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Home » All Resources » Articles on Growth in Christ » Ray Hollenbach, Was Jesus Numerically Challenged?

Was Jesus Numerically Challenged?

Ray Hollenbach more from this author »

A Month of Thanksgiving

Date Published: 3/15/2012
Do numbers alone tell the story of success? What kind of numbers caught Jesus' attention?
A few days ago I stumbled across a sentence that absolutely captured my attention. It’s from the blog of a nationally-known evangelical pastor (I'm pretty sure you'd recognize his name).

The sentence is part of a longer blog post, and is not meant to stand entirely on its own, yet it set the stage for the rest of the post that celebrated what God had done in the past and the lessons the pastor had learned in the first 15 years of ministry. Near the very beginning of his post, he said:

“The fact that we’ve grown to over 12,000 people worshiping and serving each Sunday at 14 locations in four states is proof of God’s grace.”
 
I read the quote several times. It bounced around in my head, making noise like two random and unrelated piano keys struck at the same time. I couldn’t read the rest of the article. Instead, I pasted the sentence on to my Facebook and Twitter pages and asked my friends for their reactions. Here are a few samples:
  • It sounds like a dangerous presumption.
  • Yes, I do think it's by God's grace, but it sounds more like "12k people! 14 locations! 4 states! Ergo, I AM AWESOME!" Somebody's big fat ego peeked out behind what was probably a sincere attempt at giving God the glory, which is His alone. Darn.
  • The fact that I run circles around everyone shows that God is good. WhatdoyathinkofmeNOW?
  • Jesus only had a handful of people, no building, and no cash. How sad that by Western standards, he didn't do a great work.
  • More needs to be known . . . The numbers might be good, and might not be.
  • It sounds like a guy who wishes he could cage fight Jesus :)
  • The proof of God's grace is what the 12,000 people are doing Monday through Saturday.
  • Numbers alone are only proof of crowds gathering.
  • That quote isn't universally true, but it may very well be true of their situation. Numbers alone don't tell the whole story.

My own thoughts were as varied as a bag of Skittles:

  • I’ve never met the megachurch pastor quoted above, but I believe him to be sincere. I trust his motives even if I do not understand his methods. The religious world of Christianity is filled with its share of competition and jealousy—I’m sure this man has been criticized unfairly and been the envy of others. I also wonder how he can appeal to a numeric accounting of the grace of God.
  • The Father isn’t against big numbers, because he loves the whole world, and that’s a pretty big number. On the day of Pentecost 3,000 were added to the church in a single day. That’s a pretty big number. John the Revelator looked into the heavens and saw the angelic host of heaven, “myriads of myriads, ten thousand times ten thousands.” According to my calculations that comes to, uh, give me a moment, uh . . . a pretty big number. God can count. He numbers the hairs on my head and calls the starry host into the night sky one by one. The biggest megachurch is yet to come, and I’ll be there without complaint.
  • Yet Jesus went about changing the world in a remarkably small way. A short life, few followers, and a handful of seed at the end. The resurrected Lord tossed the seed into the ground and said, “I’m outa here.” He left 11 un-cultured leaders, perhaps 120 people, no budget, no map, and no plan except “make disciples and teach them to obey.” The only asset they possessed was an imperishable seed. Any worldly accounting considered Jesus a failure and the ragtag collection of followers no threat to Jewish society, much less the nations of the world. Only in hindsight do we see the wisdom and grace of God revealed.
  • One of the largest churches in history was the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey. Built for the glory of God in the 5th century, it housed Christian worship for a thousand years—until it became a mosque for 500 years. Today it is a museum. I’m pretty sure it’s a parable that’s been told very slowly. Thirty years ago the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California welcomed 10,000 worshippers and more than two million viewers each week. This year it filed for bankruptcy—46 million dollars in debt.
  • Jesus didn’t do arithmetic. He did the higher level math. He engaged in human alchemy and turned human beings into living stones. He built good foundations and let the centuries gently press down on his church. The church he built will never change hands. It’s the only church that will last.
Jesus is the model I want to follow. I want to be the seed that falls into the ground and finds good soil.

If I impact 30, 60, or a 100 people during my lifetime I’ll consider it a fruitful life.

Perhaps you have other reactions. What is your opinion? What kind of church is evidence of the grace of God?

Ray Hollenbach

Ray Hollenbach helps people and churches navigate change. His latest book is a devotional created especially for November: A Month of Thanksgiving, and one for December: 25 Days of Christmas He is the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. A Chicagoan, writes about faith and culture. He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture.

