Jul 182013
 

blog-j-i-packer“I have found that churches, pastors, seminaries, and parachurch agencies throughout North America are mostly playing the numbers game—that is, defining success in terms of numbers of heads counted or added to those that were there before. Church-growth theorists, evangelists, pastors, missionaries, news reporters, and others all speak as if

(1) numerical increase is what matters most;

(2) numerical increase will surely come if our techniques and procedures are right;

 

(3) numerical increase validates ministries as nothing else does;

(4) numerical increase must be everyone’s main goal.

I detect four unhappy consequences of this.

First, big and growing churches are viewed as far more significant than others.

Second, parachurch specialists who pull in large numbers are venerated, while hard-working pastors are treated as near-nonentities.

Third, lively laymen and clergy too are constantly being creamed off from the churches to run parachurch ministries, in which, just because they specialize on a relatively narrow front, quicker and more striking results can be expected.

Fourth, many ministers of not-so-bouncy temperament and not-so-flashy gifts return to secular employment in disillusionment and bitterness, concluding that the pastoral life of steady service is a game not worth playing.

In all of this I seem to see a great deal of unmortified pride, either massaged, indulged, and gratified, or wounded, nursed, and mollycoddled. Where quantifiable success is god, pride always grows strong and spreads through the soul as cancer sometimes gallops through the body.

Shrinking spiritual stature and growing moral weakness thence result, and in pastoral leaders, especially those who have become sure they are succeeding, the various forms of abuse and exploitation that follow can be horrific.

Orienting all Christian action to visible success as its goal, a move which to many moderns seems supremely sensible and businesslike, is thus more a weakness in the church than its strength; it is a seedbed both of unspiritual vainglory for the self-rated succeeders and of unspiritual despair for the self-rated failures, and a source of shallowness and superficiality all round.

The way of health and humility is for us to admit to ourselves that in the final analysis we do not and cannot know the measure of our success the way God sees it. Wisdom says: leave success ratings to God, and live your Christianity as a religion of faithfulness rather than an idolatry of achievement.”

J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton: Crossway, 1995), 207-209.

  51 Responses to “J.I. Packer On The Numbers”

  1. How horribly true. The body of Christ becomes contaminated with the very things we claim to hate and that is not of the Lord’s will, nor of His word at all. The church and its leadership becomes a cesspool for every kind of filth to be practices and extolled as a virture via tolerance under the guise of “everyone sins” and that “who are we to judge, thus enabling the gates of hell to be opened to let in every manner of false teachings and unholy living within the congregation, as well as their homes. Authority is no longer that which represents or honors the Lord, but instead that which emulatss the enemy, compromises the souls, and sells indulgences for a seat to hear that which tickle the ears and frees one to believe they are saved, when they are not.

  2. Love Packer…

  3. I thank God (and Sarah) that I was able to speak with him and thank him for all he’s done for me.
    I was listening to him teach again last night and learned more in an hour than I would in a year with others.

  4. so all them thar tares that look so much like wheat are falsely inflating our numbers?!

    I literally said “Wow!” at this article. Thanks for the “reality check”, Michael–great perspective. Glad you shared this gem, ’cause it will be a looong time before I got around to that book from Packer otherwise.

  5. Pretty much everything we ever talk about here on the PhxP is summarized in that post. It is a really, really good article.

  6. jtk,

    Packer books should be on the top of the stack. 🙂
    Here’s something else…Dr. Packer used strong words to describe the problem he perceived.
    If you were to here him speak them, however, they would be spoken with deep humility and love.
    How I wish I could do the same…

  7. Xenia,

    Indeed…and said with clarity I can never master.

  8. Right, Xenia. I kinda thought the same thing. I love it when smart people say what I am thinking. 🙂
    That goes for Xenia and Packer. 🙂

    This is a very good article, and it is super hard to avoid this mindset when you are actually working at a church. The allure of a big crowd is very tempting.

  9. In all of this I seem to see a great deal of unmortified pride, either massaged, indulged, and gratified, or wounded, nursed, and mollycoddled.
    —————————————————————–
    Best use of the English language I’ve read all year! 🙂

  10. Steve,

    He certainly made his point clear… 🙂

  11. Any use of “mollycoddled” should be applauded.

  12. Mollycoddled is a wonderful word—as good as my other favorite word: Shannigans. 🙂

  13. Latest on Pope–reminds me of such shannigans.

    Offers indulgences in spending less time in purgatory if people spend time tweeting on his site.

