How many of us church leaders/members gauge the success or failure of our local assembly by “running” certain numbers? My running of the numbers tends to occur every Sunday evening/Monday morning courtesy not of an old-school board mounted in our auditorium but Planning Center Online-how many or few in attendance, how meager or robust the offerings, etc. And then it happens again in our Tuesday staff meeting-how many or few visitors, how many decisions, how good or poor the spirit in our church family, how many complaints versus compliments. And those moments of numerical scrutiny continue throughout the week in a way that often causes my soul to leak a sanctified exuberance and unction in my God-given calling. I observe that this sense of numbers-driven discouragement is a universal symptom often experienced by those who serve in smaller and larger congregations alike. There is nothing wrong with looking at the “numbers that never lie”; the problem is we often look at the wrong ones or have them out of proper order.
As you evaluate how your ministry for the Lord is adding up, don’t forget some big categories:
The Numbers Sung
Ps 22:3 “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.”
While “hymn numbers” may not be quite as prominent in our day, the songs of gospel-oriented worship that are being sung in your church are a win-no matter how much skill or lack thereof as your best fills the stage and how sizable or minuscule the congregation participating. God always shows up when many or few choose to sing to Him. That’s huge! As Keith Getty asserts, “We are not a people scurrying into a corner nursing wounds of defeat. We are a city on a hill, stars shining in a dark world, a people of victory and joy, filled with the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, serving a Savior who shall reign forever.” If your past Sunday included being a part of corporate worship where rich hymns, psalms, and spiritual melodies were sung in a manner that brought pleasure to the ear of the Lord, you entered into an activity that eternally occupies all of heaven!
The Numbers Read, Preached, and Applied
Is 55:11 “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”
While many of the chapter divisions and verses have been added for flow and clarity to our English Bible, they represent portions of God’s inspired, preserved, forever-settled-in-heaven revelation. As any seasoned minister and church member should remember, God’s Word is always working-even when it feels like it is being marginalized or disregarded. Christ Himself weighed in upon the distinctive significance of His Word, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (Jn. 6:63). Church history is replete with antidotal material on people who were impacted/transformed by a verse of Scripture being proclaimed faithfully in the most obscure setting. According to H.B. Charles, “True preaching will always prioritize substance over style.” If your past Sunday included the substantive Word of the one true God being properly communicated (with or without perceived eloquence), God’s work has been unleashed by His Spirit in the hearts of ALL who had a part.
The Number Being Multiplied
Ac 6:7 “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
While the human tendency is to add up abstract numbers, God is in the business of multiplying individual people! Discipleship, done biblically, is always a one or one exchange of faith and practice-that means small beginnings is actually preferable. If Christ can take a few loaves and fishes and feed thousands, then the potential of our we-are-too-small churches lies not in what we can muster up but simply being yielded to the multiplying hand of our Lord and Savior. Exponential growth always start with one becoming two, two becoming four, etc. All it takes is one person willing to become an example of the believer that is worthy, by God’s grace, of being reproducible through the message and ministry of the local church. (By the way, each of us who are “all in” on the local church are likely the product of a ministry who properly esteemed the long-term effect of a multiplying mission.) If your past Sunday included any emerging disciple/leader internalizing a new truth, serving in a new ministry, or expressing a calling, the lightly or heavily attended gatherings were more than worth it.
The Number Done on the World, the Flesh, and the Devil
Mt 16:18 “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
According the Cambridge dictionary, the expression “to do a number on” is “U.S. slang meaning to injure someone or something, or to hurt or embarrass someone.” Anything that injures, hurts, or embarrasses the glory-hungry Devil must matter no matter how it’s trending! He hates the church-a God-ordained organization whose minimum requirement is a meager two or three individuals gathering in the name of Jesus. The local church is group of people who have experienced Christ embarrass the Devil by, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Co. 2:14-15). To do church is to pick a side in the struggle between God and Satan-the winning side! If your past Sunday included going on the offensive “storming of the gates” against the Devil’s strategy to tempt, enslave, shame, or destroy a single soul, it was all worth the struggle and perseverance.
The Number Being Tallied and Celebrated in Heaven
Lu 15:10 “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”
Think about the logistics of the heavenly cataloging that goes on day and night as it observes the redemptive plan of God unfolding in part through our “little” lives and ministries. While early church history records of thousands being saved at a time, it is striking that heaven rejoices over every single salvation. In reality, the cause for heaven-imitating euphoria is not found in how many but how miraculous the redemption of a single human soul truly is! The greatest numbers of success that your church can ever be affiliated with are the numbers 3 and 16-John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” If your past Sunday included the invitation of the gospel at minimum and the acceptance of a single individual or more as a Spirit-induced add on, what happened at your local ekklesia is of universal significance.
I end with the convicting, encouraging words of the familiar hymn “Little Is Much When God Is In It” that help us run the real numbers that really count:
In the harvest field now ripened
There’s a work for all to do;
Hark! the Master’s voice is calling,
To the harvest calling you.
Does the place you’re called to labor
Seem so small and little known?
It is great if God is in it,
And He’ll not forget His own.
When the conflict here is ended
And our race on earth is run,
He will say, if we are faithful,
“Welcome home, My child—well done!”
Little is much when God is in it!
Labor not for wealth or fame;
There’s a crown, and you can win it,
If you go in Jesus’ name.