Ephrem Hagos
March 23, 2012
"For where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them." (Matt. 18:20) [delete comment]
If I may, I would like to comment on one or two remarks made in this discussion. To bracket Adrian Rogers and Charles Stanley with Rick Warren is very odd. The first two preach the Gospel. I have never seen them in the flesh but my testimony to their ministry would be that what they minister is biblically based. I would certainly not say that of Rick Warren. No doubt some would disagree, but the evidence is on the internet. He is apostate in the stance he takes on Islam. As far as the size of a church is concerned, we have no record of a "mega church" in scripture but this does not necessarily make the concept wrong. However my observation is that in such churches there is a culture of the superiority of leadership. That is contrary to scripture. Another difficulty arises in the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, for example. There is no evidence in scripture that either the Lord Jesus or His Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, envisaged mega numbers, quite the contrary. It must be very difficult for those who serve in a pastoral capacity to connect personally with thousands of people who attend services. If God chooses to bless particular church with an increase in numbers, those who preach must take no credit. If the Spirit of God is behind numerical increase the burden to serve and feed becomes greater. Whether "we have twelve thousand people coming to worship with us" or twelve, the test is do we worship in Spirit and in Truth as the Lord commanded in John 4. Many come to a church building to participate in an outward form of Christianity but what is the response in their hearts to the Christ of the cross? Ask people what kind of a church do they want, provide it and you will get an increase in numbers. Preach the word of the cross and the Spirit of God will reveal His work. [delete comment]
In all of this I have only seen the Holy Spirit mentioned once or twice. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit as our inspiration, comfort, means of truly learning and source of power. When we evaluate this mega-man are we measuring what he has done or what the Spirit of God has done? I wonder! [delete comment]
Bryan Thompson
March 17, 2012
Success in terms of attendance, baptisms, finances, etc can indeed indicate God's favor, no doubt, but not necessarily so. I appreciate what people say about multiplication, but when I look at how many dedicated followers were actually at the cross when Christ was crucified I wonder how many of the 12,000 would have been there. Numerical growth is great, but numbers alone cannot be considered as the measure of a ministry or church. If this is the case MMA can certainly claim God's favor. [delete comment]
Mh Constantine
March 15, 2012
I serve the Lord in what some call a limited access country. Well, sort of. In the capital there are some pretty big churches. In the villages there are many small churches. Which ones are the best demonstration of God's grace in action? Those in populous areas with every possible advantage to use for the Kingdom? Or, those that were planted in places that are hard to reach and with meager resources? Every authentic work of God , no matter the size, is a living demonstration of God's grace. Authentic leaders know this, whether mega or micro. [delete comment]
Myron Heckman
March 15, 2012
I agree with the overall point, a good one, that numbers don?t in themselves indicate success in God?s eyes. I take issue with the main quote in the article which the author highlights as mind boggling. I did an engine search on it, and it?s out of context. The next line says ?If growth relied on us, (our church) would have shut its doors long ago.? So it is a statement of humility, as two previous posters thought. I also don?t understand the point of the story about the large 5th century church. Turkey was invaded by Muslims who forcibly took over the Church. I?m not sure what the lesson is, except try not to be overrun by Muslims. [delete comment]
Felipe Rodriguez
March 15, 2012
12000 divided by 14 locations is about 850 a place. let's say they have 2 services on sunday, then is 425 per service. 425 is not too big or too small is pretty reasonable. So, what's the problem? This man of God has multiply and fructify like God ordained. In my denomination is all about the numbers. We have to grow, we have to multiply, we have to expand. We have do extend the Kindom. If you don"t see it that way, it's your right. But, in heaven God will ask you for your talents. And he will be looking for a 100 fold return. So, get to work!!! [delete comment]
Lilian Low
March 15, 2012
A long time ago I had 99 kids in Kids Church. I wished for 100 just to round it up. Immediately, the Lord said to me that He valued assimilation over attendance. Ouch! Lesson learnt! [delete comment]
Lilian Low
March 15, 2012
A long time ago I had 99 kids in Kids Church. I wished for 100 just to round it up. Immediately, the Lord said to me that He valued assimilation over attendance. Ouch! Lesson learnt! [delete comment]
Jim Hays
March 15, 2012
Sure don't mean to nitpick but... You said, "The only asset they possessed was an imperishable seed." They also had the power of the Holy Spirit. Two thousand years later, we have the same two gifts plus the written Word. A smart man once told me, "The measure of a preacher's success is not in church attendance figures or numbers of baptisms, but this: Is the Word of God being preached faithfully in his church? If it is, God will take care of the numbers." [delete comment]
whether small or large, simply having numbers doesn't put God's stamp of approval on your ministry. There have been many large and small churches that are controlling coercive legalistic cults. The validation of the ministry comes from the fruit of the people, not from the number of people you can gather. You can have an unhealthy church of 50 or 5000. [delete comment]
My thoughts were along the lines of Esse's. Perhaps the pastor wasn't thinking more numbers=more grace. Perhaps, as Esse indicated, he saw it in humility, thinking, "Wow, look what God has done through little 'ol me!" You said you didn't read the rest of the article. Perhaps he humbly qualified his statement afterwards. We have to be careful. I'm a pastor of a small church and I can get caught up in being cynical toward the megachurch too. But we shouldn't stereotype every megachurch pastor as a finances and numbers fanatic. Some might very well be, but I'm sure not all are. [delete comment]