  14. “In all of this I seem to see a great deal of unmortified pride, either massaged, indulged, and gratified, or wounded, nursed, and mollycoddled. Where quantifiable success is god, pride always grows strong and spreads through the soul as cancer sometimes gallops through the body.”

    I have a friend who attends a megachurch in the PNW that actually takes the time during the “service” to have their people use social media to let their friends (facebook) and followers (twitter) know that they are attending the church.

    Things can look so much better on the web……

  15. Ixtlan,

    I bet I know what church that is… 🙂

  16. This is so true.Reading Packer is always refreshing.

  17. I had heard this spoken more often than I like to admit: “Pastor ——– has done more good for the kingdom of heaven than all his critics combined”. This kind of statement really truly shows the problems that Packer is stating. Pastor ——– obviously has had a huge impact number wise but size and the number of churches someone maybe the founder of has absolutely NOTHING to do with how much good someone has done for the kingdom of heaven. Until this idolatry of celebrity pastor worship is repented of, this numbers game will always be a snare. Great point by J.I. Packer.

  18. I also think it is important to not see more than Packer is actually saying.

    For example, his #3 criticism – numerical increase validates ministries as nothing else does;

    The key there is “as nothing else does”. I agree with Packer totally. There are those that look to numbers above all else for validating a ministry.

    At the same time, I really doubt Packer is saying that a ministry can’t be examined for “fruit” and that numbers has a part to play in that examination. Maybe Michael can share something Packer might have written on that.

  19. well said Andrew…

    Ministry that is geared toward and fueled by the masses has effected the church’s ability to identify what real kingdom work is all about and what it looks like.

  20. “At the same time, I really doubt Packer is saying that a ministry can’t be examined for “fruit” and that numbers has a part to play in that examination.”
    _________________________________________________________________________
    I think Packer already answered this above. If you consider that fruit is the result of a seed, I think this point explains everything:

    “Orienting all Christian action to visible success as its goal, a move which to many moderns seems supremely sensible and businesslike, is thus more a weakness in the church than its strength; it is a seedbed both of unspiritual vainglory for the self-rated succeeders and of unspiritual despair for the self-rated failures, and a source of shallowness and superficiality all round.”

  21. I think this link has a good word for clarifying what true biblical hospitality is which ties into our concept of success. I know at my former church, elaborate luncheons, ladies teas, conferences for believers or to invite our neighbors to in order to evangelise them were considered practicing the gifts hospitality. How different our churches, neighborhoods and world could be if this description of hospitality were the norm instead.
    http://www.formerlyfundie.com/true-biblical-hospitality-loving-immigrants-strangers-and-enemies/

  22. Fourth, many ministers of not-so-bouncy temperament and not-so-flashy gifts return to secular employment in disillusionment and bitterness, concluding that the pastoral life of steady service is a game not worth playing.
    ——————————————————————–
    Packer’s point here is huge. It’s easy to get excited when a lot of people show up, harder and harder to stay the course when few people show up week after week. It is tragic when men measure their success by the standards Packer is criticizing.

    At the same time, there are people that want to be pastors, because they want to be pastors. Whether God wants them in that role or not does not matter. They go into debt, hurting their wives and children as result, in order to pay the rent on the church space – and justify it all as having “faith.” They spend countless hours away from family trying to drum up new people to come to church that they are trying to build in their own strength. They may even make the wife go out an earn the money to support the family while the man “does ministry”

    And to such guys, it is sweet music to their ears to hear “numbers don’t matter” if that is ALL they are hearing…as they continue on a path of personal ambition that God is not really in.

    That is the other side of the coin I was talking about.

  23. And to be clear…my #22 is not directly related to what Packer has written. More in line with my #18.

  24. “And to such guys, it is sweet music to their ears to hear “numbers don’t matter” if that is ALL they are hearing…as they continue on a path of personal ambition that God is not really in. ”
    _________________________________________________________________________

    How do we know if God is in it? Numbers? This seemed to be what some Moses Model pastors have implied that if you are faithful with few, God will give you more. But I think this is a serious distortion of the truth. Let Jesus be the judge of success.

    “The way of health and humility is for us to admit to ourselves that in the final analysis we do not and cannot know the measure of our success the way God sees it. Wisdom says: leave success ratings to God, and live your Christianity as a religion of faithfulness rather than an idolatry of achievement.”

  25. Andrew, would you support the actions of my not-so-much hypothetical pastor illustrated in my #22.

    A yes or no is all I am looking for.

