Numbers represent people. God cares deeply about people. To suggest numbers don’t matter is silly at one end and a dangerous form of denial on the other. We have made a “personal” relationship with Christ so personal and so subjective that we have few quantitative ways to measure growth within the Church other than numbers.
I can hear you saying already, “You can’t measure discipleship with a number.” While that might be somewhat true, you can certainly measure, with a number, whether or not the individuals you are discipling are discipling others. Willow Creek realized this a few years ago when they determined they had a ton of people but not many were growing in the depth of their discipleship. I believe the measure of discipleship is more objective than we treat it but that is another post for another day.
We measure numbers like attendance, giving, professions of faith, baptisms…these numbers matter. If numbers didn’t matter, Jesus would have simply hung out with his 12, or maybe even just 3 good friends and called it a day. The gospels tell us the number of people Jesus fed, not simply “crowds” but 5,000 and 4,000 respectively (not including the women and children). Should we become obsessed with numbers? No, but to ignore them is to the peril of the kingdom.
Of course we need to see discipleship grow in depth but also in width. Suggesting numbers don’t matter makes ourselves feel better and becomes an excuse when ministry gets hard. One possible way of measuring the depth of discipleship is by seeing our numbers grow. There is something inherently attractive about the person of Jesus and when individuals experience him, they can’t help but come back and tell their friends.
Numbers tell a story. What kind of story are we telling.