by Jim Reapsome
Numbers games on big city streets around the world rob people of money that could go for food and clothing. The missionary enterprise is also plagued by numbers games.
Numbers games on big city streets around the world rob people of money that could go for food and clothing. The missionary enterprise is also plagued by numbers games. Think for a moment about how important numbers are:
How many churches were planted? How many decisions were recorded? How many converts were baptized? How many students were enrolled? How many candidates went through orientation? How many recruits were signed up?
How many people are on your mailing list? How many donors do you have? How much money did you raise? How many unreached people are there? How many missionaries are working in this country? How many missionaries are trying to reach the unreached?
Lest we bore you, we’ll stop. Lest we turn you off, we’ll assure you this editorial is not a sneak attack on church growth. Numbers are not unspiritual. Spiritual deadness or aliveness – whether in churches, schools or mission agencies – has nothing to do with size.
What troubles us is that the missionary numbers game is played to achieve status, recruit missionaries, build schools, and enlarge budgets. The missionary numbers game has become the means to the end. The missionary numbers game means the agency has to justify its existence – its mission, if you please – by using numbers. Or, the missionary has to justify his own existence and mission by playing the numbers game.
The numbers game begins by using numbers of people in the world, the numbers who are unreached, hidden, unresponsive, neglected, or whatever. This psychological numbers game is meant to stir Christians, churches and mission agencies to do more. That’s the negative way the game is played. It’s also played positively by using numbers to prove how fast the churches around the world are growing, how many thousands are being won to Christ every day, and so on.
Missionaries and agencies who play with numbers to reinforce their latest pitches would do well to recognize that on a worldwide scale numbers are hard to nail down. Besides, people today are not moved by billions. They are shell-shocked and desensitized by the media’s use of billions. Even the world’s demographers can’t agree on their billions. For example, here are two recent news stories, appearing within a few days of each other:
"The world’s population time bomb … may have been defused by birth control programs in some of the most populous nations … Only 10 years ago doomsday prophesizing called for mass starvation, world chaos and possible world war by the year 2000. If recent trends continue, the world population crisis appears resolvable. Contrary to demographic predictions, the world’s average rate of child-bearing declined significantly between 1968 and 1975."
But, on the other hand: "Six and a half billion people will crowd the globe by the year 2000 … Recently, much has been said about the decline in the world’s population, but these figures do not show any such decline."
It would appear that demographers play the numbers game not completely objectively. For many reasons, the true state of affairs is hard to come by. The same is true in the missionary enterprise. The numbers game can be used for various purposes—many of them necessary and legitimate—but it is not right to play the game to:
- justify one’s existence, or to prove that one’s mission is more important, more essential, or more worthy of support than someone else’s.
- Imply that another agency has somehow lost its vision, has stagnated, or is out of God’s will.
- Prove God’s blessing is resting on the individual or the mission because the various numbers are big.
- Follow the U.S. public relations gimmick that big is better, that the image of big success is the way to attract more recruits, donors, project funds, etc.
- Determine where you should go or what you should do with your life.
Paul no doubt had numbers in mind when he wanted to go to Bithynia (Acts 16:7), but numbers were not determinative in his case. God didn’t want him to go there, regardless of how many thousands of lost souls were there. God did want someone else to go there, and they did, but apparently this never bothered the apostle. Somehow, the Spirit of God does not seem dependent on the numbers game, even when it’s played by missionaries and missiologists.
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