  26. Steve, No, I don’t support the actions of your hypothetical pastor. But since we are dealing with motives that are not easily discerned or judged, I don’t know if we could ever identify such a pastor or should we try. This is precisely Packer’s point not inspite of his point.

  27. I don’t know if we could ever identify such a pastor or should we try.
    ———————————————————–
    Of course we can. I did in my example. His works are self-evident. I’ve known a couple such men over the years which is why I said this is not entirely a hypothetical question.

    Maybe I should ask the women here – what would they think if their husband didn’t work a paying job himself but forced them to go out to work…..wasn’t around for the children…all because he was “doing ministry” by talking about Jesus with strangers at Starbucks in hopes they would come to his church…..if he ran up the credit cards to pay church expenses out of his own pocket….

    I think Packer’s article is truly excellent precisely because he chose his words very deliberately to say exactly what he wanted to say.

  28. Pastor Steve, you are 100% spot on!
    I have seen it with my own eyes and heard it from the mouths of several wives.

  29. “Of course we can. I did in my example. His works are self-evident. I’ve known a couple such men over the years which is why I said this is not entirely a hypothetical question”

    Without a name and a list of his self-evident works, its hypothetical.

  30. Another point about “numbers”…..”

    Some folks point to numbers as evidence of God’s blessing.

  31. When I was in, well observed professional ministry numbers were quite important, how many came to camp, how many made a decision, how many baptisms (in some denominations), and other such measurements. But revenue, donations, grants, corporate sponsors, etc seemed to be paramount. This was not greed from some of my personal observation it was desire to keep revenue up to continue to minister. One needs an infrastructure in which to do ministry, one should have insurance, some type of communication network, coordination etc. With paid staff you need some type of HR book keeping, secretarial etc.

    The numbers could distract, I found personal agendas, rhetoric, lack of professionalism, martyr complexes, us vs them dialectics are also issues that distract from ministry. One other thing imo was how one measures success, in this numbers can be distracting and painful. If one works for decades and maybe touches one life outside of his, is that a waist? By touching that one life one might touch millions two or three folks into the matrix.

    You know all that aside, it was being booted from ministry that brought me here, I think one of the first things I asked, can one be forgiven if one fails in ministry, not the normal “moral” failures or other human things. My failure was much more profound and I mean this, no rhetoric, and it haunts me, I got in the way of the machine. I dont know how else to put it.

  32. “One needs an infrastructure in which to do ministry, one should have insurance, some type of communication network, coordination etc.”

    This is the common misconception. All we really need is the Holy Spirit. The apostles didn’t have insurance or a communication network. Unfortunately people confuse the machine with the church. Happens all the time.

  33. I love Packer! Agree with Steve @9 and others after and really enjoyed reading all your comments.

  34. Andrew – the next time a budget discussion comes up in your church (and I am sure that happens often as we all know that you demand transparency from ministries) recommend that they cut the insurance coverage from the budget as a wasted expense – and just depend on the Holy Spirit.

    See how far that floats.

  35. MLD, If you think the church is the building that requires insurance than you are sorely mistaken. I’m not against insurance or against buildings but this infrastructure (machine) is not the same thing as the church. It never was and never will be.

  36. ” … we do not and cannot know the measure of our success the way God sees it.”

    That is a profound and absolute statement. Is that true?

    Did Jesus really say, “You cannot assess the fruit of a ministry – leave that to God.”?

    No – he said we can and should assess fruit. Certainly that is not numbers, or at least, not just numbers.

    But this prohibition on assessing ministries is a politically correct overreaction to the actual principles explicitly put forth in that wonderfully politically incorrect book, the Holy Bible.

  37. “or at least, not just numbers?”
    ______________________________________________________________________

    Numbers has absolutely nothing to do with FRUIT at all.

    But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

  38. Numbers has absolutely nothing to do with FRUIT at all.
    ———————————————–
    Read Paul.

  39. Read Paul
    _____________________________________________________________________

    I just did when “Paul” gave a very clear definition of Fruit.

  40. “At the same time, there are people that want to be pastors, because they want to be pastors. Whether God wants them in that role or not does not matter. They go into debt, hurting their wives and children as result, in order to pay the rent on the church space – and justify it all as having “faith.” They spend countless hours away from family trying to drum up new people to come to church that they are trying to build in their own strength. They may even make the wife go out an earn the money to support the family while the man “does ministry”

    I went to a home church where this was the case. The Husband who was the Pastor didn’t work a job and the wife had a good job that stressed her out. He was doing this all in the name of ministry and yes he went to Starbucks during the day and hung out trying to talk to people about Jesus. I confronted him and revbuked him because on top of that he sent out a covenant card to us to write down how much we were going to tihthe each week and he also wnated to know our weekly income. I left that place. The topper was me and him were eating at Chili’s on me which was fine but his wife called him and wanted him to bring something back for her to eat but then he told her that there was chicken in the freezer she could make.

