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The Numbers Game

For several years I attended, with eager zeal, a Protestant evangelical megachurch. I heard repeated periodically in these circles a maxim: “It’s not about numbers.” Leaders of this congregation would take this as a reminder that evangelical fervor must not be directed at the hype of an event or service, but at the individual friend to whom we are outreaching. I wonder if the above maxim-reminder can ever serve its purpose, as the entire ecclesial state of affairs necessitates a steady flow of persons and money to pay the bills.

The subtle background causes of this war are especially important to the pastor: for better or worse, we humans are an imitating species, and we mimic models; and the model for much of the modern-era Church has been “the early church”—quite an irony given that many who fancy themselves modern commonly reject the old, the traditional, the ancient. And as we recall the early Christian story, one might draw upon the statements that their numbers were increasing daily, with martyrdom’s energy driving the procession, until the parade marched off the cliff with Constantine. We often prefer the approach of these pre-Constantinian Christians, and would probably tell ourselves they weren’t concerned about numbers—and this is what made them “successful” and numerous! Thus we attempt to find a radical focus for the Church, drawing our minds away from hype and numbers, and end up still eager for their effects more than their causes.

Because many church leaders are still evaluating their church’s success based on attendance, and because it is possible to draw a crowd with a good personality, there can be a fine line between personality-based cult and church. The question looms as to how Jesus navigated the momentum of His ministry to crowds to stay real to His calling.

Before hazarding further commentary on this “numbers” question, let’s consider the word “cult;” pop ecclesiology, betraying its shallowness, trips up on this word. When people use it, they intend to mean a “bad cult.” The Church is and always has been a cult. The word is quite neutral—it is a system of symbols and/or body of people oriented in worship toward something. If you hold the assumption that a person’s “ultimate concern” is his or her true form of worship, we must admit everyone participates in cult activity; the question is whether it is a healthy cult, whether it is worship of something worthy of humanity.

More importantly, this word’s sorely neglected etymology shares roots with “cultivation” and “culture.” That is, if a church is not a cult it is not explicitly practicing economics and it is not affecting the practical, public life of its members. In light of this etymology, my problem is the contemporary church is not enough of a cult, or at least not a full-bodied one.

I lodge this concern because the two above shared words with cult have grown out of balance. Granted, the pop-evangelical church I have come to know attempts to address questions of “culture,” but often with a reactionism that only comes from people who are dwindling in a capacity to innovate in the arts and sciences (apart from corporation sponsorship): the cool kids are making music like this and that, so let us join in lest we wallow in uncoolness; malls are hip, our church will now look like one, etc.

Apart from a half-baked theology of culture, which has turned over the initiative of arts and architecture to the capitalist (and the imitating to the Church), it is even more difficult to find a rugged ecclesial conversation on economics and cultivation.

In the past, the Church did not apologize for this old-fashioned meddling of “values” into the “facts” of economy; for the ultimate fact was Justice, not the dollar. Historian R.H. Tawney writes, “Repudiating the right of religion to advance any social theory distinctively its own, that attitude became itself the most tyrannical and paralyzing of theories.

That’s why Jesus said, “you will do greater things than me”: because Pentecost is more diverse, broad and stable than an individual sermon or act. In light of this, it seems catch-words like “radical” Christianity become utterly meaningless unless defined within a larger system of examples, traditions and teachings. Without this setting, we might fool ourselves into thinking we are “radical” Christians if we recycle, buy a hybrid car, have a goatee, disbelieve in sacraments or defy another long-held tradition.

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Two things stick out to the casual reader of the Gospels. One, Jesus frequently spoke in parables. While I do not think Jesus was intentionally obscuring His meaning, I do think He wanted to use the parable as a sort of entry-level test: Are you really seeking, or are you just going out into the wilderness to see the latest spectacle? Are you following me around for food or manna from heaven? Do you have ears to hear, or do you hunt for sermons because you cannot bear silence? Is your brain on, or are you just following the crowd?

Second, Jesus stole away from crowds almost as often as they formed. He loved them, but He did not trust them. Crowds quiver with mimetic desire—they become mobs at the drop of a hat (or an inspiring, angry pundit). They will laud you and crucify you within moments.

The Church needs to get on with the constructive work of being a cult, which is way better than that of a mob. Let us work on our cultural skills of craftsmanship, artesian skills, complex forms of music and dance; and let us work on our cultivation skills of local economies, defense of the poor from the capitalist, skilled micro-agriculture and green technologies.

 

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