Several years ago, in the “Wild West” days of Baptist blogging, I read a comment made by a prominent blogger, the pastor of a large church, disdaining the viewpoints of several others bloggers who pastored much smaller churches. Because their churches were smaller than his, their opinions evidently carried less weight than his did. It was strange to see those words on the screen, but they represent a prevalent opinion in the Baptist world – that numbers are an obvious measure of God’s blessings. We Baptists tend to be a “bigger is better” bunch. Our denomination is dominated by those who have built megachurches with mega-buildings and mega-budgets. In recent years, the SBC has sounded alarms because our decades of numerical progress at first flattened out and then became a statistical decline.
But is that fair? Can statistical analysis tell us whether the blessing of God is on a church or not? Should the fact that a high percentage of our churches are plateaued or declined and that multiple thousands of SBC churches baptized on one last year be cause for concern? Can we measure the pleasure of God on a church numerically?
What does the Bible say about this? I believe that there are two key perspectives we need to see as we examine numbers and the pleasure of God on our churches.
Israel and God’s Blessing
It is always a tricky thing to translate promises to Israel in the Old Testament into the New Testament era. But I do believe that the way that God worked in Israel reveals something of his character and his ways. In Deuteronomy 28, God defined the blessings that would come on Israel for their obedience to the will of God and the curses (painful consequences) that would come on them when they sinned. In fact, starting in verse 15, the chapter is something of a prophetic history of Israel as they embraced sin and suffered the consequences. But look at the promise of blessing given to Israel in verses 9-14.
The LORD will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in his ways. And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you. And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.
The fact that purveyors of the prosperity heresy twist these verses ought not discourage us from seeing the truth that is in them. When God’s people were walking in obedience there were certain blessings that would abound to them.
- They would know prosperity as God opened his “treasury” to them and blessed them.
- The “fruit of their womb” would be blessed – a clear reference to numerical increase.
- They would be the “head and not the tail” and would “only go up and not down.”
While we reject the notion that serving God automatically guarantees us health, wealth and the fulfillment of all our human dreams and desires, it is clear that Israel, walking in obedience to God would see a numerical increase as well as other blessings. It is not in the purview of this article to deal with all the ramifications of this ticklish point. I only want to make one observation here – that when God’s people (Israel) walked in obedience to him they were promised statistical increase. As the rest of the passage makes clear, statistical decrease is a product of disobedience and sin (Dt 28:19-24).
This point, also made in Leviticus 26, is buttressed by the fourth book of the Bible, entitled “Numbers.” In that book, there was a census of the people of Israel in the Sinai desert and the total of men 20 years old and older was 603,550 (Numbers 1:46). Then, Numbers recounts the unfaithfulness of the Israelites during the wilderness wanderings. At the end of these years of unfaithfulness, after the Sinai generation had died out and been replaced, there was another census taken. This one shows a count of 601,730 (Numbers 26:51). Israel had been on a 40 year “plateau” and had even declined a little. The numbers are evidence of the displeasure of God.
Again, I’m only making a simple observation – that Israel plateaued for 40 years as a result of sin and disobedience, as God had promised in Leviticus 26 and would later reiterate in Deuteronomy 28. At the very least, we have to admit that in the Old Testament era, Israel’s numbers were, in fact, a measure of the blessing of God.
Jesus and His Disciples
On the other hand, by pretty much every human measure we use, Jesus was a horrible failure as a leader. We know that at one time he had thousands of people following him. Once, he fed a crowd measured at 5000 men (heads of household). How many total were there? No one knows. But it is safe to say that Jesus was, at that time, a “mega-Messiah.” Crowds following him everywhere, he was the happening guy on the religious scene in Israel. But Jesus demonstrated a confusing disdain for this kind of popularity. In John 2:23-25, Jesus showed that he was not going to play to the crowds or trust in their adulation of him.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
Great numbers “believed” in Jesus but he was not interested in gathering a crowd but in developing disciples.
The turning point in Jesus’ ministry came in John 6. Jesus fed the 5000 and walked on water and his popularity was unmatched. But he began preaching some hard truths about commitment and raising the bar of discipleship. Luke 9 tells us that after the feeding of the 5000, Jesus began to teach about his death and laid down this unpalatable truth.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
The crowd loved the show that Jesus had put on, they enjoyed the food and all those healings, but they had no desire to take up any cross or to lay down their lives for anyone. Jesus was their ticket to greatness and when he started talking about them dying for him, about them eating his flesh and drinking his blood, they wanted nothing more to do with him. John 6:66 (appropriately numbered verse?) says this:
After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.
Jesus was looking for commitment, not crowds and though he had some outstanding numbers, he gave them up to remain faithful to his calling and the truth he was sent to proclaim. By the time of Jesus’ death there were only about 120 disciples (and they all ran away in fear!). Think about this: if a pastor of a church of 20,000 people drove away everyone but 120 people in a year or two, would he be considered for a raise? Jesus, by his harsh demands of total commitment, even death to self, drove away the vast majority of those who followed him.
What is the lesson here? It would be dangerous to read numbers as an absolute measure of the blessing of God. By numerical standards, Jesus failed, but none of us would call him a failure, would we?
The Evidence in Acts
The story, though, does not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It continues in Acts as the Spirit of God birthed the church of Jesus Christ and released it into the world. The early chapters of Acts show the challenges the nascent church faced and how they overcame them. Every possible problem a church could have was marshaled against them and they continued to advance and grow. Several verses indicate this growth and many even attach numbers to the report.
