Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Churches Count People

Back in the day when I went to Baptist conventions, this was the big pastor-to-pastor question, “So, how many do you run in Sunday School?”  You can tell it’s been a long time since I went to a convention because nowadays Baptists put more focus on the worship count than their Sunday School count.  But either way, we’re still counting.

Some are put off by it: “Church is a spiritual enterprise; counting seems so earthly, so superficial, so secular.”  Some are all for it: "Now did you count that family that came in late and that dog that crossed the parking lot?"  Others don’t much care one way or the other.  Pastors have mixed emotions about counting—when the numbers are trending upward we like it; when they’re trending downward we don’t like it.  But whether a church’s numbers are up or down, there’s nothing wrong with counting.  It’s certainly no sin.  If, as Jesus says, God keeps track of even the number of hairs on our heads, counting the people who show up on Sunday doesn't seem so ungodly. 

In fact, counting people serves a purpose.  That purpose was driven home to me in a note I received from our Sunday School Director, Steve Jackson.  Seems not all of our Sunday School classes were getting their records turned in.  So to encourage everyone to get their records in, Steve put together a note for our Sunday School Department Directors and Secretaries.  He gave me permission to share it with you and here it is:

Christ didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to numbers.  Counting was not His mission.  That became our mission.  The number of interest to Christ was all.

When he fed the multitudes with just a few fish and a couple of loaves, the head count was of no particular concern.  It could have 5,000 or 50,000.  The point was that all who were hungry were well fed.  One was the important number; each one.

In Sunday School and Church it may appear that we give an inordinate amount of attention to the number.  Sometimes perhaps we do, but out of an appreciation for the hard work that went into getting them here.  However, we don’t count to keep up with a prideful number.  Counting is not the goal but rather accounting is.  We count to account for each one.

We don’t count so much to see who’s here; but to see who’s not here.  To us their absence may be as important as their presence.  When a family member misses a regular family dinner or get-together, we don’t dismiss it with an “Oh well” attitude.  We find out if there is a problem.  We do that with church and Sunday School too.  Counting, no big deal; knowing who they are and where they are … Priceless.  Record keeping is a very important job for the overall effectiveness of our Church.

You have done well accounting for each one.  It’s important you know it doesn’t go unnoticed.  Thanks.

I wish I had said that.  I’m very glad Steve said it and said it so well.  Counting serves a purpose in any organization, including church.  And as long as a church keeps its focus on who the numbers represent rather than upon the numbers themselves, much good can come of it.

Reading Steve’s piece, I was reminded of a story Fred Craddock tells about his father.  He was a man who started in church but who didn’t finish there.  Craddock’s dad was an alcoholic and I guess he wasn’t sure he’d fit in.  The people in the church reached out to him, pastors came by to see him pretty often, but all he’d say is “I know what the church wants: another name, another pledge; another name, another pledge.”  The man never went back to church.

Craddock writes of going to see his now 73-pound father in the hospital as he lay dying of throat cancer.  Craddock found the room full of flowers, and next to his father’s bed was a 20-inch stack of cards and notes.  And every card and every blossom came from people in Craddock’s home church in Humboldt, Tennessee—the church his father scorned.  As Craddock stood by his father’s bedside, he motioned for him to lean down.  And his father, a lover of Shakespeare, whispered into Fred’s ear a line from Hamlet: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”

“And what is your story, daddy?”

“I was wrong.”

Craddock’s father didn’t realize it until his deathbed, but the church was concerned about a lot more than “another name, another pledge.”  The church loved him, prayed for him, and longed to be there for him in his suffering.

I hope that if you think all the church cares about is nickels and noses and numbers, you’ll discover you are wrong long before you are ever on your deathbed.  Perhaps then you’ll get into the life of the church, enjoy the blessings, join hands with others in service, and consider it a privilege to be counted among the faithful.   

Monday, June 11, 2012

God on Trial

In 1970, Eerdmans published a C. S. Lewis book edited by Walter Hooper.  The book is a collection of Lewis essays collected in published form for the first time in this Lewis book called God in the Dock.  The title doesn’t mean that God is hanging out by the water getting ready for a boat ride.  It means, in British terms, “God on trial.”  Hooper points out in his preface that we live in “an age in which one sees in most bookshops and Sunday papers the controversial—and, oftentimes, apostate—works of clergy who ‘unsettle’ every article of the Faith they are ordained and paid to uphold.” 

If that was true in 1970 it’s only gotten worse in the last forty years.  And it’s not only clergy-types that try to unsettle the faith; it now includes everyone from the talk show host to the social studies teacher to the grocery clerk to the housewife across the street.  These days pretty much anybody and everybody puts God on trial.  The Bible clearly teaches that God is the judge and we are on trial.  We’ve cleverly reversed that in our day: we are the judge and God is on trial.  We are quick to pass judgments on his word and his character and his attributes. 

With the Olympics just a couple of months away, think of it in terms of the gymnastic judges.  You know how that works.  The athlete dismounts the balance beam and the judges grade her performance: 9.2, 8.8, 9.4, 8.2, and inevitably one judge gives her only a 7.6.  Isn’t that what too many of us do with God?  We sit in judgment on him—us on the judge’s bench, God in the dock.  Think about it: 

  • God splits the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through, we give him a 10.  He drowns the pursuing Egyptians in the same sea and we give him a 5.  “Why kill them, God?  Wasn’t saving Israel enough?” 
  • God provides Israel manna from heaven to a hungry people, we give him a 10.  God drops the hammer on Israel and wipes out some of them for their disobedience, we give him a 6.  “Good grief, God, can’t you be a little more patient?”
  • Jesus heals a blind man, we give him a 10.  He runs out the merchants and the money-changers from the temple, we give him a 6.2, thinking, “Temper, temper, temper.”
  • Jesus feeds 5000, we give him a 9.6 instead of a 10 because surely he could have added some dessert.  Jesus skewers the Pharisees with his words, and we give him and 7.8, thinking, “Really, Jesus, didn’t your mama teach you that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?”
  • God raises Jesus from the dead, we give him a 10.  God decrees that Jesus should die the brutal death of the cross, and we give God a 2, thinking, “How could a loving God do something like that to his own son?”

Am I right?  Isn’t this what so many of us do?  We sit in judgment on God, trying to force him into our particular biases, prejudices, likes and dislikes.  And when the God of the Bible doesn’t fit neatly into the image we want to mold him to fill, we either write him off, diminish him, or lose our respect for who he is.  We do this with the God we discover in the Bible and we do this with what we think God should or shouldn’t do in the world around us.  We give God a 10 for rainbows and pretty birds and cancer cures and the majesty of the Rockies.  But we give God a 2 for tsunamis and tornadoes and wars and world hunger—“Surely, God can do better than that,” we assume.

I’m wondering if we could learn to accept God as he revealed himself to be in the Bible.  I’m wondering if we could give God the benefit of the doubt in the mind-boggling, faith-testing events that happen in the news day by day.  And I’m wondering if we could humble ourselves before God, yield to his superior wisdom and ways which are not our ways and are higher than our ways, and quit judging God and start trusting God in all things.  We’ll have to get down off our high-horse to do that, but that’s a trip worth making.  Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong for us to ask God questions when our faith is tested, to wrestle with him until he blesses us.  God welcomes that, I think—Job did it; Jeremiah did it; the psalmist did it; even Jesus did it in Gethsemane.  But let’s just never forget one simple thing we struggle to remember: God is God and we are not.    And if we can just get that right, who knows … God may just give us a 10.