The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; Deuteronomy 7:7 NKJV
I suppose its natural that we are comforted with numbers. Years ago, while holding a revival in Connecticut, I took a night off and went to Fenway Park in Boston, where the Red Sox play. I took the advice of the clerk behind the hotel counter and took the subway to the game, instead of paying to park my car. This was my first trip to Boston and my first subway ride. I boarded the subway realizing I had no idea where to get off. However, I realized it was a no-brainer. I got off when all the people wearing Red Sox t-shirts got off. I followed the crowd right to Fenway Park. I found comfort in the crowd.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we comfort ourselves by knowing that our church has around 22 million members world wide. When we baptize people in a small, isolated church, we assure them that there are millions of us around the world. We don’t want them to feel alone. After all people have made fun of us and have called us a sect. But is it always safe to follow the crowd? Should it make us feel more comfortable to be in a throng? What if Noah’s family did not get on the ark because people were making fun of how few of them there were? Are numbers necessarily a sign of success? When two football teams play in the World Cup, do we make fun of them because there are only two of them? No! They take pride that they are in an elite group.
Of course we don’t want to be the only ones going to heaven. We want the whole word to be saved, and thank God, John saw a saved multitude that could not even be numbered! Still we need to be careful comforting ourselves with crowds and numbers. First of all, while we boast of 22 million members, those numbers are misleading. I have had to add people to my church by profession of faith who were already members. Why? Because the current conference that had their membership refused to transfer them because they did not want to lose any numbers. So in that 22 million, who knows how many people are actually being counted twice? How many are actually still practicing Adventist Christians? Just as importantly, how many are actually converted?
It is a solemn statement that I make to the church, that not one in twenty whose names are registered upon the church books are prepared to close their earthly history, and would be as verily without God and without hope in the world as the common sinner. –Ellen White, Christian Service, Page 41.
While God wants the whole world to be saved, and it is our duty and privilege to take the gospel into all the world, we should never put our faith in numbers. The story of Gideon in Judges 7:4-6, and the story of David counting his army in 2 Samuel 24:1-25, teach us not to put confidence in numbers. Right now many churches are counting to see how many members they lost during the pandemic. Not people who succumbed to the virus but who just have not returned to church. At the risk of sounding cynical, I have to ask myself, did the church really lose this many people or did we just never really have them in the first place?
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; … 1 John 2:19 NKJV
Yes, I want to win these people back. Yes, I understand John is not saying this is the case every time someone leaves the church, and yes, I understand that some people leave the church without leaving Jesus, which is better than staying in the church without Jesus. Still, John’s statement stands for us to take to heart.
While it is important for the church to examine itself to see why it is losing members or not growing, it is also important to remember that we should never water down our message to get more people in the door or get them to stay. When many people left Jesus at the end of the 6th chapter of John, Jesus did not consult a marketing firm to see where He had gone wrong. When the rich young ruler refused to make a complete surrender and walked away, Jesus did not go chasing him and make an offer for him to come back if he could just make a partial surrender.
Ministers who labor in towns and cities to present the truth should not feel content, nor that their work is ended, until those who have accepted the theory of the truth realize indeed the effect of its sanctifying power, and are truly converted to God. God would be better pleased to have six truly converted to the truth as the result of their labors, than to have sixty make a nominal profession, and yet not be thoroughly converted. These ministers should devote less time to preaching sermons, and reserve a portion of their strength to visit and pray with those who are interested, giving them godly instruction, to the end that they may “present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” -Ellen White, Evangelism, Page 320.
On the other hand, there’s no virtue in sticking to tradition and keeping out new people. I was in a church years ago that was preaching truth, and I cried as the older folk literally chased the youth out of that church. The youth believed and accepted the message, and in conversing with them, I found some of them knew their Bibles better than I did. (That’s not saying much I know.) So what was the issue? This particular church had Sabbath school after the worship service. The youth simply wanted it the other way around like most all churches do. The older folk were outraged by the youth who were “trying to take over the church” which “belonged” to the older people. I even had a little old lady tell me, “Don’t let those kids take over our church!” I was so stunned I forgot to ask her since when was it her church more than the youth’s church? The old folks won when they chased every young persona under the age of 30 out of the church. Today those old folks are dead and the youth never came back. Some victory, huh?
I want to encourage us to be as accommodating to new members as we possibly can be without sacrificing Bible principles. I also want to encourage us to make true conversions the goal instead of making a goal out of numbers. According to Deuteronomy 7:7 what makes a nation or a church great is not the number of people, but the fact that God has set His love upon them. True love leads to true conversions.
Let us daily represent Christ’s great love by loving our enemies as Christ loves them. If we would thus represent the grace of Christ, strong feelings of hatred would be broken down and into many hearts genuine love would be brought. Many more conversions than are now seen would follow. –Ellen White, Medical Missionary, Page 254.
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