Acts 2:42-46 describes both the early church and, I believe, the church as it is meant to be. The passage ends with this simple statement in verse 47.
And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
It seems a fair postulate to say that when the church is what the church should be, God does what he does – he saves the lost! That is why Jesus came. It is God’s heart to glorify himself by saving and transforming sinners. A healthy church ought to see growth and the salvation of the lost.
In Acts 4:4, Luke reports:
But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
And again, in Acts 5:14 we find this:
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women
Here are a few others
And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. Acts 5:42
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. Acts 6:7
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. Acts 8:4–8
But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. Acts 9:22
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. Acts 9:31
And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. Acts 11:21
In Acts 13, Paul embarked on the first of his missionary journeys and the gospel that had spread in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria began to find its way around the world. Wherever Paul went, the gospel had its effect and sinners were saved.
Of course, interpreting Acts can be tricky. Are the events of Acts anomalous to the early days of the church, or do they provide a template for us to accurately interpret and follow? As I believe the latter I also believe there is a key principle revealed here.
Healthy churches grow as souls are saved.
I would point out one more verse in this context, a warning from Paul – one of the last things he ever wrote. In 2 Timothy 4:1-4, Paul says:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
He charges Timothy to be relentless in the proclamation of truth, even to the unpopular practice of proclaiming God’s Word to “reprove, rebuke and exhort.” I guess Paul didn’t get the memo about always being “positive and encouraging!” But then, Paul warns that a time is coming when sound doctrine will not be tolerated even in the church of Jesus Christ. Instead, people will gather around themselves teachers who will tell them what they want to hear instead of the hard truths from God that they need to hear.
The unmistakable conclusion here is that you can gather a crowd without honoring Christ. You can grow big by compromise. Not all churches that grow do it by compromise, but growth can be both a measure of the health of a church and an indication of the sickness of tickling ears instead of teaching truth.
I would make the following propositions for your consideration, based on this lengthy but still cursory examination of God’s Word.
1) A healthy church grows.
The conclusion I take away from the book of Acts is that a church that is doing what it ought to be doing will see the activity of God in its midst. The lost will be saved and lives will be transformed. The gospel is still the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes – the Cross is still open for business. I would set no quotas or numerical limits, but if a church is healthy, it ought to be seeing salvations and spiritual growth.
We had some dear friends who became concerned when their youngest son did not grow properly. They knew that it was natural for him to grow and that his lack of growth was a sign that something was wrong. They took him to the doctor who dealt with the condition. Last time I saw this “little boy” he was a 6’1″. Once they dealt with the condition that was hindering his growth he became what he was supposed to be.
I believe that growth is the natural state of the healthy church and therefore a lack of real growth ought to be a cause for concern and appropriate action.
2) It is dangerous to assume that numbers are a sign of God’s pleasure.
I watched a video of the pastor of the largest church in America (I think – one of them anyway) being interviewed on a national talk show. He refused to call sin sin and refused to say that Jesus Christ was the only way to salvation. My conclusion, having watched him deny Christ and deny truth on national TV, is that the growth his church has experienced has come largely from his tendency to scratch itching ears rather than to proclaim the truth of God. The gospel never goes on clearance and we cannot lower the cost without compromising the truth.
T.W. Hunt in his powerful study, “The Mind of Christ” talked about the human tendency to manufacture fleshly imitations of every Christian virtue. This tendency is also evident in “church growth.” When our churches (or our denomination) is not spiritually healthy and it is evident in our numbers, we sometimes try to address the numbers instead of addressing the underlying issues. We need not look for ways to build our numbers, but instead look for ways to return to the place from which we have fallen (Revelation 2:5).
In a recent post (Doug Hibbard’s excellent “Does It Work?”), CB Scott left a comment. He said,
What I think at this present time is due to a major degree of involvement and observation over a long period of time. I think that a spititual “Great Awakening” among the many beauracies of “all” SBC life with true repentance must take place. If that does not happen, I think Frank L. is right. We don’t have 40-50 years.
I think CB is onto something. Perhaps we have been looking for strategic, programmatic and organizational solutions when the real issue is spiritual.
3) It is dangerous to ignore a lack of numerical increase.
If a church is not growing, not seeing souls saved, not seeing the power of the Spirit released in its midst, it would be utter folly to simply ignore that and say, “The results are up to God.” Of course they are. But God is still saving the lost and changing lives and if he is not doing it in your congregation, that should be cause for concern.
In the last few years here at Southern Hills, I have not observed the kind of numerical and spiritual growth that I think is evidence of a healthy church. We have a lot of good things in our favor and I have told the people that. But I also have told them publicly that we ought to be concerned that our baptistery is used as infrequently as it is. I’m not going to lower the bar and give a discounted gospel to increase numbers. It is my job to preach the gospel clearly and God’s job to draw sinners and save them. But when we are not seeing the kind of response that I believe should mark a healthy church, it would be ministerial malpractice for me to simply ignore that and move on.
If God is not drawing sinners and saving them at my church, it is a safe bet that the problem is more likely to be with me or the church than it is to be with God!
So, now, let me answer the question I posed as directly as I can. Can we measure the pleasure of God statistically? Yes…and no.
The normal state of a healthy church is to grow as God uses them to redeem the lost and transform lives. We should never seek numbers, because that path can lead to the dark side. But we should also never ignore the lack of numbers, which is likely a sign that there is something in the church that is quenching the Spirit.
That’s my theory. What say you?