Numbers fascinate us. They provide a seemingly concrete description of all that we do with black-and-white precision. Virtually every aspect of our lives is defined by numbers: our age and health, the size and nature of our communities, our economy, our personal finances, as well as trends far into the distant future.
It is not surprising that the church should also enjoy an equal fascination with numbers. It was reported recently that the overall membership of the largest Lutheran denomination declined again. Given it's liberal leanings, such numbers will be looked upon by some as a prediction of its eventual demise. The LCMS, on the other hand, has defined its future by an increase in numbers, even providing an on-line 'counter' to track its outreach. Mega churches, those behemoths of success, are now pushing for greater representation in the denomination, with the belief that numbers represent power and influence.
The local struggling congregation is of course not immune to this number game either. Members weekly pour over the attendance figures and the bottom line of their fellow member's giving. Decreases in either spell trouble and give rise to calls of panic that the sky is again falling fast.
Those who see great things in counting typically point to Pentecost and the record of the conversions that day. Thousands! they yell with jubilation. However, it is convenient to pass over the many uncounted disciples who left Jesus and his group at the end of John 6. Our Lord, unmoved by such fickle ups and downs simply asked those remaining: Are you leaving too?
Jesus once told the parable about a shepherd who left the 99 for the one stray that wandered away and became lost. The one was important to him as were the 99. Why do we get so caught up in the numbers, defining the success and failure of everything by their increases and decreases when our Lord seemed so unaffected by them?