Thursday, December 8, 2011

Was Jesus Numerically Challenged?

A few days ago I stumbled across a sentence that has absolutely captured my attention. It’s from the blog of a nationally-known Evangelical pastor. The sentence is part of a longer blog post, and as such is not meant to stand entirely on its own, yet it set the stage for the rest of the post that celebrated what God had done in the past and the lessons the pastor had learned in the first 15 years of ministry. Near the very beginning of his post, he said:

“The fact that we’ve grown to over 12,000 people worshiping and serving each Sunday at 14 locations in four states is proof of God’s grace.” ~ A Nationally-known Evangelical Pastor
I read the quote several times. It bounced around in my head, making noise like two random and unrelated piano keys struck at the same time. I couldn’t read the rest of the article. Instead, I pasted the sentence on to my facebook and Twitter pages and asked my friends for their reactions. Here are a few samples:
  • It sounds like a dangerous presumption.
  • Yes, I do think it's by God's grace, but it sounds more like "12k people! 14 locations! 4 states! Ergo, I AM AWESOME!" Somebody's big fat ego peeked out behind what was probably a sincere attempt at giving God the glory, which is His alone. Darn.
  • The fact that I run circles around everyone shows that God is good. WhatdoyathinkofmeNOW?
  • Jesus only had a handful of people, no building, and no cash. How sad that by Western standards, he didn't do a great work.
  • More needs to be known . . . The numbers might be good, and might not be.
  • It sounds like a guy who wishes he could cage fight Jesus :)
  • The proof of God's grace is what the 12,000 people are doing Monday through Saturday.
  • Numbers alone are only proof of crowds gathering.
  • That quote isn't universally true, but it may very well be true of their situation. Numbers alone don't tell the whole story.
Now I’m asking for your help in sorting out my thoughts, which are a varied a bag of Skittles. Here, taste a few colors:
I’ve never met the megachurch pastor quoted above, but I believe him to be sincere. I trust his motives even if I do not understand his methods. The religious world of Christianity is filled with its share of competition and jealousy--I’m sure this man has been criticized unfairly and been the envy of others. I also wonder how he can appeal to a numeric accounting of the grace of God.
The Father isn’t against big numbers, because he loves the whole world, and that’s a pretty big number. On the day of Pentecost 3,000 were added to the church in a single day. That’s a pretty big number. John the Revelator looked into the heavens and saw the angelic host of heaven, “myriads of myriads, ten thousand times ten thousands.” According to my calculations that comes to, uh, give me a moment, uh . . . a pretty big number. God can count. He numbers the hairs on my head and calls the starry host into the night sky one by one. The biggest megachurch is yet to come, and I’ll be there without complaint.
Yet Jesus went about changing the world in a remarkably small way. A short life, few followers, and a handful of seed at the end. The resurrected Lord tossed the seed into the ground and said, “I’m outa here.” He left eleven un-cultured leaders, perhaps 120 people, no budget, no map, and no plan except “make disciples and teach them to obey.” The only asset they possessed was an imperishable seed. Any worldly accounting considered Jesus a failure and the ragtag collection of followers no threat to Jewish society, much less the nations of the world. Only in hindsight do we see the wisdom and grace of God revealed.
One of the largest churches in history was the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey. Built for the glory of God in the 5th century, it housed Christian worship for a thousand years--until it became a mosque for 500 years. Today it is a museum. I’m pretty sure it’s a parable that’s been told very slowly. Thirty years ago the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California welcomed 10,000 worshippers and more than two million viewers each week. This year it filed for bankruptcy in its 46 million dollar debt.
Jesus didn’t do arithmetic. He did the higher level math. He engaged in human alchemy and turned human beings into living stones. He built good foundations and let the centuries gently press down on his church. The church he built will never change hands. It’s the only church that will last.

It’s the model I want to follow. I want to be the seed that falls into the ground and finds good soil. If I impact 30, 60, or a 100 people during my lifetime I’ll consider it a fruitful life. 
Can you help me sort through these thoughts? What is your opinion? What kind of church is evidence of the grace of God?


  1. Hmmm, funny thing Ray me reading this blog. I used to work for what sounds like a similar church I loved working for these guys. And I actually knew Craig Groschel. One of the things that I loved about these guys is that the pastors were all men of integrity and what you saw of Craig on a stage is what you got from him in person.

    I can't speak for all Mega Churches but I know that Lifechurch's goal is to "Lead people to become fully devoted followers of Christ" and they will by any means short of sin take the gospel into all the world. I know that when I read the above that if one of your goals was to take the gospel as far as you could then yes it would be an act of grace that it happened. Because our God accomplishes things through imperfect people and gets results that we could never get ourselves.

    I think of it more like bragging on God than oneself.

    Be blessed today brother...

  2. What kind of church is evidence of Grace ? I believe one that embraces the subtitle of this blog. One that is producing disciples, not just "in and out" converts. One that is a hospital in which people get free and get healed on an ongoing basis, not necessarily one that has great statistics. People love to be a part of something BIG. but does that necessarily translate to changed lives and freedom?

    On the other hand, too many churches are comfortable in their "humble" status... growth is a sign of life but many fear loss of intimacy with God and each other if they grow too big. I believe this fear keeps many from growing and planting new churches.

