Is anyone else troubled by the church’s frenzy to post good statistics? And why is it that when someone uses the phrase, “evangelistically speaking” we all know what they mean? Regardless of whether its baptisms, professions of faith, crusade attendance or people reached, we are dreadfully afraid of unimpressive numbers. The system has to keep going. Donors want to feel that their gifts are making a difference. I heard of one man who was looking to support the ministry that could offer him the most souls per dollar. So, leaders prepare convincing brochures and send out exciting updates because after all, who wants to give to a loser or a ministry that seems to be unproductive?
Growth is gratifying. Having to add a second or third service on Sunday morning means something is going on. Bringing another person on staff is proof that God is blessing the work. In my world the goal is more attention, greater album and ticket sales, bigger concert production, higher fees, expansive press, increased clout and a top slot on the charts. Aren’t these the signs that we are reaching more people and impacting our society? But how wise is it when we measure each other, our churches and ministries by the level of apparent success?
Now, before you label me as a small-minded sour soul, let me say that themes of growth and expansion are biblical. God intends that we should grow in grace till He gives us our very last breath. The universal Christian mandate is to permeate the whole of our culture with the good news of the Gospel. The great commission calls us to take the message of Jesus Christ to the nations, spreading across the world like circles that radiate from a stone dropped in a pond of water. I come from a missionary background and have spent the past twenty-one years traveling the globe, communicating the gospel. I too, feel the urgency to reach further. But at the same time I confess that the desire to appear successful in ministry can become a snare.
You know what got me thinking about all this? I was looking at my own bio, a piece written by a free-lance writer hired by my recording company. (I actually approved the content before they printed it.) Suddenly I noticed words like, greater than, over, and more than. I noticed the number of sales, the number of awards, and the number of nations I’ve traveled to. Of course the goal of the writer, and I must say my own unspoken goal, was to present me in an impressive light; someone who is doing an important work, making a difference, leaving a legacy, changing the world. The numbers and stats prove it, right? Or do they?
What does a cross-centered ministry and life look like? Jesus taught of an upside-down kingdom where the first will be last and the last will be ushered to a place of honor. He spoke about great surprises in heaven where the obscure will be brought to prominence. A place where wood, hay and stubble, (that which is always above ground and highly visible) will be burned, but where gold, silver and precious stones (that which is hidden out of sight under the ground) will be displayed to shine. James warned not to show favoritism by giving undo attention to the world’s winners, reminding us that in God’s economy there are no little people and no little places.
The difficult example of the cross is its apparent failure. My friend, George Grant has written a book entitled, ‘Lost Causes’, detailing the lives of many who seemed, in the light of the moment to be defeated. They were the forgotten and the also-ran people whose lives flickered and disappeared almost unnoticed. Only with time is it possible to see that really they were instruments of great impact and change. Their life’s work survived the verdict of their peers. Jesus’ life also came to a seemingly tragic and unimpressive end. While hanging on the cross, moments from death, the Pharisees stood by mocking and taunting him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matt. 27: 42)
If I had written the story, I would have given them a show right then and there. Here’s how it would go. All of a sudden Jesus’ wounds disappear; He floats down from the cross clothed in flowing robes, surrounded by a host of angelic warriors while the Pharisees cower, pleading for mercy. But in the real story he just dies. Oh it’s true, he rose from the dead three days later, yet even that was covered up and given a scandalous spin. Do you feel the tension? We don’t want to lose or even give the appearance that things aren’t going great. It’s embarrassing. Jesus’ own brothers told him to use more marketing savvy, chiding that no one who wants to be a public figure acts privately. But God’s system of redeeming the world is different than ours. His ways are not our ways. Not by a long shot.
Years ago I joined a group of artists for a nation-wide Christmas tour. Each artist was paid according to their own audience size and their ability to draw a crowd. The promoter of the tour came to see me in concert and seemed pleasantly surprised. Afterwards he asked what the average size of my audience was. I gave him a best-case-scenario number without doing any research. Later that night I was conscience stricken. In the morning I called my brother David to find out what our records showed. I was off by several hundred. The reality was lower and less impressive. I called the promoter, confessing that I had given him a higher number than was accurate. I had wanted him to be impressed with what I do so I had made my assessment from just the biggest concert attendance. I apologized and gave him the real figures.
The cross bids us come and die; die to reputation, vanity and all self-inflating manipulations. Really, the reason we want to hitch our wagon to a star is that some of the light shines on us too, and it feels pretty good. Every star is surrounded by people straining to get closer and garner some residual glory. Even being a part of God’s special working on earth can make us look better too. The call to take up our cross is less appealing. But God’s means of redemption and His kingdom work have not changed. The way of the cross is still the only way. So in the daily tension of desiring growth and counting numbers and nickels may God help us make the proper evaluation of what really matters.