By Adam Groza
From what I’m told, the numbers don’t look good. Churches are baptizing fewer people. Jimmy Carter isn’t alone: More and more people are losing their religion. In the past few years, several long-time friends who grew up in the faith have renounced the faith and opted for some amorphous spirituality or naturalism. Sure, I could tell stories of people who have converted. But lots of people are also deconverting. A recent dissertation by Steve Henderson found that two-thirds of professing Christians abandon their faith . . . in Christian Colleges!
As a result, evangelicals are trying to re-think, re-evaluate, and re-tool: fewer programs, more authenticity, more preaching, and less entertainment. Plant more churches, give more money, and pray more often. Get back to the Gospel; get missional, de-centralize, or increase transparency.
Let me just say, I am all for evaluating process. If there is a money leak lets plug the hole. Ending opulence is a good idea. But what exactly is the goal? My fear is that religion has become a machine such that when the machine breaks down we just retool: Tinker with this, adjust that, and get the desired results. I suspect the desired result (for some) is that same old idol; numbers. Better numbers! Quite simply, we want charts and graphs that are showing upward momentum. Until we get the right numbers, we must be doing something wrong. I know, I know, those graphs represent souls who will either go to heaven or hell. But our goal isn’t just souls; it’s an ever increasing number of souls, specifically, more souls than last year. My contention is that this impulse for constant increase is fueled more by our market mindedness than Scripture.
Why do we think doing the right things will bring about an ever increasing number of saved people? God says the Gospel will bring about conversions, but there is no promise of an ever increasing number of converts. Jesus did things the right way, and in John 6, was abandoned by everyone but the twelve. When the disciples saw the masses leave, John tells us (61) that the disciples complained about the exodus. Jesus’ response to them is essentially to remind them that the Gospel is offensive and that the Father is capable of overcoming the offense by being granted faith from the Father (65).
I suggest we prepare ourselves for this truth: Increased numbers are not the norm, even for Jesus. The church will continue, but as churches take membership seriously, practice church discipline, and proclaim the narrow way, numbers will most likely decline. The offensive message of John 6 is still offensive. By all means, reorganize, retool to save money for missions, witness more, etc. But we may do things in a way that honors God and the numbers might just keep going down. Christianity does not judge its success like 4th quarter earnings. Do we want growth; yes! Should we worry when it doesn’t happen and assume we are doing something wrong? No.
Our victory is in the resurrection, not ever-increasing numbers.