numbers is geographic. If a church has five hundred youths, what is that number relative to the number of youths in the area the church is located? That gives us a vision of the amount of work that still needs to be done. It’s an indication of how many youths we still need to reach for Christ.
But it’s also a measure of what has been done, what that local assembly has accomplished. The purport of this essay is not to take away from the great work done by apostles, prophets, pastors and evangelists. Rather the purport is to encourage us all to do more, to be more effective. Taking territory for God is not easy. You face a formidable adversary. Pastoring is not an easy job despite the seeming apparent. True pastors labour.
The third context of church numbers is social. What is the social impact of a church in its community, what is the social impact of a church on society?
What is the use of large church numbers without impact? If the congregants imagine they’ve fulfilled their obligation to God by coming to church every Sunday that ministry will lack effectiveness. The people are net consumers of spiritual diet.
But the present structure we run can’t achieve the kind of effectiveness we need despite our numbers. Under our present system the pastor does all the work, the congregants are enablers. It’s a most inefficient configuration. God’s original intent is the other way round – the pastor trains the people to do the work of the ministry: “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT
In other words, the work of ministers is two-fold – purpose people for service and build up the body of Christ. Ministers are thus personnel development officers, human resource trainers and consultants. A well trained and purposed hundred man church will be more powerful and more effective than a ten thousand man assembly where the pastor does all the work of ministry. If we don’t operate the model recommended in the Bible the church will struggle to get into culture, politics and governance. God had a bright idea!
So the question of so many churches but little impact in society is easily settled by recourse to God’s original design for the church – a purposed people who enter society and bring about changes. Imagine a church website with a searchable data base of good works done by the members of the church across different fields. Each member undertakes a personal project, or a group of members come together to take up an assignment in society. It can be social, it can be economic, it can be political, it can be educational, it can be philanthropic… The societal penetration of such a church will be high. Her impact will be felt. That’s salting the earth, getting the salt into the crevices of society. Doesn’t mean the church won’t undertake projects. It’s just that individual mandate is encouraged and emphasised.
The great lesson we need to learn from numbers is that numbers don’t mean a thing without effectiveness. It’s not how big the church is, it’s the size of impact on society that matters.
If you’ll like to receive Jesus into your life please pray this prayer: “Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Father please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.”
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