Monday, August 31, 2009

The Numbers Game

One of the greatest revivals in the Old Testament was started by a man named Jonah. Afterwards, he went out and pouted because he wanted the people involved to be destroyed rather than repent (see Jonah 3-4). There is a common, often unspoken and unexamined assumption today that the success and the size of a ministry shows the spirituality of the leadership and God's blessing upon them personally. There is no basis for this in Scripture. The Bible says it is God who causes the increase (1 Corinthians 3:5-9,)and unless He builds something it is done in vain (Psalm 127:1-2). It also says Christ, not we, will build His church (Matthew 16:18).

Samson, like Jonah, was successful in delivering Israel in spite of his moral flaws, although they brought him down in the end (see Judges 14-16). While Jeremiah, who wept over the destruction of Jerusalem, saw little in terms of results (see Jeremiah 13,19). It is true the apostles had 3,000 and 5,000 converts in two of their first sermons (Acts 2:41; 4:4), and they are said to have turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). But nowhere is this attributed to the apostles' spirituality. The point is not the spirituality of the apostles but the great power of God, and that the God who accomplished these things is with us--even if we do not see such spectacular results.

But we should not make the opposite mistake and assume large numbers and success mean a ministry is superficial and catering to people's whims. It is true you can be successful by telling people what they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4) and abolishing the stumbling block of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:21-25). But one can also be successful because God is at work (see above). How then are we to judge?

May I suggest we are not. Paul advises us not to judge before the time and says he does not even judge himself (1 Corinthians 4:3-5), and we are admonished not to judge one another (James 4:11,12). This does not mean that we should not correct specific errors. We are commanded to do that (Galatians 6:1; Romans 16:17). But I do not believe it is scriptural to make general judgments of other people's spirituality; only God can do that (Romans 14:4,10-12). There may be those we think are impressive whose works turn out to be wood, hay, and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) and obscure people whose works turn out to be gold, silver, and precious stones. (Or there may be people who appear impressive and truly are and obscure people who are just obscure. We should avoid judging what only God can judge.) But we should rather ask how can we better follow God (Philippians 3:13-14) and better reach out to those who need to know Him (Matthew 28:18-20). If the example or procedure used by someone else helps us in this, it is all to the good. But let us not be confused by mere numbers.

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