Getting Counting Wrong - and Right

January 24th, 2013

Many in my denomination are in uproar over the recommendations that every one of the more than 32,000 United Methodist churches in America measure vitality for at least the next ten years.

These markers of vitality include effective pastoral leadership, multiple small groups and programs for children and youth, a mix of traditional and contemporary worship services, and a high percentage of involved and spiritually engaged laypeople. The hope is that if we give attention to these drivers of congregational utility, maybe just maybe we can turn our 85% of our United Methodist Churches that are not vital. If we do so, we will be the first denomination in history to ever reverse this kind of decline.

In the conversations I have had with leaders and in many of the articles and blogs I have read on-line, there are a variety of responses to this new mandate. Some argue that metrics don't tell the story of vitality. Others worry that they will be used punitively against clergy and low functioning congregations. Even others question whether these are the right metrics.
Now I'm not bright enough to answer these concerns, but I do have a fundamental conviction about counting. Here it is plain and simple. Metrics matter! Counting matters! Let me illustrate.

Football is king in my sports universe. In the late summer and early fall, from Mike and Mike in the Morning to fantasy football, every aspect of football is taken apart and dissected by the experts. They have every statistic on football known to humanity. Points per game, third down efficiency, passing ratings, and penalty yards per game to name a few! And why? It's because they know that these metrics matter to the bottom line. And what's that? To win football games! The metrics aren't the only thing that matters, but they matter. Metrics have the capacity to tell how a team is currently doing as well as forecast how a team might do in a future game, not to mention scoring the game to see who gets the "W." Counting matters in football or else why keep score?

When I went to Dr. Drass' office several weeks ago for my annual physical, counting mattered too. My blood pressure, cholesterol counts, and body weight all matter. He told me I was in good health except that I needed to lose about twenty pounds. I wanted to say to Dr. Drass, "Well, I might be fat, but you're ugly and I can lose weight. Ugly is forever!" The only problem is Ed is a handsome man and in my church too! Those numbers are vital indicators of the health of the body.
Counting matters but it does seem to me that we can get it wrong or we can get it right, and the Bible has good examples of both.

Getting Counting Wrong

It seems to me that, at first, King David was a hesitant leader. The last of Jesse's boys, at first he seemed more at home with sheep and songwriting than warriors and warring. But the calling of God and the anointing of the Spirit bid him to a God-sized assignment. He was to be the second king of Israel. After ascending to the throne, after many a victory in war, after many a song about him killing “tens of thousands,” David seemed to slowly drift into arrogance and self-reliance. Success in ministry has a shadow side. It's the tendency to think that maybe just maybe, we made the success happen. This happened for David. Look at 1 Chronicles 21:1-7 (NLT):

Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Take a census of all the people of Israel—from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north—and bring me a report so I may know how many there are.” But Joab replied, “May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this? Are they not all your servants? Why must you cause Israel to sin?” But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab traveled throughout all Israel to count the people. Then he returned to Jerusalem and reported the number of people to David. There were 1,100,000 warriors in all Israel who could handle a sword, and 470,000 in Judah. But Joab did not include the tribes of Levi and Benjamin in the census because he was so distressed at what the king had made him do. God was very displeased with the census, and he punished Israel for it.

The Bible says that Satan himself rose up against Israel and tempted David to take a census. Joab had a major concern about the king’s request, but David insisted, so Joab took it and when God evaluated the counting, God was displeased.—so displeased that God punished the people. Why? Listen to what Easton's Illustrated Bible Dictionary writes about David's counting:

This act of David in ordering a numbering of the people arose from pride and a self-glorifying spirit. It indicated a reliance on his part on an arm of flesh, an estimating of his power not by the divine favor but by the material resources of his kingdom. He thought of military achievement and of conquest, and forgot that he was God's vice-regent. In all this he sinned against God.

Ouch! David got the counting all wrong! Instead of making it about God, he made it about himself. Every leader knows the temptation for counting to be “all about me.”

As pastor in one church for fifteen years, I have and still wrestle with the evil one about counting with this motive. By grace, our numbers have mostly been "up and to the right" for most of the decade and a half in Southwest Florida. There is a seduction to fruitfulness. I know when the whisper of evil is heeded in my heart. It's when I'm counting and I find my self worth and value as a child of God in how we are doing. Good weeks means Jesus loves me. A bad week means He doesn't! I know that's crass but that's what the inner demons say. Sometimes I get counting wrong.  
When we count to inflate our self-worth, when we count to define of self-importance, then counting is not just wrong it's sinful. This seduction is always there for us as leaders. We have to be honest about it. I have fallen prey to counting wrongly and have had to repent and turn from it. But it does still seem to me that we can get counting right too. Just as awful as counting wrongly is, counting rightly is beautiful and honorable.

Getting Counting Right

Years ago, I heard a pastor say "If God didn't want us to count in ministry, then why did God name a book in the Bible Numbers?" It's cute and clever and I think at least partly right. I do think God wants us to count in ministry. When you look at all four Gospel narratives as well as the book of Acts, Jesus ends his ministry with the mandate to “go and make disciples.” The first followers of Jesus and everyone who has followed Jesus ever since has had the same make disciples! 
Counting the making of disciples seems to be important to Dr. Luke in his biography of the work of the Holy Spirit through the first followers of Jesus. In his second book, Acts, the growth of the church was counted. Trace with me some of the counting.

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. —Acts 2:41

But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of believers now totaled about 5,000 men, not counting women and children. —Acts 4:4

The church then had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and it became stronger as the believers lived in the fear of the Lord. And with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, it also grew in numbers. —Acts 9:31

So the churches were strengthened in their faith and grew larger every day. —Acts 16:5

It seemed that counting mattered to our spiritual fathers and mothers.

In our worship folder at Grace Church, the heading for weekly worship metrics says, “We count people because people count.” It’s not original with us, but it’s still true. People matter. And it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about a person worshipping with thousands in a mega-church or worshipping with ten in a very small church. They matter and frankly, they deserve to be counted!

I think at the end of the day, we can get counting wrong or we can get it right. When counting defines self-worth or self-importance, it’s wrong. When counting defines faithfulness to our mission to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, it’s right! Jesus said of His followers in John 15:8 (NLT):

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.

Jesus used the word “much” here. He connected it to fruitfulness and said that when “much fruit” is evidenced in the life of a Christ-follower God is glorified.

For the mission of Jesus that the Bible states clearly in five red-letter statements from the Master Himself to be fulfilled, it will take “much fruit” done by God-honoring individuals, churches and ministries. With nearly one third of planet without access to Jesus and with nearly one-third of planet having rejected Jesus at least thus far, the Body of Christ has a lot of Kingdom work to do.

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