What can you count?
Our poets tell us there are some things we can’t count: stars in the sky, grains of sand on the sea shore, the ways I love thee.
There are other things we can count: books on our shelves, shoes in our closet, followers on Twitter.
And whether or not we can count them, there are some things that just don’t count. And some that do.
Like an eternal soul.
But how do you count them?
It’s That Time Again
I’m connected online to dozens (or hundreds) of pastors, Christian leaders, and their ministries, and not a week goes by that someone doesn’t report the results of some outreach event. The report usually goes something like this:
“Praise the Lord for the [insert number here] souls that were saved today!” The wording and number varies, but this is pretty much SOP.
Summer sees a lot of this because of all the Vacation Bible Schools and Youth Camps. During the summer, kids and teens are out of school, and we can create focused environments for presenting the Gospel to them. The nature and timing of these ministries means that we often talk to people who wouldn’t otherwise be in church, i.e. unbelievers. It’s all a good thing, and we do it at our church. And of course, we report all the numbers we can.
I always try to be very careful about how we do that, and yesterday I remembered why.
I was looking over this year’s VBS list of kids who had prayed to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior – in common terms, “got saved” – when I noticed a girl’s name that looked familiar.
It looked familiar because I’ve seen it on previous years’ lists.
We try to be careful. We try to be clear. We explain the Gospel; we explain that salvation is once and for all. We explain to them how to be saved, and we tell them that if they are saved, they don’t need to be saved “again.” We invite kids to trust Jesus for “the first time.” Before we lead them to Christ, we excuse the kids that have “done this before.” We do everything we can to keep this from happening, short of not inviting anyone to repent and be saved.
Nevertheless, this girl keeps showing up on our list.
Now, if a person doesn’t think they’re saved, I’m not going to discourage them! But I know from Scripture that you only get saved once. (After that, salvation is progressive, but there is only one moment of conversion, or “justification.”)
So, did she get saved in 2014? Or 2013? 2012? 2011? She’s on more than one list, which means she got counted more than once. Even if only one (or none) of those times actually counted.
It makes me wonder about ministries that may not be as careful. I even wonder about some that are.
Things We Can Count
Obviously, we’re not quite so able to count “salvations” as we think. So, if we can’t actually count how many people “got saved,” what can we count? Plenty!
We can count…
…People attending a church service or outreach event
…People kneeling at a bench or platform steps
…Cards filled out and signed by people looking for spiritual direction
…Names of people enrolled in discipleship courses
…Individuals serving in local church ministry
All of these can be good things, and all of them can indicate to some degree the work of God’s Holy Spirit. Also, they can all be reported accurately.
Things We Can’t Count
But we cannot count what we do not know, namely whether or not a person “got saved.”
We cannot count how many…
…received sight to their blinded eyes (John 9:41)
…understood the truth of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:18)
…have been delivered from the power of darkness (Colossians 1:13)
…have been quickened by God (Ephesians 2:4)
…have been called by God (Romans 8:30)
…have been drawn by the Father (John 6:44)
…have truly believed (1 Corinthians 15:2)
…have sincerely repented (Acts 8:22)
We cannot count them because we cannot see them. We can only see the evidence, the proof, the fruit that comes from them. Which is exactly what the Bible helps us to do.
Things God Can Count
I’m sure by this point you’re thinking of that great day of Pentecost, when 3000 people got saved, or so the Bible tells us. (Acts 2:41) I believe that number. And I believe the 5000 men reported in Acts 4:4 too. I believe these numbers because they are God’s Word to us, and God knows exactly how many got saved, how many truly repented and believed in Jesus.
Nevertheless, God often gives us more information than merely the number of those who were saved. He tells us…
…they were baptized (Acts 2:41)
…they were active in the church (Acts 2:47)
…they took care of other Christians (Acts 4:32)
…they were present when the church gathered (Acts 5:12)
…they gave witness to the Gospel of Christ (Acts 8:4)
Because God alone knows who is truly born again, only he can count them and tell us how many there are. I think he does that by pointing to a kind of fruit that indicates whether salvation is genuine.
