Are Churches to Play a Numbers Game?

 You often hear it said that God is not concerned with numbers, that he is only concerned with our faithfulness. We are then reminded of the labors of men like William Carey, who ministered diligently in India for seven years before seeing one person won to Christ. Other great missionaries come to mind, many of the past and many of the present seeking a harvest from hard ground, among much opposition. I’m thankful for the perseverance and faithfulness of these men and women, who do so not to be praised but for the praise and glory of God.

And yet, their example should never be used to show that God is not concerned with numbers, because He is, which I will argue in detail below. Rather, their example is one of wholehearted dedication to the God whose designs and plans are not only higher than ours, they are also grander, more glorious, and more expansive than we could dream. They are right to be faithful, we are right to emulate them, yet we are wrong to conclude something which denigrates, even if only incidentally, God’s concern for the rapid and far-reaching advance of the gospel.

The problem is that our understanding of numbers, statistics, and size pale in comparison to what Scripture would have us to think about them. Have we ever really thought about what the Bible says about numbers of believers? The numbers of those to be saved? We talk about it, I know, but rarely in direct relation to the our participation in the Christian mission. I think is because in Christlike humility we don’t want to make much of ourselves and we also recognize the historical difficulties many have faced. But, I think that when rightly understood, a Biblical theology of the multitude and of the rapid advance of the gospel will aid or, better, drive our practice of gospel faithfulness. It will also push us to expect God to move, and to cry out in prayer and worship so that He would act for His own glory’s sake. What follows is a brief introduction to what I perceive to be a Biblical Theology of church growth. By introduction, I also mean a beginning, I want to learn more and grow in my thinking on this matter.

What got me thinking along these lines initially was my study of Revelation 5 and 7. These chapters are big chapters for our theology of Christian mission. In chapter 5, we are given a view of the exaltation of the Son. In verses 1–5, he is called the Lamb that was slain, then the Lion of Judah, the root of David. In other words, this is the exaltation of Jesus given to us in prophetic terminology. Then, in verses 7–12, Jesus is worshiped by the inhabitants of heaven just as the Lord God, the sender of the Holy Spirit had been worshipped in chapter 4—a significant theological tidbit. The number of these inhabitants, which in this chapter are the combined multitude of the angels together with the living creatures and elders, are described as myriads of myriads, or, in other words, 10,000s of 10,000s – quite a few to say the least. After describing this heavenly multitude, we are told that every created thing also worships the Lamb, who is ascribed blessing, honor, glory and dominion, but unlike the heavenly beings, at least here, we are not told a number. In chapter 7, the numbers become clearer. First, in verses 1–8, the apostle describes the sealed ones from the tribes of Israel numbering 144,000, which is probably a symbolic number, but could very well be literal (we shall all see on that day!). Then, in verses 9–12, John sees the number of believers God has chosen to redeem from the peoples of the earth, from all time, beginning with creation until the return of Christ. What number does he give us?

“a great multitude which no one could count”

Where do they come from?

“from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues”

Many have rightly pointed out the confidence that this prophetic vision gives us. We know that no matter where Christ sends us, we will find those who have been set apart from before creation–Christian mission will succeed, it will advance, God has ordained it so. Christ will receive his inheritance (Psalm 2:8)!

But this is not the only place where the Bible speaks of numbers of believers. In fact, this multitude mentioned in Rev 7 should remind us of God’s promises to Abraham. In Genesis 12, we are told that God promised that He would make Abram into a great nation, and that in him, all the families of the earth will be blessed. Three chapters later, the author reveals more detail of God’s promise:

“Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them…so shall your descendants be.”

Both of these two promises are repeated in a combined blessing given to Abraham after the testing of his faith recorded in chapter 22 ( See verses 15-18). From the Abraham narrative, we are left to expect great numbers of believers, uncountable numbers. Furthermore, we are given a universal scope for the promise–all families–and yet a particular means–Abraham’s seed. Both of these ideas are rooted in the creation/fall narrative. As Genesis 1 recounts, God created humanity to fill the whole earth. Sin, which entered through Satanic deception, then, has universal affect upon all creation; yet a particular means is promised for its redemption–the seed of woman. Why bring this up? This makes me also think of the Great Commission!

