Some people just love numbers. I am always amazed by the detailed statistics sport fans remember for baseball greats or entire basketball teams. Numbers seem to quantify what we struggle to qualify. Back in the days of TV, ratings determined the survival or death of every show or series. Today marketers are getting their hands on even more detailed metadata gleaned from search histories, cookies following our every move on the internet, social media clicks, or relevant GPS data taken from our cellphones.
Adventists also love numbers. No, I don’t mean the 2,300 evenings and mornings or the identity of the 144,000. I mean numbers that reflect the triumph of the gospel—and the advance of this church. In July 2016 we reported on 100,000 new family members in Rwanda as the result of evangelistic outreach.1 That article was shared more than 13,000 times on Facebook. Its reach was huge.
Numbers seem to quantify what we struggle to qualify.
Less than a year later, in March of 2017, we all read the good news that church membership had just passed 20 million members.2 Triumph is undoubtedly part of the biblical story line of God’s end-time remnant. Yet this triumph is closely associated with God’s presence as He returns to earth to make things right. Could it be that our infatuation with numbers and good news is often directly linked to our need for affirmation and the hope that we are still on the “right” path?
Here is another story involving numbers. This summer I preached at two small churches on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Each church boasts 10 to 15 members. They are long-established churches in struggling communities. As we were driving to church I asked my wife to pull up census data for one of the towns. Population, 2,675; a mixed community with 50 percent Caucasians and the other 50 percent made up of African Americans and Hispanics; the median income per household was $27,593; more than 37 percent lived below the poverty line; single-mom households reached about the same number.
How do we tell the stories of these numbers and the churches and communities they represent? How do we encourage, engage, and equip church members who make up the core of these churches? How do we prepare pastors, including young seminary graduates, to minister in these communities without feeling disheartened or discouraged?
God counts too. He sees and knows the very number of hairs on my head (Luke 12:7). He is content to spend three and a half years with a core group of only 12, one of whom ultimately ended up selling Him to His enemies. While I am sure He cherishes the triumphs and victories of the 20 million, His heart hurts for the other 7.5 billion who share this planet with the 20 million.
Since the beginning of time on earth God’s concern has been for individuals, up close and personal. He wondered about Adam and Eve, about Abraham and his clan, about Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth the Moabite, and Gerald the German. Today, let the gentle voice of the Spirit remind you of the names of individuals (neighbors, colleagues, friends, family members) and small communities struggling to translate the 20 million into their reality.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist Review.