By Bishop Mike Rinehart
A bright, young pastor asked the question again this month. I’ve heard it many times over the last ten years. It’s a good question, and it deserves a good answer, one better than I gave on the spot. Here are my honest thoughts. This was the question:
“Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Count them,’ right?”
This is a comment I first heard from Douglas John Hall, a theologian for whom I have great respect. He said it at one of our Tri-Synodical Theological Conferences many years ago, perhaps as many as ten. The pastors present erupted with applause. In a culture characterized by plummeting worship attendance and declining influence of the church, this may be just what we all wanted to hear. This may not be what he meant, but the meta-message was this: It’s okay that the church is ineffective at making disciples, irrelevant to the culture and bleeding members by the thousands, because, after all, Jesus said “Feed my sheep,” not “Count them.”
I know what he meant. Quality is more important than quantity. Substance is more important than attracting a crowd. Or like Billy Sunday said, “Sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” We don’t want attendance for attendance’s sake. Preach the gospel and let the cards fall where they may. Clearly, the gospel is more than the institutional church. It had better be, or we’re all doomed.
But is Hall right about Jesus and counting? Let’s let Scripture interpret Scripture. Jesus and the gospel writers can speak for themselves, in the King James Version, just to keep everyone on their toes:
Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the birds of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, some an hundred. He said unto them, He that has ears to hear, let him hear. -Mark 4:3-9
And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. -Luke 13:20-21
And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God, or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. -Mark 4:30-32
He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ -Luke 15:3-6, World English Bible
And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them; and they did set them before the people. And they had a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded to set them also before them. So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets. And they that had eaten were about four thousand: and he sent them away. -Mark 8:6-9
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. –Acts 2:41
“Go therefore, and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” -Matthew 28:19
I hear this growth motif being used a lot. Jesus frequently uses agricultural parables. They have to do with growth. Healthy plants tend to grow. The Kingdom of God (Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) is like a tiny mustard seed: tiny, but grows into a great tree. (Shrub in Mark, as Barbara Lundblad pointed out to us at Theological Conference. Greatest of Herbs in the 1611 King James.)
Jesus tells parables about yeast. Growth again. The good news may seem tiny, weak, unimportant, even foolish, but it is powerful. It gets results. It expands like yeast. It grows like a mustard seed. It bears fruit. Paul says it’s an explosive power. He uses the word dynamis in Romans, the word from which we get our word dynamite. A little leaven leavens the lump. He calls the disciples, “ye of little faith,” but then insinuates it’s okay, because all it takes is the faith of a tiny mustard seed to move mountains.
Now, you can make the case that the growth Jesus is talking about here is not numerical growth of the church, but faith, spiritual growth, or growth of the kingdom itself in the world. It turns out, however, this is a false dichotomy. Of course he’s talking about faith. Of course he’s talking about spiritual growth, in people. He is talking about faith as an incarnate reality, not a disembodied principle.
To say, “Jesus said ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Count them,’” may betray a bit of ignorance on our part about the business of shepherding and sheep. The truth is, counting is at the top of the shepherd’s job description. It is one of the most important aspects of being a good shepherd. In the parable of the lost sheep, how do you suppose the shepherd knew one was missing after all? He counted. Because that’s what good shepherds do. Counting is keeping track, something we only do when it really matters.
Once as a youth pastor, we left two students at an amusement park. We all hopped on the bus, and I committed a cardinal sin for a youth worker: I didn’t count. We got on the bus. I asked if everybody was with their buddy. They were. We left. One girl and her non-member buddy were left behind. This was before cell phone days, so it was not until we were home hours later that we knew our mistake. The kids had called their parents, and the non-member parents had gone to get their kids the stupid youth pastor had carelessly left behind. I was ashamed. The parents were so angry they threatened a lawsuit. Never happened again. I learned a very important lesson. Every youth worker knows, every teacher knows this: If you care, you count.
As a parish pastor, what if someone who attends regularly stops coming? If they abruptly stop it can mean many things. They might have had a crisis in their life that has taken over their life and schedule. They might have had a conflict with someone else. Perhaps they’ve lost a job, or their marriage is in a tail spin. In a small congregation, you would hope someone would notice and call. The larger a congregation gets, however, the easier it is to disappear and no one notices. A shepherd with a large flock keeps track of attendance and giving, because it matters. The good shepherds watches for the lost sheep, and goes searching. When it counts, you count.
“All you pastors care about is nickels and noses. All you care about is numbers.” When I hear this I wonder what it would be like to say that about my doctor. I go into the doctor’s office and the doctor says (as happened to me of late), “Your cholesterol is too high.” I respond, “All you doctors care about is numbers!” It would be absurd. The numbers matter. The numbers are vital signs. Blood pressure. Weight. PSAs. Triglycerides. All these things are vital signs that tell us the health of the body. The doctor counts because it counts. Just like a doctor, those who care for the church as a body also look at vital signs: worship, giving, the number of people serving, the number of people in Bible study, and so on. They don’t do this because they’re all about numbers. They do this because they’re all about people, and they are caring for the spiritual health of the body. It would be a pretty poor doctor who ignored plummeting blood pressure or skyrocketing cholesterol.
The Great Commission doesn’t call us to “Go therefore and make congregations,” of course. It calls us to “Make disciples.” Congregations don’t have to grow, but if we’re making disciples in a community with a growing population (for example, the greater Houston area, which has grown from 2.4 million to over six million in just two decades) the congregation will grow, or we will have to start new congregations for the many disciples we have been making. If my children stop growing, there’s probably something wrong. They’re genetically programmed to grow.
I marvel at the things we say to ourselves in order to feel good about what is happening. I’m not talking about institutional survival. The institutions of the church, as we know them, are certainly passing away. Something new is emerging, and this we can celebrate. It’s about more than bodies in pews. What if declining attendance, generosity and influence is a sign of a deeper problem, that our gospel has become so intertwined with our culture that we can no longer tell the difference? What if, in our attempt to be nice, or to not take sides or offend, we no longer have anything unique, mind-expanding, life-giving to say? I’m talking about making disciples, captivated by Jesus and his life-giving message for the world. This is what we must joyfully embrace, even if it leads to selling our church buildings and cemeteries so that the movement may live. But don’t say numbers don’t matter. They aren’t numbers. They’re people.
If numbers aren’t important, why do the gospel writers tell us Jesus fed 5,000 (plus women and children)? Why does Luke tell us that after Peter preached 3,000 were baptized? Why did hundreds stand outside the church just to hear Helmut Thielecke speak? Wesley frequently cited numerical growth as a sign of spiritual vitality. So did Jesus. Perhaps we should too.
Let’s not stand by idly while the body bleeds out thousands of the baptized each year, saying, “That’s not my problem. Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Count them.’” Let’s rethink the way we proclaim our message and live it. Let’s rethink the means by which we make disciples. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else. Whether it’s reclaiming ancient practices or creating new wineskins, let’s seed, weed and feed communities that live in faith, hope, love, joy, generosity and vision. Let’s bring surprising, electrifying, and unbelievable good news to the world.