Counting Sheep: When Numbers Become an Idol

My church body, like essentially all in the United States, is declining. It’s slow, but it’s a steady decline. It’s been that way for quite a while and is projected to continue. In the face of this decline it is common to make the goal to reverse it, to see revitalization in our churches. We put forward our favorite program to reverse that decline, whether it is church planting, cool praise bands, community engagement projects, or whatever else.

We do this because we want to see our churches and church body grow, which is a great sentiment. Declining congregations and church bodies ought to make us critically evaluate what we are doing. We ought to want to take advantage of opportunities to plant churches and reach out into our communities so that we can share the gospel. This is all good and godly. However, if we define success with numbers, it can easily put our focus in the wrong place. If the mentality is that we better reverse our decline or else, it can easily take our eyes off of Jesus and his work among our people.

Defining Success

Our culture tends to define success numerically. If it’s a business, it’s all about profit margins. If it’s a university, it’s about enrollment and retention rates. If it’s an individual, then it might be about how much money they’re making, their weight or whatever metric is most important to them. We find ways to numerically define success so that at the end of the day we can look at whatever numbers we’ve decided are most important and determine how successful we are.

While numbers certainly can be helpful, especially in certain settings, they do not tell the whole story. Your business’ profit margin might be through the roof, but that doesn’t mean that the your employees are healthy or that your doing business fairly and ethically. A university might have great enrollment and retention rates, but it’s not actually educating students and has a toxic campus environment. You can have all the money in the world and be the thinnest you’ve ever been and still be a failure as a person.

Yet despite this, we still like to apply numerical metrics of success to the church. We might look at the church budget or demographic indexes, but the most important number of all is the number of butts in seats.

Again, this is (normally) coming out of a good place. We know that we need to bring the gospel to as many people as possible. We are charged to bring the gospel to all nations. And we have to take this calling seriously. It’s hard to bring the Gospel to people if their butts aren’t in the seats. But if human beings are good at anything, it’s making idols out of good things.

Where is Our Hope?

What if our denomination doesn’t reverse its decline? What if a congregation declines and is forced to close? What if American Christianity declines and goes the way of Europe: churches existing primarily as museums.

Nothing. Nothing happens.

Christ’s church will live on. Christ’s church is bigger than any one congregation, any one church body, even any one country. The global center of Christianity is currently shifting away from the West. Christianity hasn’t had a strong presence in Europe for a long time and America is only a couple decades behind. The brightest future for Christianity is undoubtedly in Africa, Latin America, and places in Asia, such as South Korea.

If God is in control, then nothing that can happen to us is the real end. The end or decline of a congregation or a church body is not the end. Truly, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39) That includes church decline.

Running After the Lost Sheep

So, should we just sit around bemoaning the de-christianization of the West while it flourishes in the Global South? In the words of St. Paul, By no means!

Jesus’ model is not to count his sheep, as we so often focus on. Instead, he is the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep. When people desert him and reject his message, he is unaffected. After all, this is how sinful people have always responded to God’s prophets, how much more poorly will they treat God’s own son? (Matthew 21)

Like I said before, this does not mean that we do not sow the seed of God’s Word. It does not mean that we do not harvest the plentiful harvest before us. We are to run after the lost sheep wherever they are, not regarding the other ninety-nine. Why? Because it’s not a numbers game. The shepherd who is occupied with numbers is not going to chase after the one sheep and leave behind the ninety-nine. That’s not how you grow your flock. But Jesus doesn’t care about growing the numbers of his flock. He cares about his sheep. So of course that means going after the lost sheep. It means feeding his sheep, teaching them everything that has been given to him from the Father, and most of all taking the burden of their sins upon his own shoulders, and giving them the yoke of his own righteousness. He cares for his sheep by giving them new life in his blood. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life on behalf of the sheep.

What Then Do We Do?

If the task in not to worry about the numerical size of Christ’s flock, what should we focus on doing?

Well, Church leaders are called, along with Peter in John 21, to feed Jesus’ sheep. They are Christ’s under-shepherds and are tasked with caring for the flock given to them. That certainly includes going after the lost sheep wherever they are, but the measure of success (if that it is done at all) is whether or not they are caring for Christ’s sheep, not if the flock given to them is bigger or smaller. So, Christ’s under-shepherds will feed his flock with the Word and the Sacraments. He will seek out and take advantage of opportunities to engage the world and the surrounding community with this Gospel. Not to grow the church, but out of love for the people who need it.

It’s similar for lay people as well. You do not have to forsake your callings in life to become some kind of a suburban missionary. Whatever your callings, mother, father, friend, accountant, garbage collector, these are good and holy callings that God has given you to serve in your family and in the world. At the same time, seek out and take advantage of opportunities that come before you to share the Gospel with those who need it. Not because you have to do your part to stave off the decline of American Christianity, but out of genuine love for the person in front of you.

The Church is Christ’s church. We can’t ever forget that. It means that he will always take care of her not matter what.

The following is by far one of my favorite hymns of all time and I think it really captures this idea in a sublime and beautiful way:

The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;

She is His new creation by water and the word.

From Heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy bride;

With His own blood He bought her and for her life He died.

 

Elect from evr’y nation, yet one o’er all the earth;

Her charter of salvation: One Lord, one faith, one birth.

One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,

And to one hope she presses with ev’ry grace endued.

 

Though with a scornful wonder the world sees her oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder, By heresies distressed,

Yet saints their watch are keeping; Their cry goes up, “How long?”

And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

 

Through toil and tribulation and tumult of her war

She waits the consummation of peace forevermore

Till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest,

And the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.

 

Yet she on earth has union with God, the Three in One

And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.

O Blessèd heav’nly chorus! Lord, save us by Your grace

That we, like saints before us, may see you face to face.

(LSB 644)

 

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