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MUSINGS:

Lingering Fragrance

Experts At Conferences: Dunces At Crusades

Doing More With Less

The Church Numbers Game

The Last Shall Be First

Jumping Without a Parachute

THE CHURCH NUMBERS GAME

In February of 1981, when C&MA headquarters were still located in Nyack, New York, Dr. J. C. Wenninger sent me a memo. He had heard something on the radio which was actually a quote from The New Yorker magazine's issue of November 1980:

"We live in an era when we count everything and value nothing."

Take the field of sports, for example.  While many of our sports idols have abandoned the long-valued philosophy of fair play, by seeking fame and fortune with the aid of "performance enhancement drugs," radio and TV sportscasters continue to drown us in an ocean of statistical data.  In American and Canadian football it's first, second, third, or fourth down, with 3 yards, 5 yards to go for another first down. The quarterback's record is announced ad nauseam: he has completed 16 of 20 passes for a total of 234 yards including 3 touchdowns, but unfortunately he had 2 passes intercepted and was sacked 2 times for a loss of 15 yards. This brings his season's average of passing yards gained to such-and-such a number and his career average to some other awe-inspiring total.  Numbers, numbers, numbers. In baseball we total up the ERA, the RBI's, ER's, number of hits, runs, walks, singles, doubles, triples, homeruns, stolen bases, how many consecutive games a player has played, and on and on and on. In hockey, it's how many front teeth are missing when the player smiles! Well, not quite, but you get the point.

The religious world always seems to catch up to what is happening in the world around it, sooner or later. Church music directors lassoed the drum beat of the disco dance floor and dragged it into our sanctuaries. Those who objected were "out of touch" and had fallen victim to that dreaded disorder commonly referred to as "the generation gap."

And then came the march of the numbers. Everything was analyzed, scrutinized, enumerated, totaled and averaged out.  Books were written, schools were established, special programs for church growth were activated, all based upon the conclusion that high numbers equal value, statistical growth equals the evidence of true spiritual life of the first order. Pastors of large suburban churches began to feel good about themselves while pastors of inner-city churches and of smaller village fellowships hung their heads in shame. Statistically successful pastors read their glowing reports in district and national conferences while pastors of small churches got more and more depressed and wished they had stayed at home!

The promoters of the church numbers game had, and still have, their point to make. Those who cling to the philosophy of "small is good" need to think again. Years ago Bill Hogue told of a Baptist church south of Birmingham, Alabama, which had a total of 9 members. They only met quarterly for the purpose of cleaning up the graveyard that surrounded the church building. They were "keepers of the dead." Hardly a healthy situation. As a guest speaker, I ministered to a tiny collection of relatives in an Australian city who regarded themselves as a local church. One of the uncles earnestly told me how they liked their little group the way it was and hoped it would always stay that way – little, and all relatives! Such unholy huddles, existing like islands in a sea of lost humanity, smug and self-satisfied, surely is not what Christ envisioned for His church. So our church growth friends with their slide rules and calculators certainly have their point to make and contribution to render to stagnated, plateaued churches.

Vance Havner was quoted in the Herald of His Coming (May 1984):

"The church needs time to tune up. We are so busy building a bigger orchestra that we cannot stop to tune our instruments. What good is a big orchestra if two-thirds of the members never show up for practice or else are off-key when they perform?

Our intensive program must match the extensive.

We must improve the SORT while we increase the SIZE."

Warren W. Wiersbe wrote an editorial in the February 1981 issue of The Good News Broadcaster, entitled, Weighing the Converts. He commenced his article with one of D. L. Moody's assertions:

            "Converts should be weighed as well as counted."

Some excerpts from his editorial include:

"Evangelical ministries seemed to be mired in the Book of Numbers convinced that exciting statistics are always the equivalent of spiritual realities. Sad to say, they are not."                                    

"I am also afraid of the kind of man-made measurements that convince us that the structure is sound when it is actually about to topple and fall."

Warren Wiersbe acknowledged Charles Spurgeon's statement that "the people who criticized statistics usually had none to report" and made clear that he was "not among those exclusive saints who believe we should work harder and harder to reach fewer and fewer." He continued:

"I am convinced that God's work grows more by nutrition than by addition. Paul described this growth in Colossians 2:19:"From which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God." Spiritual growth, like physical growth, is from the inside out, and each part must make its own special contribution."

"Paul ridiculed the 'statistical saints' of his day when he wrote, 'For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.' (II Corinthians 10:12)"

At the end of his editorial, he warned, "Mr. Moody was right: Converts should be weighed as well as counted. And while we are weighing them, let's be careful to keep our thumbs off the scales!"

As denominational leaders are keen to present their constituency in the best possible light, they all too often put their thumbs on the scales. Commendable church growth figures published in Christian periodicals, which compare the statistical advance of denominations with each other, in the final analysis reflects well on their own leadership. For example, I know with certainty of denomination # 1 which learned that denomination # 2 had changed its criteria for tabulating church growth figures. The new criteria tended to inflate their membership total. Not to be outdone by denomination # 2, denomination # 1 actually changed their criteria in the midst of a growth program. All of a sudden denomination #1 took its place alongside of denomination # 2 in the starry firmament of published church growth statistical charts. The thumbs were on the scales but nobody noticed.

Michael Kinsley, former editor of Harpers, was quoted in Newsweek's edition of July 11, 1983, as calling U.S. society "this credential-obsessed society."  Oh how true, as public speakers with any degree of pedigree at all know, having been introduced before speaking to a conference. The well-meaning chairman lists one achievement of the visiting speaker after another, one credential upon another, until the speaker can barely recognize himself by the chairman's description. I have found out all kinds of untrue things about myself as I have been introduced!  "This credential-obsessed society!"

But the sad truth is, we are also a numbers-obsessed society, and more and more it can be accurately said of us, that we "count everything and value nothing." While values are discounted and eclipsed, we are bombarded by numbers. May God help us within the church to "cling to that which is good" about our statistical analyses and conclusions and  "keep our thumbs off the scales" as we seek to discern the church's true state of health.

In an 1888 edition of the C&MA's publication Word, Work, World, it was stated:

"We make the most progress when we are least occupied with the progression and most occupied with Him."

We may not agree entirely with the practice of the great George Whitefield. In keeping with the practice of the Puritans, he made no appeal for people to make a public profession of salvation at his services. His practice was to make a powerful application of the Gospel as he preached and to leave the Word to become operative in the hearts of the hearers by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He looked for the Spirit's work in arousing the sinner to a deep, and even overwhelming, sense of his need, but he called his work, not conversion, but awakening. He refused to count converts. He chose to wait until conversion had been manifested by months of a transformed life and his attitude is well expressed in his own words, "Only the judgment morning will reveal who the converts really are."