Recently I watched a semi-conversation unfold on twitter between a friend and a Pastor. They were engaging in a tit for tat debate over the usage of some colloquial saying for God. My friend thought that perhaps the word was too informal and the Pastor guy just brushed him off. When my friend (along with another woman) continued the disagreement, the Pastor- who used the word in a recent sermon series- refuted with: “We had 500+ salvations, 500+ visitors & 3000+ commit to purity through this series.” My friend simply responded “Happy for you.” To which the Pastor guy then responded, “No you’re not you’re a hater, but I love ya.”
I mean, I get it. I guess he was trying to say “look I used the word and as a result of that word we had all of these people respond to it well and they liked it so there take that.” I wasn’t in that conversation so I can’t speak to it. But what disturbed me was this mentality that I have been seeing a trend of when it comes to leaders in ministry. It’s the idea that large numbers equates to success.
MEGAfest (not that I have any issue with MegaFest. I actually like the idea of that conference)
It’s this idea that the larger the church roster, the larger the number of people that come when an “altar call” is called, the larger the conference, the larger the number of commitment forms etc, then the more that authenticates ones ministry. And honestly, while I’m sure that the intent of amassing large numbers has a percentage of well meaning, a substantial amount of it is grounded in pride and narcissism.
As a young person in ministry I watched that growing up (not necessarily at my own church) and unfortunately it rubbed off on me. Once upon a time, I too believed that numbers were everything when it came to determining whether or not my call was noteworthy and if this faith thing was really working. I would pride myself on just how many youth were in OUR youth ministry. “Well over 600”, I would respond. Never mind the fact that I only saw 100 of that number on Sunday mornings and furthermore only had significant relationships with about 35 of them. At the end of a sermon, if I would give the call for someone to come for prayer or come to Christ, I’d be praying in my heart that someone would accept the call and secretly patting myself on the back for the number of people that would come to the front because THAT would mean that a real move of God took place.
What a warped way of thinking.
Warped because while Jesus ministered to the multitudes, his more significant ministry appeared to be the close circle of 12 of whom he discipled. Warped because it was this very man who said:
“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? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 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)
One day, sometime after I’d left that particular job and grew in my mentality, I remember speaking to my younger sister (who was in the youth ministry that I led) about discipleship. I’ll never forget when she asked me, “What does that mean?” I hung my head in shame. Major fail. I went through 3+ years in what looked like a successful youth ministry, with lots of large numbers and one of the most important concepts was never priority enough to stick. The numbers were though. The popularity was. How many kids came to our retreats and our hip-hop Christian concerts was. What had I done?
Somewhere we’ve gotten lost in all these numbers. We’ve gotten lost in how many seats we can fill at our stadium sized churches and how many twitter followers we have. That is not the gospel. The gospel is about discipleship. And what I’ve learned is that discipleship takes time and energy. It can be messy. It is thankless and humble. Discipleship is about journeying with that one person through celebrations and setbacks, victories and failures. I have so much respect for the Pastors, pastoring their small-midsized congregations and intentionally juggling their time visiting hospitals, counseling, teaching and being present. Those who don’t have the major book deals or whose popular name can draw large crowds to their expensive conferences. I don’t envy those with large sets of people under their care because I realize how daunting the task of true discipleship is and know that while they may be self-impressed with their large numbers, chances are they are failing in basic discipleship 101. I’m not saying that all are, but I am saying that the enchanting spell of quantity can cloud the significance of quality.
I’ve preached in a lot of settings, to large and small crowds alike, but nothing gives me more joy than to see that one person that I’ve had the privilege of journeying with, succeed at life. Even in my own personal life, my spiritual growth isn’t attributed principally to that time I heard that great sermon and went to the altar call among dozens of other people and cried and filled out a card that said “hey I love Jesus.” It’s the people who have discipled me and journeyed with me. It’s the ones who really truly pastored me. It is to them, I say “thank you.” I want to ask that pastor guy my friend was tweeting, to reflect on where those 500 visitors, 500 salvations and 3000 commitment cards will be in 10 years. Because the truth of the matter is this: The numbers alone don’t carry the weight. The discipleship does.