I’m not a big fan of numbers.  Numbers mean math, and math and I have never really gotten along.  It’s not like we haven’t tried, we’re just not compatible.  Numbers are so concrete, specific, inflexible.  I’m just not like that.  I like options (but not making decisions…hmm…).  I like gray areas.  I like to “think outside the box”. 

The relationship just has not worked out well for either of us.  I’d love to walk away and make a clean break of it, but unfortunately, it’s not an option.  Even when it comes to ministry.

Like it or not, those of us who are in any sort of ministry live in the world of numbers.  How many people came to services this weekend?  How many kids accepted Christ at VBS last week?  How many readers and comments does my blog get?  Did the numbers go up or down compared to the last time we checked?

It’s a vicious cycle, this numbers game we play.  Sometimes, it’s a necessary evil.  We need to adjust for increases and decreases in attendance, giving, or discipleship.  But more often than not, it’s just evil.

Numbers, while very straightforward, can be deceiving, and they can easily distract us from the purpose of ministry.  They can give false hope or they can bring discouragement.  We can get so focused on what the numbers seem to be saying that we forget the reason we went into ministry in the first place – God called us there.

A few years ago, the church was fascinated by the Prayer of Jabez:

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request. (1 Chronicles 4:10)

This prayer turned up everywhere – on coffee mugs, in sermons, in books, on blankets.  Christians the world over prayed this prayer as an antidote to everything from their failing ministries to their lack of a bigger house.  But I think too many people missed the point of the prayer.  They saw that God had answered the prayer for Jabez and they assumed that He would answer it for them too.  They didn’t give a whole lot of thought to why God may have answered it for Jabez.

I think the reason Jabez got the answer he was looking for was because God knew he could handle it.  God increased his territory because Jabez was honorable (see v. 9) and he wouldn’t waste the blessing or grow proud from it.  God knew Jabez’s heart.  And He knows your heart and mine.  He knows how we will handle success.  He knows how we will handle an increase in numbers.  And until He thinks we’re ready to handle it well (and give Him the glory) we, and our ministries will stay where they are.

So what do we do in the meantime? 

  1. Repent of playing the numbers game and trust God to bring the people to our ministries who need them.
  2. Focus on the ministries we have, rather than the ministries we want, and be grateful for them.
  3. Ask God to change our hearts as needed so that if and when He does bless us with an increase, we’ll be ready to accept it humbly.

I think if we take these three steps honestly – without an ulterior motive – we’ll find that God will, in fact bless us.  But even more than that, I think we’ll find that those numbers we’ve been chasing after will become less and less important until they no longer even matter.  And then, I think we’ll be right where God wants us.

Have you struggled with the numbers game?  What suggestions do you have for recognizing God’s blessing in your life and your work?