Apr 17, 2007

Quality, not Quantity: Meditations on the church’s fascination with figures

by Matthew Hegarty, Managing Editor
We are a numbers-driven society. The members of the world system unconsciously assess the measure of a man, to a certain extent, by the number of cars in his garage, by the number of zeros in his bank account, or by the number of rooms he has in his castle. It’s how we are programmed to think as human beings – our natural comparative instinct.

In addition, we know that this type of calculating mentality should be rightly relegated to the inherently sinful world system from whence it came. It makes sense that such fallen thinking would not crop up in the church and people of Jesus Christ. It shouldn’t, but it has. Let me offer a proposition concerning the church’s obsession with numbers that is hardly radical but that might be surprising to some.

Today’s church members too easily resort to a system of quantification to make an accurate gauge of their faith and of the church’s ministry as a whole.

Blanket statement? Hardly.

Let’s start with the misguided mentality of the “soul-winners.” In Christianese, soul-winners are those who “win others to Christ” or “lead someone to the Lord” by witnessing to unsaved individuals about their faith.

Don’t get me wrong. Being able to be used by God as He draws sinners like you and me to Himself is an absolutely amazing privilege.

However, this might be a news flash, but we don’t win anyone, and we certainly don’t save anyone. Look at Paul’s strong indictment of the Corinthian church members in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, which says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (NKJV).

You and your words are nothing. God working through your testimony and Christian experience? Everything.

How many of us can recall preachers and evangelists we have heard who made a big deal about the vast numbers of people they had personally “won to Christ”? Scripture indicates otherwise. In passages like Acts 2:41 and 4:4, when Luke does mention numbers, it is always that they “were added.” God doing the adding is implicit.

Nothing is attributed to individuals, as some today would like to think.

Also, take note of Acts 2:47b: “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” The Lord added. What a concept.

This is why we have stories like the one J.P. Moreland told about American missionaries who were rebuked by missionaries native to the countries to which they ministered for carrying out a “dine-and-ditch” evangelization – arrive, preach, take note of converts and those who were baptized and then take off. No teaching and no discipleship, just a notation of the numbers. What a tragedy.

Now let’s deal with the second side of the coin, namely the numbers mentality as applied to the spirituality of individual Christians.

It pervades every criterion we use to evaluate ourselves as followers of Christ, except those that matter the most.
Think about it. How many times do we hear daily about how much more we should be reading our Bible, how much longer we should be praying, how many more times we should be witnessing, how much more we should be giving, etcetera?

Before your eyes start bugging out of your head and you think I am being sacrilegious, look deeper than the words on this page. I am not saying that any of the things I have just listed are wrong in and of themselves. Rather, they are essential in some form or fashion to maintaining our spiritual vitality.

However, when we start appraising the value of our fellowship with God by tallying up whether we have attended church three times a week or have prayed for those important to us and read our Bible seven times a week, the overarching purpose of those activities is severely diminished.

It’s almost like establishing a divine credit score, as we wait for our balance in God’s economy to improve so we can get a better rating and be entitled to a higher heavenly credit limit.

We don’t even think about the dangers this presents. If we haven’t had our “quiet time” of Scripture reading or if it wasn’t the length of any “goal” we had set, we get perturbed. If we don’t pray for our 15 minutes a day, we are fearful that God somehow will not bless us in the way He intended to if we would have stuck to our self-imposed commitment.

Subconsciously, we also evaluate others in this manner. We hear about someone not consistently attending a weekly Bible study they had previously been committed to and we think, “Hmmm, guess someone’s not right with God” without stopping to ask that person why.

We think that others are somehow less spiritual when they no longer show up for ministries they had promised to be there for, or when they don’t commit to any ministry at all. We won’t say it out loud, but oh, how we think it.

And we give ourselves a pat on the back when we succeed in meeting our quantified objectives. “I read my Bible for half an hour, prayed for 15 minutes, gave my tithe in the offering plate and witnessed to the five people I said I would. Guess I’m doing pretty good today, eh?”

Paul reveals the foolishness of this mentality in 2 Corinthians 10:12, which says, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.”

Brothers and sisters, we must vigorously guard against this grading of our ongoing salvation stories. Such thinking closely parallels the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 who pompously thanked God that he had met all the requirements of his spirituality. Instead, we should be like the publican, who came to God in humility and repentance.

So where does this leave us? Here are some suggestions. Rather than inquire how many chapters of the Bible we have read, why not reflect on which passage we have been meditating upon and why? Rather than ask how many church services we attended this week, why not remember one significant sermon and what we gleaned from it? Rather than compute how many souls we have won, why not ask God how many people we have been given the ability to touch with the light of Christ that shines through us by showing love in practical ways?

If we focus on quality rather than quantity, then we might be more able to interpret the real barometer of our relationship with Christ.

You know, the one woven throughout the entirety of Scripture, the one found in Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34 and 1 John 3:23, which says, “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.”

We as Christians are commanded to love God and love people with every fiber of our being. In the end, all the rest is just shallow details.

Contact Matthew Hegarty at mjhegarty@liberty.edu.
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