Counting drives me nuts! Talking about church attendance is one of my least favorite subjects. Church attendance today is declining in number in every denomination in America! Frightening, right? What do we do about it? We stop counting!
There is a radically unusual confrontation between King David and the Lord in 2 Samuel 24. David decides to count his army. It is not clear why he decided to take a count, but the outcome is clear: David’s pride is puffed up, and God is not happy about it. “David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a foolish thing.’” 24:10
When a church talks about its rise or decline in numbers, I can’t help but think of this story. If numbers are rising, it is easy to become prideful. Pride creates blindness toward growth. When numbers are declining, we throw our hands up in the air (or tear our close if we read scripture to often) and feel a sudden uncertainty of what to do about it… Maybe we even give up!
Jesus talks about numbers in Luke 15 when he tells the parable of the lost sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” -Luke 15:3-7.
Why does Jesus leave the ninety-nine for one?! If the ninety-nine are not being watched, won’t they wander off? This parable shows the passion for ministering to people that should be stronger than our need for counting. The shepherd goes after the one because that sheep is lost, scared, hurting, and confused. Maybe the reason people are leaving churches is because people get caught up in just trying to keep numbers in the building instead of desiring to encourage individuals in living out the Gospel with their eyes fixed on their shepherd, Jesus.