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God likes big numbers

Recent reports of decline should not be met with a trite response

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

"God's not interested in numbers. He's interested in doing a whole lot with very little."

I first heard a statement like that when I was very young-and I've heard variations on it ever since. Now I've concluded that if I really believe the second half of the assertion-and I do-then I can't believe the first part. God is interested in numbers. If He weren't, there'd be no way to measure "a whole lot" or "very little." Without numbers, you can't appreciate what God is doing.

"But that's not our point," we're sure to hear. "What we mean is that God doesn't need big numbers to bring about His purpose." To which we must reply: "Maybe not. But that never kept God from reminding us of some very big numbers."

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Such reminders come in the Old Testament and the New. When you finally finish counting the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, you can tell me God's not interested in numbers. It's true He started with just five loaves and two fish, but I think He wanted us to be impressed with how many people got fed that day. Even in the modern world, it's a rare thing for 5,000 people to sit down to eat in the same banquet hall.

All this has been tumbling through my mind while listening to the rash of reports about the state of various religions in America these days. Noteworthy in that news have been the findings of the American Religious Identification Survey. And noteworthy in those findings is that the percentage of Americans calling themselves "Christians" has dropped from 86.2 percent in 1990 to just 76 percent this year. That's about 30 million people.

"But God's not interested in numbers," I've been hearing some folks say. "All He's interested in is doing a whole lot with very little. Maybe He's just trying to whittle us down to a workable size, like He did with Gideon."

Maybe so. If that's the case, true believers should be especially encouraged by Michael Spencer's March 10 Christian Science Monitor piece titled "The Coming Evangelical Collapse." Spencer flatly predicts that "within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants." "Millions of evangelicals will quit," he said. "Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close."

Such reports involve some remarkably big numbers-and they're numbers God must certainly be interested in.

I do think both reports have been subject to significant exaggeration. The ARIS survey includes all kinds of objective data-but the huge shrinkage among "Christians" was all during the 1990s, and by ARIS' own report almost stopped during the last decade. The Spencer report is offered in frequently overly dramatic language, but with too little concrete evidence.

Yet for thoughtful Christians to respond to these and similar reports by saying, "God's not interested in numbers," is to stick our heads in the sand. A vast reduction in the size of the genuinely Christian public in the United States is something to grapple with seriously, not to dismiss with shallow shibboleths about a shepherd boy's sling or Zaccheus' slight stature.

The Bible teaches unmistakably that God is in the business of assembling some very big numbers. He says He intends to populate His kingdom with a multitude so big that no one can number it. To be sure, He doesn't say anywhere that Americans are slated to be the dominant component of that population. But generously blessed as we have been for the last four centuries, it would be a shame of the highest order if we sat back now and excused our demise as a force in our culture with the superficial pretext that God prefers small numbers of people to anything with any size.

I find it a little fascinating that this same God who some think has no interest in numbers actually devoted one whole book in the Bible to that very topic. And the emphasis there tends to be on what a big band of people God was focused on bringing together.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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