Does God Care about Numbers?

The first in a three-part series on measurable growth in the church—and whether it matters.

 

The simplest answer to the question “Does God care about numbers?” would be to point to the God-breathed book Numbers within his holy Word. Now, this might seem a reductionist, disingenuous attempt to answer a complicated question—especially since God did not entitle the book. Still, the book was given its title for a reason: there are a lot of numbers (tied to a lot of censuses) in it. If nothing else, this shows that God does care about some numbers—at least the military roll call—at strategic moments in salvation history.

 

But does God care about the numbers we care about? In an age of consumerism, does bigger really mean better? Does God care about attendance at churches, or the programs they run? Should we set measurable, quantifiable goals for ourselves and others as ministry leaders? Or is all of this too human, too crass, too utilitarian—nothing but “church-growth” legerdemain masking the need for deep spiritual renewal?

 

These are not easy questions, not least because we must navigate deftly to avoid two extremes. On the one side we face the Scylla of hyper-spiritual complacency, trusting God to make growth happen regardless of what we do or don’t do; on the other side lies the Charybdis of fleshly pragmatism, pursuing numbers in our own strength with no concern for the genuineness of anyone’s trust in Christ. The former is too concerned with the invisible realm, unwilling to evaluate the effectiveness of ministry because it falsely assumes growth is of God alone[1]; the latter is too concerned with the visible realm, as if numbers in the pews (auditorium seating, I mean) equal numbers in the kingdom. As I seek to answer the question, I will hold something akin to The Chalcedonian Definition: the ministry that God grows is 100% of God and 100% of people. We labor to do the work he gives us to bring about the work he ordains and accomplishes, and for which he receives undivided glory.[2]

 

Were we to turn to the book of Acts, we get our first hint of an answer to the original question. On Pentecost, when the Spirit of the Lord fills the apostles, Peter preaches a powerful message of grace, repentance, and faith. When the same Spirit inspired Luke to write an account of that day, he brought to mind the number of those saved: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). A few verses later, when we read of the practices of the early church, we read, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:47). The Lord adds to the number, of course, but one clear proof of the Spirit’s guidance and empowerment in the apostles’ ministry is numerical growth. The rest of Acts continues this focus on the ministry’s numerical—quantifiable, measurable—growth. Consider these passages from Acts:

 

“But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.” (4:4)

 

“Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” (5:14)

 

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing.” (6:1)

 

“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (6:7)

 

“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (9:31)

 

“The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” (11:21)

 

“He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” (11:24)

 

“So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” (11:26)

 

“There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” (14:1)

 

“They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples.” (14:21)

 

“So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” (16:5)

 

“Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” (17:4)

 

“As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.” (17:12)

 

“Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” (17:34)

 

In the next two days we will tease out some reflection on and application of this principle. For now we will draw more modest conclusions from these passages: God does care about numbers—about the growth of his church, the body of Christ, the fellowship of the saints. His kingdom will spread (Matthew 13:31-32), his fame will grow (Malachi 1:11), and he will build his church—against which the gates of hell shall not prevail (Matthew 16:18).



[1] We will come back to this more, but it would be worth pointing out the analogy between this and faith/works. As Luther said, we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is not alone. In the same way, growth comes from God alone, but in the ministry he is not alone (1 Corinthians 3:6). After all, Paul planted and Apollos watered—God-ordained means to the God-ordained end of God-wrought growth.

[2] To those with a more theological bent, we are the necessary cause, while God is the sufficient cause.

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