The Apparent Piety of Numerical Goals

March 31, 2006

Dear CJ,

As to the greatest threat, it is always the same.  It does not vary.  It is our prideful rejection of God, His ways, relating to Him as our holy and loving Creator and Judge.  This does not change from age to age.

Having said that, I’m sure that each age has special challenges–in some ways they are simply appearances of this ever-present challenge of pride.  That, I take it, is what you want reflection on from us.

The greatest threat to the gospel specific to today is the indirect challenge of pragmatism among evangelicals.  Let me give an illustration of this.

I want to suggest that evangelicals are particularly open to self-deception when it comes to counting converts, and, oddly enough, with the best of motivations–faithfulness to the great commission, love to God, love for the lost–our vision of the Gospel can be whittled away, and our churches degraded.  It happens like this.

1)  Great call to evangelize the community/nation/world.

2)  Numerical goal set of raising our numbers (of missionaries, evangelists, churches, baptisms, conversions, Christians).

3)  Excitement follows at the thought of the missionary force tripling (or something like that).

4)  Differences over what may truly be considered a Christian, a baptism, an evangelist, etc., are attacked as divisive and counter-productive discussions.  Sometimes this is accompanied by ad hominen attacks on those raising the cautions as unloving, lazy, disobedient, hyper-Calvinist, loving theology more than people, etc.

5)  Goal-setters ascend; gospel-definers are ignored; society changes; new challenges come.  The very people who could have helped us stay on track have been shut out.  Organizations promoting numerical goals rarely have increasingly defined ideas of what constitutes a Christian, or a church.  The gospel becomes more and more assumed and less and less articulated.

6)  Evangelists–from Schleiermacher to John R. Mott–resist traditional distinctions and Biblical clarity on the gospel.  Constituency widens, enthusiasm crests, goals are met but having no effect.  Organizational officials have interest in the organization continuing.  Falling enthusiasm.  Eventually declining organization.  Is this not the description of too many evangelical associations in the last few centuries.  They become the seed bed of theological liberalism.  They even become opponents of the very gospel they were established to spread.

So much more could be said.  It is the tragic history of the church awaiting Christ’s return.

Let me be clear–I AM NOT AGAINST NUMERICAL GOALS.  They can be great motivational tools.  I think that they have dangers, and particularly severe dangers when allowed to hold firm in a culture of churches and church leaders that go less and less to Scripture and more and more to business, pscyhology, the health professions for pragmatic answers.  I could go on, but you all know what I mean.

While this is not in itself a complicated theological attack on the gospel, it acts in a complicated, multi-layered, subtle and unintentional way to degrade churches which are, in turn to proclaim, exemplify, define and defend the gospel. 

We can and should attempt great things for God, as Jesus’ parable of the talents tells us.  We should give our lives, our time, our talents and our money self-sacrificially for the evangelization of the whole world (see Romans 10!).  But we can attempt great things for God, expect great things from God, and avoid the over- or un-wise use of numerical goals. 

And if you fear that will simply lead to inaction, stop, pray and consider.  Be careful of the charges you level against those who are more cautious about numerical goals.  Consider Him who called us to evangelize no less than "all nations." He never set a smaller goal.  And yet great fruit has come from His lasting challenge.  I pray that we all follow Him in spreading His good news to everyone.