The book of Matthew, among other things, reveals to us who this seed of woman, who this seed of Abraham, actually is. In fact, the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1 of Matthew starts with Abraham (v 2) and ends with Mary (v 16). The particular redeemer of universal mankind has come! Did he only come to save a few people, a small number? The crescendo of the Book of Matthew is in fact in its denouement, its resolution, the Great Commission. The whole book builds up to it. I can argue more about that later, but I’m assuming this last statement for now. In chapter 28, Matthew records that Jesus declared that all authority has been given to him. Then Jesus sends his people on a mission (*footnote: I argue that we should understand the verbal form of “Go” as a participle of attendant circumstances, carrying the imperative mood of the main verb “make disciples”; thus we rightly read it as “go make disciples”).

What does he send them to do? To make disciples!

Of whom? Of “all” nations.

The scope of the Great Commission is grand and all inclusive. Moreover, I think we read it wrongly as an individual commission. This is not a passage of Jesus calling out a small minority of believers to be missionaries. Rather, it is a commission to the church. Notice in the Greek that all the verbs are plural, as is “you” in verse 20. As a commission of the church, we are given a grand, majestic vision of the salvation of all peoples.

The book of Matthew builds up to this, as alluded to above. One beautiful foreshadowing of the Great Commission is Matthew 24:14 “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” For starters, just notice the focus on both “all nations” and “the end” between the two passages. Looking back further in Matthew, the parables of the kingdom in chapter 13 all compare the kingdom of God to something that starts out small but ends up encompassing all things. True, the parables also warn of the judgment of the wicked, especially false believers. This is something that should not be ignored if only that we won’t fall into postmillenialism here. Still, the image of uncontainable and pervasive growth should stick with us. Much more could be said about the gospel of Matthew in this regard.

This is a fly-by introduction, as you can probably tell by now; there are many more verses to examine. But let me add just a few more.

In the book of Acts, the author records the amazing and rapid growth of the church among all peoples. Thousands were added, and that daily. When the church faced opposition, they prayed expectantly (cf. Acts 4:23-31). In the epistles, Paul spoke of the vast geographic expansion of the church and he wished it would spread further (Romans 16) and rapidly:</>

“Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you” (2 Thess 3:1).

Now, I’m not trying to avoid the remnant language of scripture. Of this innumerable number, they will be but a fraction of all mankind. The OT and NT agree on this use of remnant/exile language. Moreover, the scriptures definitely teach that no matter what, salvation is solely the work of the sovereign Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and yet it also teaches that human agents, through the gifted service of the church, are the means of the spread of the gospel. Furthermore, God calls the church to remain faithful and obedient to the gospel task.

Why then belaboring the point about numbers, you ask?

By recognizing that God is concerned with numbers (just not the petty and limited numbers we could come up with), we affirm with God His loving desire that none should perish and we are driven by a vision of the resurrected and exalted Savior, our brother and yet sovereign Jesus. Our faithfulness, then, is empowered by worship. I think to fail to recognize this grand and great plan is to fail to worship Christ properly. We are never to be just faithful for faithfulness’ sake. Our faithfulness has an object. It always looks forward to the culmination of all things in Christ. It is eschatological in nature. I hear people speak and write about ministering faithful and they almost have a defeatist tone, as if we are to expect that people will not believe. And in some sense, while at the very instant intending to avoid a focus on selfish ambition, as if we could by our own effort bring others into the kingdom, they unintentionally call us to focus on our own faithfulness-a kind of reverse, if you will, selfishness. Is our faithfulness ultimate? Important, yes; ultimate, no. Rather, God’s faithfulness is ultimate! Definitely, yes, we should share the gospel regularly in faith and leave the results to the convicting and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, but we should also expect that God will work! With this expectation, we trust in God, and when we do not see the fruit, we are grieved alongside the Holy Spirit, and we cry out to God in prayer to move. We cannot ever, never succumb to some sort of psuedo- cold- calm- unaffected- faithfulness. The multitude in heaven will be grander than anything we can imagine. May that vision of unified and magnificently diverse worship break our hearts and fortify our resolve. That resolve is not to just survive, but to daily share the gospel in Spirit-empowered word and loving deed.

To repeat what I’ve argued thus far: God is concerned with numbers, just not any that we can count. When we desire masses of people to worship God, we share the heart of Jesus  I think we also share the attitude of the apostles. I believe that one of the emphases of all of scripture is that gathering massive numbers of believers from all nations is an important part of God’s sovereign plan. Let us not fail to truly disciple all nations so that they will be true worshipers of Christ and let us not fall into the trap of building our small little kingdoms numbered in the tens, fifties, hundreds or thousands. May we not be content to just be in some sort of unexpectant and defeated “faithfulness.” May we be driven by a desire to worship Jesus together with an innumerable multitude. May our faith rest solely in the magnificent King of Nations – Christ our hope.

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  1. Good post Wes. I especially liked: “we should also expect that God will work! “

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