“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.
And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”
A “great number”…. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, amazing – just what we would like see? It’s true in almost any walk of life, and especially now: A crowd at a place that can hold a crowd, is usually a very good thing. At a ballgame, a school play, a business opening. And – it will not surprise you – we in churchland, sometimes get caught up in that way of thinking, too.
We love having “a great number “in worship; at church events; signing up for Sunday School; in home groups. The good news? People are returning to worship. We had a lot of alone time for at least a couple of years. It got real old, real quick. So people have started to gather again. It’s hard not to look at the numbers, and breathe a small sigh of relief: “Thank goodness!”
Numbers matter. Yes, they do. They can be an indication of health, growth, and fidelity. But more important than the numbers, are the individual people who make up any “great number”. I get it: It’s tempting, when things are going well, to point to the numbers, and say: “See… See!”
But here are some things the numbers don’t tell us, in the church:
- Who has taken a decisive step away from sin, and into a deeper, stronger walk with Jesus.
- Who is carrying the heavy burden of someone else’s – or their own – suffering.
- Who is on the verge of leaving the Faith behind, and needs just one, encouraging, Spirit-filled person to love and pray with him.
All of these intangibles – un-countables – and more, we cannot determine “by the numbers”. To get at that non-numerical ‘data’, we need several things, really, but one thing most of all: Relationships. Relationships formed out of the careful, patient work of years; of mutual service; of faithful, but respectful disagreement; of pastoral care provided through God’s people, to God’s people.
Jesus spent three years, investing heavily in just twelve people. Twelve. But he did it, so that they would be filled with the Spirit, and go in his name to be disciples who make disciples. What about the “great number” we see in our story from Acts? It began with a small number – just twelve – who did not count the numbers, but counted the cost, and said, every day: “Yes, I will follow You wherever you lead. I will love, no matter the cost. I will forgive, even though it hurts – because that is how God’s family grows.”
Prayer: Lord, sometimes I get caught up in a numbers game. I want the big result. I want to be able to brag. Or I get overly confident about numbers, and lose sight of the fact that numbers don’t matter to you – people do; individual people, who come to you as Savior and Lord. Help me, Father, to love person by person, day by day, and to leave my love of numbers behind. Amen.