Abandoning the industrialized approach to discipleship and embracing an organic approach to discipleship that Bryce Ashlin-Mayo is calling for (see yesterday’s post) is not an easy transition to make, if for no other reason than we are a people who like numbers.
We are convinced that to make something count it needs to be counted, particularly financial numbers. We look for them in our entertainment industry. Nowadays, the quality of a movie is often simply depicted in terms of how much money it grosses in its first three day weekend. The content is secondary to the perceived popularity determined by how many millions of dollars the movie grosses. We watch numbers with our celebrities: who was the highest paid actress last year? How many downloads has an artists new video or song had? Where does a person rank on the list of the world’s richest people? Our economy, likewise, is healthy or not based largely on the number of job losses or gains in a given month. We constantly poll the popularity of government leaders and of government itself, determining whether they’ve done their job based on whether the people answering their phones have a favorable impression of our politicians – an impression that is shaped primarily by the most recent sound bites the media, spammed email, or a boisterous talk show host has fed them. The quality of their work is understood by popularity polls. Our infatuation with numbers is even woven into the fabric of all our social media. Just last night our thirteen year-old son was comparing how many friends each person in our family has on Facebook. Twitter keeps three numbers in front of us constantly – tweets, following, followers. The quality of a blog is determined by the number of daily visits. Numbers are how we determine success. In a very real sense, quantity has become our primary measurement of quality. It’s as if the old, deceptive line of logic “that many people can’t be wrong” has subtly become the standard for the way we set and determine value for nearly everything.
This line of thinking is in the church as well and its seen in the questions we ask: How many programs do we offer? How many people attend on Sunday morning? How many ministry staff do we have? How many youth are in the church? How many missionaries do we support? How big is our budget? How much of our budget goes toward outreach as opposed to inreach? How many leaders are we training and releasing into ministry? We ask our pastors about the amount of time they put in at the office or the number of visits they make in a month. While certainly good questions in and of themselves – particularly for planning or logistic purposes, the danger is that these questions and the numbers that go with them have a tendency to become the standards for determining the value of ministry. Somehow we are convinced that the quality of church-based ministry is to be found in the numbers. In a very real sense, the questions we are asking become the lens through which we see perceive the quality of ministry.
Our approach to mission tends to be one of the areas where this number watching comes out most. There is part of mission that is about making new disciples. And if we are to make new disciples, we reckon there is value in recognizing (among other things) the numeric increase that happens in the church. However, counting new disciples is not easy. When does someone become a disciple? Is it when they first ask a question about God? Is it when they show up at a worship service for the first time? Is it when they pray a “sinner’s prayer”? It’s not easy to count disciples because the making of a disciple is a life-long journey. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ involves continually becoming more fully a disciple of Jesus Christ. In the absence of knowing how to really count disciples, we often opt to simply count disciples by the number of people in the pew or the number of prayer cards turned in indicating a “decision for Jesus”. Whether a particular person comes back to worship the follow week or whether a “decision” transforms a lifetime of decisions to follow is not counted. In this context, our expectations for outreach and our enthusiasm for mission both have a tendency to get wrapped up in the results that are reported by the questions we ask. When there are lots of decisions and more people in the pew, we reason that we must be doing something right. When people don’t respond or attendance stays flat or goes down, we assume that our mission is failing.
But there is another aspect of mission that scripture spends way more time focusing on, and that is about being faithful disciples. We seldom talk about this side of mission because its next to impossible to measure. Being an embodied witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ is not about the number of gospel tracks we distribute, the number of evangelistic conversations we have, the number of people we pray with, or the amount of time and money spent on overseas mission trips. The biblical focus on mission is about a continual conversion to the character of Jesus Christ, expressed tangibly in relationship with God, neighbors, and even creation. Instead of asking questions about “How many?” or “How much?”, I wonder if our questions about discipleship and mission would be better shaped along the lines of “How are the patterns we keep – time, money, social relationships – being transformed because we are following Jesus Christ?” or “What stories or examples can we tell of how we – personally and communally – are more fully participating in the coming of God’s kingdom than we were before?”
Perhaps, one of the most pointed questions that I’ve heard along these lines came from Pastor Dante Venegas (one of my mentors early on in ministry). He would simply ask: “Who are you eating with on Friday night?” Pastor Dante applied this question rather emphatically to the gospel’s call for racial reconciliation, as well. “It’s not about who you sit next to on Sunday morning; it’s about who you eat with on Friday night.” For Pastor Dante, mission, discipleship, worship – following Jesus Christ meant the rhythms of our lives had to show signs of ongoing transformation. And those transformations are not something that can be counted, like the number of people sitting in pews. They need to be demonstrated, embodied in the patterns we keep with time, money, and social relationships because those are the resources and the patterns through which we can most tangibly express the character of Jesus Christ. And if mission is about becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ and calling others to become disciples of Jesus Christ, then we need to ask questions that help us to more clearly see the character of Jesus Christ, instead of simply counting numbers.