A theology of numbers or why counting counts.

By Peter Corney

Albert Einstein said: Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted. Einstein’s insight is very valuable but it is also true that counting some things can be an important tool for evaluation of effectiveness and a reality check on our ministry.

Numbers are not everything – quality is more important than quantity – faithfulness is more important than success … These comments are each valid in certain circumstances of Christian ministry but they can also be used as justifications and excuses for incompetence, failure and laziness; for lack of courage, skills and planning and even disobedience. An unwillingness to count is sometimes a form of denial of ineffective ministry, of inappropriate methods, failed approaches and out dated models.

The following are reasons why counting counts.

  1. We count and measure what we value: educational grades, time, appointments, birthdays and anniversaries, our savings and investments, public health issues, poverty indexes’, etc.
  2. We take great care in our community organizations and business to have reliable and honest accountants and treasurers to carefully account for people’s money and resources. This all involves counting.
  3. We count to assess and evaluate objectively many health issues and to plan appropriate treatment.
  4. Planning for all sorts of projects requires careful research. Should we put this transport service, this hospital, this school here or there? This research requires assessment and counting.
  5. The New Testament has many references and illusions to counting: The metaphor of the steward for the leader or pastor is instructive. The steward’s role involved accounting for his master’s money and goods – he counted! The metaphor of the shepherd is significant, he had to count the sheep to see if any were missing when he gathered them into the fold at night. Yes, everyone was precious and he went after the one who was missing but to know it was missing he had to be able to count! Jesus uses agricultural images of growth that involve numerical evaluation. He calls us to harvest the crop; he is the gardener who prunes the vine of his people so they will bear more fruit. How do you assess whether the field is one third, two thirds or fully harvested, or the vine has more grapes this year than last? You measure and count! The parable of the mustard seed clearly implies growth. But to identify growth you have to measure. In Acts 2-4 Luke carefully counts the number of converts. Paul in I Cor.15: 3-8 carefully records the number of the witnesses to the resurrection. The book of Revelation describes the great multitude around the throne of God giving glory to the Lamb.
  6. If we care for those who do not know Christ we will be concerned with numbers. The number of converts and baptisms, the number of people being exposed to the gospel. Why? Because every person is precious and every person untouched is a person at risk.
  7. When people say the number of those attending something isn’t important or significant we need to ask them: What is the minimum attendance before it becomes significant – 20 or 10, or 1 or none? When approached with this question you begin to see the fallacy in the statement.

Now of course counting can be misused and abused. Numbers don’t necessarily reflect quality or depth. Size doesn’t always equal strength or spiritual health. Statistics can be a source of pride and confidence in ourselves and not in God. Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted. They can also be the source of despair and disappointment when they are made the sole standard of faithful and effective ministry.

But counting is also a very important way for us to be forced to face reality and to seriously evaluate our methods, models and results. It is part of the process of accountability, avoiding denial and facing up to whether we are being obedient to our Lords commands.

In this matter Gods sovereignty and human responsibility must be kept in a healthy balance. It is God who gives the increase but we must also obey the command to go and make disciples.