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Apr  2016 06
It's Not All About the Numbers

In American Protestant Christianity, we invented the numbers game, equating faithfulness with bigger numbers. In the 19th century, Protestants in the United States, especially the evangelical denominations (Methodists, Baptists, Disciples), pioneered mass communications, mass marketing, and techniques of mass persuasion because we dreamed of converting the masses.

Methodist and Baptists founded popular magazines and perfected how to organize mass meetings, and preaching and singing techniques during camp meetings—those outdoor, multi-day, sometimes massive sacred-secular gatherings that are the ancestors of both “contemporary” evangelical worship and of Woodstock.

My Methodist forbears LOVED counting, and the bigger the gathering, the more successful day it was for God.

The numbers game requires a selective reading of Scripture. From the Hebrew Bible, ignore stories of mass disobedience, that sometimes a movement is successful in numbers but on the wrong side of God! Think Aaron and the Golden Calf story (Exodus 32).

Rather, for Numbers Gamers the metric of alignment with God’s will is derived from Acts 2, where the story is that the nascent Way grew by leaps and bounds in a day. The Prosperity Gospel, that God wants everyone to be wealthy, also means success is measured by the numbers, and going up is the direction of prosperity and faithfulness.

Now, some folks argue that remnant theology is good. Maybe, but not necessarily. Back when I was in seminary and first entering full-time ministry, there were pastors and not a few seminary professors who equated faithfulness with remnants.

Any church or event that attracted high numbers was obviously suspect, a sell-out to cultural religion. Some of those pastors endeavored to kill the popular church and were highly effective in that work. I am not affirming their beliefs or methods.

Today, there is much lamenting by congregants in dying churches regarding faithless, ungrateful Boomers, X-ers, and Millennials who don’t care to inherit and maintain patterns of Christianity bequeathed by the Builder generation.

While I understand the lament, and can sometimes (as a Boomer who has spent my adult life trying to build or re-build institutions) feel the lament, I have no tolerance for the perspective.

Many, many mainline congregations did not welcome any “other,” did not differentiate Christian faith from middle class U.S. values, and have devolved into clubs and burial societies. They have become remnants, and not particularly righteous in any biblically meaningful way.

A more charitable interpretation is simply that some ways of life serve well, for a time, and then should die. God is eternal; a way of being and doing church is not.

How about the folks who argue that growth is a sign of living faithfully? Maybe, but not necessarily.

In the seminary world, I am reading expressions of the equation: faithfulness=numerical growth, especially from the growing schools, especially on the conservative side of the Protestant doctrinal spectrum.

Leaders in those schools “give all the success” to God. Their claim is that God gives them numerical success because their way of believing and acting is God’s way. Those of us toward the Left must, by implication, be less faithful. But not all conservative schools are growing. And, not all progressive schools are declining.

Growth may indicate:

  • We caught a cultural wave and we’re riding it well.
  • We are meeting a need.
  • We built a quality brand in our markets.
  • God has blessed us.

Starbucks, Apple, and Nike most assuredly grew because of the first three bullet points: they caught a wave, they are meeting a need, they built a quality brand. But have they grown because God blessed them? Is organizational growth ALWAYS an expression of God’s will?

Isn’t it possible that some religious institutions also do a great job with the first three bullets, regardless of God’s blessing?

Smaller numbers may indicate:

  • We fell off the cultural wave we were riding and we can’t catch another. Maybe we were lucky rather than faithful in riding the wave we used to ride and we really don’t know how to surf.
  • We stopped meeting needs, or certainly stopped meeting any needs but the needs of the already converted.
  • Needs changed.
  • There is not or is no longer a growth market for what we do.
  • Our brand is tarnished, or tired, or we have slipped below the perception horizon of any but current members.
  • God has turned God’s back to us.
  • God is offering us an opportunity for a new mission.

Implications? Numerical growth is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness. It may be that you’ve met a need, caught a wave, are doing something right to attract a crowd. Whether or not God is blessing the enterprise must be determined by different criteria than numbers alone.

On the other hand, numerical decline is a sign of falling markets or declining market share, of mission drift or member drift. Numerical decline has serious consequences in regard to institutional vitality and sustainability; if and when the numbers fall too far, organizations die.

I am not offering excuses for, nor do I want to excuse, Christian congregations that did not and do not foster the Way of Jesus. But the connecting lines from Jesus, who spoke of God’s work using images of leaven and mustard seed, to the equation of size with faithfulness need to be examined more than they have been before claiming God’s blessing. Otherwise, Apple is the organization with God’s highest approval rating.

Image: Carl Guderian1724 Jan Luyken, Moses and Aaron and the Golden Calf

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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