    The statement used the term "we" not "I", and I do not believe it was bragging on an individual.

  3. I'm with you, David--including the tension between your first paragraph and the second. Numerical growth is indeed one sign of grace, but why do we always seem to mention it first?

  4. Hi Jody, and blessings to you as well!

    I agree that the pastor in question was "bragging on God." And like you, I respect the integrity and motives of nearly everyone in ministry.

    I think you raise an excellent point here: "if one of your goals was to take the gospel as far as you could then yes . . . ' In many respects I think we are quick to recognize the grace of God in areas that we think are important. Of course, the down-side is that we perhaps miss his grace in areas we do not consider as important.


  5. In college I was a part of a church plant that could only hold around 10 people. We tried to grow, but that was all we could muster. Looking back now, I wish I could find a church with that much community today. Instead, I found a mega church that no one knows who I am. If God blesses you to have 12k people in your church, so be it. I won't be one of them because I'm looking for something small with a shared view of a family.

  6. I can totally relate. I crave authentic relationships and believe that such settings can lead to spiritual growth. Yet I must also recognize that healthy organisms grow--both in nature and in God's kingdom.

    Still, I get your point because it's difficult for me to think of "grace" operating in such a large organizational environment. That's why Acts 2: 41-47 seems like the balance to explosive growth. In fact, without the stuff in verses 41-47, I wonder if the church in Jerusalem would've been healthy--or continued to grow.

    Thanks, Kellen!

  7. Great blog post, Ray.

    A few random comments.

    I grew very weary of serving in a church that put so much emphasis on numbers. We too believed that healthy things grow and counted each week to see how healthy we were. Usually this meant numbering the soldiers and counting the offering. If our numbers were down we had to figure out why - holiday weekend, who preached the previous week, trend from previous five years, etc. If the offering was down for more than a week the senior pastor would take the offering reins the following week because he was apparently more anointed than one of the associates.

    Growth is also depth and maturity, but those things aren't as easily measured on a week to week basis. I'd suggest that life change is much more of a health indicator than butts in the pews.

    The new Twilight movie has made almost 250 million so far and had more viewers than any other show out there. This is a production and entertainment and has nothing to do with God's grace. Much of what draws a crowd to churches these days has to do with production and entertainment.

    Growth can be bad. Just look at my waistline and you can see that bigger is not always better.

    Thanks for the great thoughts and questions,


  8. Wow. These are comments but they are not random. My little Kentucky town has a population of 9,000 people, so where I'm from a church of 200 is pretty "big."

    I totally agree that depth and maturity are the result of growth--and you absolutely cannot measure those things week-to-week. As to the church-entertainment culture, I think you're spot on. I tremble when I think of how many believers--and their leaders--apply a consumer's mentality to the church of the living God.

    No comment regarding your waistline, because I (literally) have no room to talk! Peace to you!

  9. Ray, I love your thought-provoking questions... As for this one, isn't any Biblically-based church evidence of God's grace? How else can a church come into being except by God's grace being extended to those in the church? But yes, it is too easy for us church members to lose sight of the most important things because we are so immersed in a culture where bigger is better and success always makes you look like a winner. Outside of America success looks very different...

  10. Thanks, Nancy. Your comment goes to the heart of my consternation. You are correct: *any* Biblically-based church is indeed evidence of His grace. Although I don't know this pastor first-hand, I have great respect for his work and his church at large. Perhaps that's why I was so surprised to read the word "proof" after he recited the metrics of attendance and size.

    I my home town there is a church that experienced numerical growth quickly. The "growth" became their narrative: "God is doing a great work! Look how quickly we have grown!" They decided to incur tremendous debt because, after all, God was with us--look at our growth! Three pastors in seven years later, attendance is down, the people are disillusioned, and the church is in crisis. Even so, God uses this church to change lives, for which I am grateful.

  11. Does the church love the kinds of people Jesus loved? That seems to be the only reliable way I can get a sense of a church.

  12. The Chinese saying goes: You remove a mountain one pebble at a time. The goal is a mountain, the method is one at a time. Hybels once noted about numbers (paraphrasing here) that when referring to the lost abstract numbers are fine, unless it is someone you know. The "numerical challenge" Jesus left us to us was the size of a mountain. The method to be used was one soul at a time.

  13. Ray,

    Great thoughts. I have often wrestled with many of these same ieas. Do numbers really equal God's blessing on my ministry? Does lack of growth in my ministry mean I am doing something wrong, or that God is somehow not blessing me? How do we measure the success of a ministry? Is it by the number of members, or the number of conversions, or the number of people we reach or help or what? The real trouble is that I have yet to find a clear Bible answer for these questions. It seems that sometimes success was numbers (Acts2) and sometimes it was not (Acts 19:9). Sometimes there were conversions, and sometimes there were not. Jesus never really says when your church reaches 1000 or 5000 or 10000 then you know that the Father is pleased with you. So I guess in the end, I am with you I will try to impact as many people as the Spirit brings into my life with Christ's love and not worry about whether or not the ministry God has given to me is successful or not.

    Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry

  14. Definitely good advice.

  15. Somebody oughta be writing his own blog, eh?

  16. The only success I want is, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master."