  41. When the American government takes the church as their whore every church-goer will be forced to choose sides. No more business as usual for Christianity. The true church will be forced or nudged underground. Then we won’t need insurance. Then we won’t keep tally on numbers. Numbers does not equal good fruit.

    My CCCM brother preaches to hundreds of unbelievers every month with high numbers of converts. He would not say he’s into numbers, just preaching the gospel. In most cases I think he tries to plug them into a local church. I don’t know but I suspect his gospel is one of easy-believism. I’m doing my best to get him to have someone record his preaching . If he is preaching the gospel and if he really is having such a high rate of converts I want everyone to see it. I’m skeptical.

  42. One of the core principles of a large group often discussed here is: “If whatever you are doing is not working, try something else.”

    Plodding away at ministerial approaches that do not elicit participation is a type of fruitlessness.

    The fruit of the spirit that Paul discusses is not what Jesus meant by the fruit that validates ministries.

    Jesus said people do not gather figs from thistle bushes.

    Clearly something that comes forth from ministries is the fruit that legitimizes them: Is it the transformed lives of the people that receive from those ministries?

    Claiming one is serving God when there is no evidence that one is accomplishing anything may not be much better than looking to numbers as validation of one’s legitimacy.

  43. “If whatever you are doing is not working, try something else.”

    Define not working! Jesus determines success not our own definition.

    The fruit that validates ministries is precisely the fruit of the Spirit. I believe Paul and Jesus are in harmony regarding what this fruit is.

    Also just because a human being may not see fruit, does not mean its not there. Also just because a human being can claim to see a lot of fruit, does not justify its real. Jesus is the judge, not us. Also I would like to say that the fruit is fruit from the Holy Spirit. Its God’s fruit and somehow God works through people but its prideful for anyone to take credit for God’s fruit. Anything from ourselves is actually a work of the flesh which is not acceptable to God.

  44. Not working means not changing lives.

    Admittedly, as in the case of some of the OT prophets, there are times we could be called to do something that will not in fact result in much apparent good.

    I know when I am truly called to something specific and short-term, and do it, I come away very fulfilled by the experience. At that point I do not much care about the apparent visible fruit of my labor – I am excited and happy that I was obedient.

  45. I like the method of preaching Jesus used to build his church. Preach the truth so that it cannot be misunderstood and watch the people leave. see John 6

  46. “Not working means not changing lives”

    What is the core of our theology? If it is one of a changed life than I can certainly point you to many that have turned their lives around from drug addiction, spent time in jail and are now productive members of society, etc.. and all kinds of other problems they have been delivered from but they are not believers in Jesus and the Bible calls these people lost. They can be enormously happy, successful and content but they don’t know Jesus. This may be fruit in some peoples eyes but its fruit that will not last and not fruit in God’s eyes. The core of Christian theology is really Jesus Christ and His fruit will last for eternity. This is why we need Jesus to be the judge.

  47. I think at issue is the need, on occasion, to evaluate ministry. Packer is saying it is wrong to do so SOLELY on numbers, and I am not disagreeing (nor is PP Vet who I think is on the same page with me)

    Now look, if someone is out on a street corner all day telling people to repent, and other than a couple conversations from time to time, does not really see much happening. That person can keep doing that until the Lord calls him home, and who am I to say anything. He is not my servant.

    However, the moment such a person demands to be financially supported by our local church as a “missionary” then the issue of changed lives and results does come into play – because in the real world resources are limited.

  48. Packer doesn’t go far enough, American churches are based on a corporate model not a Biblical model, so growth and profit and consumerism are paramount. The increasing pressure to always raise more money is killing American churches, and all things considered, that might be a good thing.

  49. I have never met a missionary demanding to be supported by a church but I sure as heck have been in many a church that expects a tithe from everyone. Go figure that one out. I think Danallison is on to something.

  50. “Packer doesn’t go far enough, American churches are based on a corporate model not a Biblical model, so growth and profit and consumerism are paramount. The increasing pressure to always raise more money is killing American churches, and all things considered, that might be a good thing”

    This in Spades^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

  51. Thank you for this article. I’ve sent it to a couple of pastors who are living for Christ, loving God’s people, and yet numbers do not reflect the love. Thank you !

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