Full disclosure: I’m a numbers guy. I love them. I always have.
When I was a kid playing Bases Loaded on my Nintendo, I would track stats for all the baseball players on my team in a spiral-bound notebook since the game system didn’t do it for me. (By the way, #42 was my best hitter.) When I was in junior high, I participated in the national MathCounts competition. When I was in high school, I competed on the Academic Team, with a specialty in Mathematics. When I took the ACT exam, I scored a very high score on the Math portion. When I went to college, I earned a bachelor’s degree in statistics. When I graduated college, I worked as a statistician for more than ten years.
So, yeah, I like numbers. A lot.
But as much as I love numbers, I love the church more. I have given my life to serve the church. And I often try to combine my love of numbers with my love for the church.
But, here’s what I know: not everyone in the church shares my affinity for numbers. In fact, there are some who discourage or dismiss the use of numbers in the church altogether. They think that numbers are somehow unspiritual or worse, unbiblical. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Numbers in and of themselves are morally neutral. They simply tell a story. Think about how important numbers help in other parts of life:
- When you are driving your car, you need to know how fast you are going. You need to know how much gas is left in the tank. You need to know if your tire pressure is within the acceptable range.
- When your doctor performs a physical examination, they need to know your blood pressure. They need to know your heart rate. They need to know your blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
- When you are on a commercial flight, you better hope that your pilot knows the plane’s speed, altitude, and cabin pressure levels!
- When you use your debit card to make a purchase, you need to know if you have enough money in your bank account to cover the cost of the item(s).
We would be foolish to ignore or dismiss the use of numbers in every other area of life, so why do we think it’s a good idea to ignore or dismiss numbers in the church?
After all, contrary to the claim that using numbers is an unbiblical practice, numbers are all over the Bible. In fact, some assert that 1 out of every 5 verses in the Bible contains a number of some kind. While I don’t know if that’s an accurate estimate or not, I do know that numbers are in the Bible. A lot. As the old saying goes, there’s even an Old Testament book called Numbers!
But numbers are not just in the Old Testament. They are all over the New Testament as well. Consider these examples just in the Gospels:
- In the opening chapter of the New Testament, Matthew lists the genealogy of Jesus Christ, and he lists 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the deportation to Babylon, and 14 generations from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ. (Matthew 1)
- When Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he fasted 40 days and 40 nights. (Matthew 4, Luke 4)
- Jesus called 12 disciples and sent them out (Matthew 10). Later, Jesus sent out 72, two-by-two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go (Luke 10).
- When Jesus tells the parable of the sower, he talks about the seeds that fell on the good soil and produced grain, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, and some thirty (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8).
- Jesus fed 5,000 men (plus women and children) with 5 loaves and 2 fish (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6). When they were finished, 12 baskets of leftovers were collected. On another occasion, he fed 4,000 men (plus women and children) with seven loaves and a few small fish. When they were finished, 7 baskets of leftovers were collected (Matthew 15, Mark 8).
- In his parable of the lost sheep, Jesus describes the man who has 100 sheep, but he leaves the 99 when one of them is lost (Luke 15).
- In his parable of the talents (Matthew 25), Jesus talks about one servant who was given 5 talents (who made 5 more talents), one who was given 2 talents (who made 2 more talents), and one who was given 1 talent (who buried his talent).
- When Jesus talks with the woman at the well, he lists the number of husbands that she has had (John 4).
- When Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, the disciples have the miraculous catch of 153 large fish (John 21).
How do we know all these numbers in the Gospels? Evidently, someone counted.
As the church is born in the book of Acts, you see numbers mentioned many times as well:
- Jesus appeared to the disciples for 40 days before ascending to heaven (Acts 1).
- The church had 120 persons when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1).
- After Peter preached at Pentecost, 3,000 people got saved, and that number kept growing daily (Acts 2).
- The church had grown to 5,000 men in Acts 4.
- The number of believers continued to grow as multitudes of both men and women gave their lives to Christ (Acts 5).
- The number of disciples stopped growing by addition, and began growing by multiplication (Acts 6).
How do we know all these numbers in the book of Acts? Evidently, someone counted.
Beyond the book of Acts, we still see the significance of numbers in the New Testament:
- Paul mentions 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrected Lord at one time (1 Corinthians 15).
- Paul speaks of the churches of Macedonia who gave well beyond their means to take part in the relief of the saints in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8), implying that he had to have an idea of how much money they had and how much money they gave.
- John writes to the 7 churches in Asia (Revelation 1)
- He also speaks of 144,000 who were sealed, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes.
- Regarding the number of the beast, John writes: “this calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast.” (Revelation 13)
So, again, numbers are quite significant in the Bible. If numbers were insignificant, there would be no need to include them in God’s Word. But the fact that they are there shows that God has a purpose for numbers.
I realize that was a lengthy list. But then again, I love numbers.
So, what does all this mean? It means that the church should not ignore or dismiss numbers. In fact, the opposite is true. Just like the dashboard in your car, the vital signs in the doctor’s office, the gauges in the cockpit, and the bottom line of a bank account, churches need to use appropriate metrics (numbers used to measure something) to gauge the health and vitality of the church, its ministries, and its impact for the kingdom of God.
What are some of those metrics? The old cliché is that all churches have at least 3, called “the 3 B’s”: (1) Budgets, (2) Bodies, & (3) Baptisms. It may be cliché, but churches better be measuring at least these three items.
However, there are many other metrics that churches can use to measure the health and effectiveness of their ministries. Over the next few months, I plan to include a weekly post which will highlight a different church metric that may be helpful for you and your church and your quest to fulfill the Great Commission. We will deal with different categories such as attendance, conversions, discipleship and spiritual growth, facilities, finances, leadership, membership, outreach/missions, small groups, social media, and more. I hope you will come back each week to check them out.
Did I mention that I love numbers?