Few things send a pastor into sin like the questions, “How many are you running? How many baptisms have you seen this year? How many people have joined this year?” We hear those questions and we ask ourselves, “Do I round up to the nearest hundred or thousand? Or do I tell it like it is?” Regardless of how we respond, if a pastor’s “numbers” are not what he hopes them to be—as is the case with most pastors—they can lead him into the depths of despair. Typically when this happens it is because we pastors aren’t seeing things rightly; we forget that while the answers to these questions are important, they are not necessarily indicators of success or failure. Increased attendance, baptizing new Christians, and increased membership are certainly signs of growth, but not growth that we can control. As Paul reminds us, “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). Growth comes from God, we are called to plant and to water. In other words, for us, success and failure are not measured in terms of growth, but in terms of faithfulness. In so far as we are being faithful to plant and to water as God calls us to, we are successful, regardless of the fruit we see. It is God who causes the growth, not us. Success for us is faithfulness to God’s Word.
Yet, even though that’s true, we pastors still all to often fall into despair over such things. We think about success merely in terms of growth and that leads us to despair, but we also tend to only think about growth numerically. So if attendance, baptisms, and membership aren’t up then we aren’t growing. But, that’s not necessarily the case.
I currently pastor a church revitalization/replant. Over the last few years we have been working—by God’s grace—for church health. Until recently we weren’t really healthy enough to focus much on outreach. That being the case, we haven’t seen a great increase in attendance, baptisms, or membership. But, we have seen people come to know and love Jesus in ways they never have before, we have seen people grow in their knowledge and hunger for God’s Word like they never have before, and we have seen people begin to open their lives up to one another and live in genuine gospel-community like they never have before. And friends, while these things might not be a part of the numbers game, they are most definitely growth. When an eighty-plus year old brother comes to you after service and tells you—with eyes full of tears and a heart full of joy—that though he has read the Bible for most of his life, he has just now started truly understanding the Word and has for the first time learned to study the Word himself in a deep, heart-stirring, Christ-centered manner; though it might not be as sexy or as flashy as numbers, that is a win, that is good gospel-growth.
We must not be so concerned with numbers that we miss out on the joy of gospel-growth such as this. When we are tempted to despair we must ask ourselves if we are being faithful. And while we may not see fruit of a numerical fashion, if we are being faithful we should see the fruit of lives that have been and are being transformed by the gospel. Gospel-growth, gospel-wins, gospel-fruit doesn’t always look the same in a church revitalization as it does in a church plant. No doubt, we should pray for and seek out numerical growth in the ways that God has called us to in His Word. But, we must remember that we are called to be faithful, and to trust in God—for it is He who causes the growth. But if we are being faithful we can trust that in one way or another gospel-growth is happening. So let not your heart despair. Don’t let numbers, or the lack thereof rob you of joy. Plant and water—trust in God’s Word and rejoice in Jesus and the power of His gospel. And next time someone asks you how many are you running, or how many baptisms have you seen this year, or how many people have joined this year, tell them of the gospel, its power, and the fruit thereof in the church you serve. Because friends, if you are being faithful, lives are being changed, whether you realize it or not; and that is cause for great joy.