Wonderful message. Well said. I myself preach for ONE reason. If I can keep just ONE soul from going to Hell, then my life will be a success. "go ye therefore and preach the Gospel to every creature." There may be thousands, but creature means one at a time. [delete comment]
Zachary Bartels
March 15, 2012
WOW. This is exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you so much for your words and your wisdom! Blessings on you and your ministry! [delete comment]
Troy Heald of Caribou United Baptist
March 15, 2012
Great article....Regardless of the size and number of those under your care (as a shepherd or shepherd leader) it is by God's grace we are all here. As much as heaven recjoices over the repentance of a lost soul, we must too regardless if it is just one or 1001. [delete comment]
Elvin O. Torres
March 15, 2012
I happen to know a few pastors from the church I'm sure your writing about. I know their hearts and a bit about their methods. And it truly is amazing what God has accomplished in a little over a dozen years. But to think that the impact was created by "gathering a crowd" is an error. MHC has two strategies which they call their air war and ground war. To be sure, their preaching ministry (air war) is very influential and God has given them a lot of grace. However, the greatest impact they make is through their ground war. Their community groups. Every day christians living the gospel in their neighborhoods. Small. The Church scattered. Your right, Jesus didn't do arithmetic. He did multiplication. He expected his disciples to be on mission with him and make disciples who make disciples. Its not about numbers but numbers are indicative of some things. Namely, are disciples growing and making more disciples. When I read a statement from a pastor who is thankful for the grace that God has shown them to be a part of literally thousands of people having the opportunity to grow as disciples of Jesus and make disciples in their neighborhoods, well, that makes me glad. And it causes me to ask the question:"am I doing all I can to grow disciples and make disciples?" After all, the mission is to make disciples. And if that is happening then the numbers will grow and spread. I'm convicted and challenged to be on mission in my community, From my pulpit and in my home. The advancement of the gospel is the big idea. Maybe your asking the wrong questions Ray. Maybe. [delete comment]
Elvin O. Torres
March 15, 2012
I happen to know a few pastors from the church I'm sure your writing about. I know their hearts and a bit about their methods. And it truly is amazing what God has accomplished in a little over a dozen years. But to think that the impact was created by "gathering a crowd" is an error. MHC has two strategies which they call their air war and ground war. To be sure, their preaching ministry (air war) is very influential and God has given them a lot of grace. However, the greatest impact they make is through their ground war. Their community groups. Every day christians living the gospel in their neighborhoods. Small. The Church scattered. Your right, Jesus didn't do arithmetic. He did multiplication. He expected his disciples to be on mission with him and make disciples who make disciples. Its not about numbers but numbers are indicative of some things. Namely, are disciples growing and making more disciples. When I read a statement from a pastor who is thankful for the grace that God has shown them to be a part of literally thousands of people having the opportunity to grow as disciples of Jesus and make disciples in their neighborhoods, well, that makes me glad. And it causes me to ask the question:"am I doing all I can to grow disciples and make disciples?" After all, the mission is to make disciples. And if that is happening then the numbers will grow and spread. I'm convicted and challenged to be on mission in my community, From my pulpit and in my home. The advancement of the gospel is the big idea. Maybe your asking the wrong questions Ray. Maybe. [delete comment]
Ely Of Cinci
March 15, 2012
Great article; speaks to a true calling. As once being a part of a megachurch, I noticed many people coming in the back door, sitting in the back pews, and slipping out as the service was ending. I wondered if this was really what Christ had in mind. I am a senior pastor at a small church (I was not a pastor at the megachurch) and I'd rather pastor 30 disciples than 3000 followers. [delete comment]
Esse Johnson
March 15, 2012
David, I love your words: "Most of us pastor small churches and we love our small churches." and God can and will do great things through you and the intimate group you love and nurture. I believe there is soooo much advantage to having a small congregation, where all the kids get lots of interaction and have a real "voice" in the family. Keeping our eye on the prize, in this life, means a healthy, strong Church, totally sold out in love with Jesus, being strong, healthy, and fierce hands, surrendered hearts, lives devoted to establishing God's kingdom on earth. Right? [delete comment]
Esse Johnson
March 15, 2012
Just reading those words as an excerpt and then drawing conclusions of any kind is so dangerous. On the whole, I do notice some pastors are so concerned about numbers that the people become numbers and they neglect really loving the Church. I've only been a part of the Church since 2009 and did learn what that part of "big church" can feel like. However, reading these words, it sounds to me just as likely that he is humbling himself in his statement, as if to say, "the fact that we have 12,000 people coming to worship God with us is a blessing and a fruitfulness beyond anything I could have ever accomplished." therefore, if there is blessing and fruitfulness at all, it is by the grace of God. This discussion is still a good one, and it may actually be completely misrepresenting the heart of the man or woman quoted . I submit to you this: CHURCH the world is watching as we criticize each other. They are watching as we get stuck on disagreements and no accord. Do you believe we can afford to focus far more on unity and speaking with honor and building each other up than PUBLICLY correcting or rebuking our brethren? [delete comment]
excellent article. Most of us who are Pastors, if we would be honest, would love to preach to large numbers and do large numbers of baptisms. Yet most pastors are not blessed to be in the place of Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, Francis Chan, Rick Warren. Most of us pastor small churches, and love our small Churches. This is where God has put us, and we love the few we have and few we baptize. God's grace is here, too, though we don't have large numbers. This is the way of God, and we accept His way and, loving Him and our small flocks, glorify Him. [delete comment]

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