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It’s all about the numbers?

On September 12th, Outreach magazine will release its annual issue listing the 100 largest and fastest-growing churches in the nation. For the first time in a number of years, you won’t see Mars Hill Church listed.

The longer I am at Mars Hill, the more I feel like a dad. First Corinthians 4 is a place my soul has been camping for the past year. There, Paul speaks of the fact that we have a lot of teachers, but not a lot of fathers. Elsewhere, he speaks of people as sons in the faith including Timothy, Titus, and others. Similarly, as an elderly man writing 1 John, John keeps referring to the people in the network of churches he oversaw as his dear “children.” As Mars Hill has experienced growth that is staggering and unprecedented for our region of the country, there’s nothing to prove. But, there are a lot of people to reach, love, and serve. I hope, by God’s grace, to have a growing family and pastor one church from the age of 25 until Jesus says I’m done. I genuinely care about the faces in our church and not just the numbers. I also want to relieve some of the pressure our leaders may feel to outdo ourselves every year, as that has the possibility to cause us to not make certain tough calls and changes because it could slow our growth for the sake of health. In the end, removing ourselves from the list is just something I feel the Holy Spirit has asked me/us to do and godly counsel from our executive elders and outside pastors of other very large churches.

I have no criticisms of the lists, nor any judgment regarding those who participated. I simply pulled our church off the list after conversations with some pastor friends who have done the same. We will continue to count things at Mars Hill, such as how many people we have on Sundays, how many people are baptized every year, how many people are in Community Groups, how many elders we have to lovingly lead our people, how many people are giving financially, how many dollars we are bringing in and sending out, how many locations and services we have, etc. But, we will use that data internally for our church and not be publishing it much externally. Our church continues to grow and has big plans for long term expansion, and by God’s grace we are expecting our escalator of opportunity to continue to go up.

To count or not to count

Since we are no longer submitting our numbers for the Top 100 list, this seemed like an opportune time to speak about numbers. Churches that like to count are often accused of being proud, pragmatic, and all about the numbers in an unholy and unhealthy way; some are, some aren’t.

Conversely, some people who don’t like to count are trying to spiritualize poor stewardship and misuse of God’s resources. Counting is what good families do, including good church families. A family has a budget and needs to count their income and expenses. A family also has to count their kids when jumping in the car or hopping on a plane to ensure no one got left behind. Moms with kids count the number of bottles, diapers, change of clothes, car seats, snacks, and other items they will need before heading out on a trip. And, churches anticipating their future need to count the number of staff, services, small groups etc. they will need as they prepare for their future.

1 king + 1 prophet + 1 priest

Kings understand counting. Prophets question counting. Priests disdain counting. I know that’s an overgeneralization, but who’s counting.

The Bible has three main themes. Kings focus on the theme of stewardship. Prophets focus on the theme of sin. Priests focus on the theme of suffering. Kings appreciate knowing the numbers at their church and how resources are being stewarded. Prophets appreciate the teaching at their church and like hearing about what God and we are to do with sin. Priests appreciate hearing the stories of people loved and served through suffering. Kings are best with things, prophets are best with ideas, and priests are best with people.

When you start talking about numbers, prophets can start proof-texting the Bible, pulling out any and every verse on the love of money and greed as if numbers and counting were innately bad. When you start talking about numbers, priests can start accusing the church of not loving and caring for people and being run like a business.

Most pastors and other ministry leaders are priests. Some are also prophets. Very few are kings. I know very few pastors who, if ministry did not work out for them, would be going to get an MBA or job as a CEO, CFO, banker, accountant, marketing director, real estate developer, etc.

Even though most ministry leaders are not kings, Jesus is. He is a Prophet who tells us how to deal with sin. He is a Priest who comforts us in our suffering. And, he is a King who spends roughly 25% of his teaching, especially the parables, talking about the stewardship of things like money.

God counts

Admittedly, prosperity theology and doctrinal compromise for the sake of pragmatic results are ungodly. But, counting is not a bad thing. God counts a lot of things. Just read the Bible. God counts the weight of things: talent, mina, shekel, pim, bekah, and gerah are words you will find in the Bible referencing God counting things. God counts dry goods: home, lethek, ephah, seah, omer, and cab are dry weight measures in the Bible. God counts wet goods: bath, hin, and log are words in the Bible explaining their volume. God counts the size of things: cubit, span, and handbreath are units of measurement also in the Bible.

In addition, God counts time as we read about hours, days, months, and years throughout the Bible. We know how long people lived, how many days it rained in the days of Noah (40), how many commandments God gave Moses (10), how many days Jesus was in the wilderness (40), how many disciples Jesus had (12), how many tribes of Israel there were (12), how many pieces of silver Judas betrayed Jesus for (30), how many demons one person had (7), how many days and nights Jesus spent in the tomb (3), and the most spooky number of all: 666.

We read in the Bible that there is one God, and 144,000 people set aside somehow in his kingdom. We know that one boy brought Jesus five loaves and two fish and that Jesus fed around 5,000 men with them, plus women and children, and had 12 baskets of food left over as takeout for each disciple. The Bible also counts people, including the attendance jumps of 3,000 in Acts 2 and 5,000 in Acts 4. You don’t even have to read too far into the Bible and you find a book called “Numbers.”

Some of the biggest debates in theology are about numbers. For example, did God create the world in seven literal days? When Jesus returns will he first reign for a literal thousand years?

Numbers matter to God and they should matter to his church. Are we reaching anyone or not? Are we helping people or not? Are we wisely stewarding our resources or not?

God cares

Faces count to God as well. And, they should matter to his church. People are not just numbers; they are faces with names and stories. So, ministry is not only about the numbers, but it is in part about the numbers. Likewise, I have one wife and five kids for a total of six people for whom I am responsible before God.

God cares about the truth as a Prophet, God cares about the people as a Priest, and God cares about the resources as a King. We should, too. And, every ministry leader is strong in an area or two and weak in an area or two. Our ministries reflect our strengths and weaknesses. Rather than criticizing those who are strong where we are weak, it is wiser to learn from them and perhaps to earn the right to, in turn, help them mature where they are weak.

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