We can count these things, but it takes time.
And we’re in a hurry.
Why We Count What We Can’t
We feel an almost irresistible need to report the results of our campaigns. Whether it’s VBS, youth camp, a revival meeting, or just a church’s big day, you can watch the Twitter feed, and you’ll see the numbers in less than 24 hours. Why? Because…
…we’re rejoicing in Christ and want to give public glory to God
…we want to invite other believers to share the joy of giving glory to God, “great things he hath done”
…we need to show the spiritual ROI in order to solicit more donations, or justify a budget increase
…we need to legitimize our ministries to our peers
…we enjoy comparing ourselves favorably among our peers (we all know what numbers don’t get reported)
…we’re trying to build our platform
…we hope to build our resume
…we’re angling to secure future ministry opportunities
Some of these are good reasons. Some of them are understandable. Some of them are very, very bad.
But regardless of our reasons, we may be harming more than helping.
Why We Shouldn’t Count What We Can’t
Social media can hurt. Like any tool, it can be useful, but it can also hurt people. Even unintentionally.
We all know what it’s like to scan our Facebook newsfeed or look through someone’s Instagram postings and feel inferior or inadequate because we compare our normal with someone else’s best.
It happens in ministry, too.
God places one brother in a fruitful field, and he reports a bumper crop. Another brother, with little to show for his tireless labor in a barren stretch of the vineyard struggles with envy. Or bitterness. Or doubt. Or feelings of worthlessness.
Unfortunately, that’s not the worst. The real danger comes when either brother – out of pride or despair – starts thinking of life and ministry in terms of Tweets and updates. Our entire approach shifts from pleasing God to the praise of men (or pleasing God for the sake of pleasing men), and we start looking for shortcuts.
Instead of waiting to see if someone follows Jesus in baptism or pursues a discipleship course or – of all things – comes back to church next Sunday, we say they “got saved.”
Something we can’t know. Not that quickly.
This cheapens what it means to be saved because it reveals nothing of our liberty from sin and our relationship with God. It is a simple transaction we record for reporting purposes. And it may not even be accurate.
In order to say that people “got saved,” we are tempted to report them on the flimsiest of evidence: a nodded head, a raised hand, a tearful prayer.
Ultimately the Gospel suffers, and souls are neglected.
The very thing we want to count no longer counts.
What Counts and How to Count It
The simplest answer to all of this is honesty. Let’s be honest about what we can count and what we can’t. It won’t look anywhere nearly as impressive initially, but when our focus is honoring God and his truth, instead of our own ministerial prowess, I believe he’ll bless. Who knows? The end result might be even more wonderful than we can imagine.
It might sound silly, but why not be honest?
Why not tell us how many submitted to believer baptism?
Or how many came back to church the next Sunday?
Or how many chose to pursue a discipleship course?
Or how many became active members of the church?
Or how many have started sharing their faith openly?
Or how many are serving the needs of their community?
Or how many confessed porn addiction to their wives?
Or how many asked their employees’ forgiveness for their greed?
Or how many went home and wrecked their liquor cabinet?
Or how many did something the Bible mentions as evidence for faith?
Or if you just can’t help yourself and you have to Tweet something, why not tell us what actually happened?
How many responded to your invitation? How many verbally repeated a prayer to receive Christ? How many knelt at the bench? How many raised their hands? How many filled out cards? How many stayed after the service to receive spiritual counsel? How many said they got saved?
My fellow Christians, I sincerely hope that every “saved” soul we report has been truly saved. I do not doubt our reports. I certainly do not doubt our heart or our motives.
I simply doubt that we can actually know all that we claim. Which is misleading.
Let’s stop obscuring God’s work with our over-eager reporting. Let’s give him glory by pointing to what he alone has done. As I read the Bible, when God shows up we never have to wonder if it was really him. And when God saves a soul, there can be no denying that a new creation has begun.
Too much? Too strong? Totally off-base? Sour grapes?
Should we keep the practice? Modify it? Or abandon it altogether?
I’d love to read what you think.