catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 14 :: 2012.07.06 — 2012.07.19


Saving numbers

Numbers are tangible, especially integers — whole numbers. One. Two. Five. Ten. One hundred seventy-five. Seven hundred. “We’d like our new sanctuary to seat one thousand people.” How many people fill the pews is tangible.

When the church split, I was eleven. We planted a new church with numbers: two hundred people and it exponentially grew bigger. Soon the sanctuary that fit one thousand was too small. Greeters at church carried palm clickers in their left hands to count how many handshakes their right hands made.

Our youth group was a microcosm of the church. Because the numbers of the youth group weren’t growing at the same rate (in geometry, the slopes of the lines were not the same), the youth pastor was fired. He was not bringing in the numbers. He could not account for the intangible, non-integers of the interior. The introvert, who was me, left. Minus one.

Later, the numbers: “I see that hand, and that hand. Yes, Lord.” Number of souls saved. Number of how many people accepted Christ in the tribes. How many children attended the school. How many of those children prayed the sinner’s prayer and walked the Romans Road.

Number of students attending the youth group where I volunteered: Sixteen. Number of volunteers: five. Number of volunteers after I became part-time youth pastor: minus five. When I suggested that my time and energy would be better spent discipling the students and spending time with them rather than planning and executing Sunday night entertainment, the number of parents who said, “What about making the youth group grow?” was too many.

I couldn’t explain that I am only one person, and sixteen students is more than Jesus’ twelve disciples, and he spent all day every day with them, and I spent two hours a week with their sixteen.

It couldn’t grow without a team.

And I was one.

I gave up. No numbers. No faith. Just innumerable questions.


When I accidentally converted the man who became my husband, I wasn’t thinking about numbers. I wasn’t thinking about getting him to sign a pledge card. The man was an existentialist in crisis, wondering if numbers — and anything else — were real. He wrote to me, a sort of confessional: “In truth, my life has been a cycle of depression and Kierkegaardian despair.”
As a philosopher, he knew that he needed to make a leap of faith somewhere — into rationalism, Aristotelianism, or something. His e-mails never used the word “trust,” but all I saw in them was an ache for something to trust.

I certainly didn’t want to give him the God who counted numbers. But God had stripped me of numbers and everything except what I didn’t know. I knew zero, and built on it through responding to Kierkegaardian despair. What did I believe? Nothing about numbers. Through our e-mails, the Existentialist met God. And believed. Through our e-mails, I re-met God.

Is that one more number, or two?

Recently, my church — one church, which is part of a whole, which only counts attendance because the Presbytery requires numbers — ran a sermon series on evangelism with multiple speakers. My husband and I co-sermonized, two people giving one message, describing how God changed us and our views on evangelism.

All of the speakers started with a disclaimer: “I used to work for an organization that counted how many souls were saved, how many, how many, how many… how many….” All of us then led into something else…something abstract.

At the end of the series, all of the speakers got together for a public conversation about our questions about evangelism. My question: “To what extent do or should we use evangelism as a barometer for ‘how good of a Christian’ we are?” Someone else asked, “Do I see people as a means of fulfilling my task as a Christian to proclaim the gospel?”

Do I see numbers as proof of faith? Numbers as a means to an end? By numbers, I found one — so will God put the Existentialist on a great big thermometer on a posterboard at the gates of heaven, another line to help reach the goal? A little arrow with the words, “Renee caught this one?” A little box of treasure that I can pick up at the gate as my reward? (“Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven…”)

To the Pharisees, the people-counters of Jesus’ day, Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Love God. Love neighbor.

There’s nothing external going on here. It’s inside. The freedom and joy my husband feels inside because the presence of God fills what used to be despair cannot be quantified. Cannot be charted. Numbered. And it certainly isn’t my number.

One covenant partner of our church wrote, “I think it’s radical and countercultural to say the goal is to simply love people and it’s okay if they never come on a Sunday.”

Love is the opposite of an integer. Messy. Unknowing and knowing. Palpable and intangible. Paradoxical. Not a measurement. When Jesus gave us love, he left the grave empty in a large, graceful zero. 

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