The Numbers Trap


Here’s The Numbers Trap

My mom isn’t swayed by numbers.

I am.

She faithfully teaches the Bible study at their church, preparing for hours each week. While there is often a good crowd, sometimes just a few show up. Bad weather, illness, vacations all affect attendance, but it never matters to her. She’s happy to teach whomever comes. But I find it hard to prepare a lesson all week only to find out that just a handful can make it.

Mom always reminds me that numbers mean nothing. She says, “I’m fine having a small crowd. I know that God has appointed who is going to be there. I remember teaching Sunday school classes when only one child showed up. Those were always my best lessons because I could focus on one person. Besides, some of Jesus best sermons were given to an audience of one.”

I’m ashamed at my desire for many.

I look back at the times I’ve been disappointed because only a few people have shown up to a talk. Somehow I place my value in numbers.

It’s all about pride. Thinking my effort should be maximized. Thinking greater numbers mean greater impact. Thinking it’s all about me.

As I reflect on the ways God has used me, I am reminded of an unforgettable Bible Study, when God showed me the value of “one.”

It was a cold night. The rain was coming down in sheets and I was leading a Bible study at a neighbor’s house. I didn’t want to go and I was annoyed. Partly because I was dreading getting wet in the rain. And partly because the storm would keep others from coming.

Karen opened the door and I ducked inside. Her house was warm and inviting. She poured me some coffee and we sat in the living room, making small talk as we waited for others. I kept glancing at my watch. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. Surely someone else would come.

After thirty minutes I conceded, “I think this is it. Maybe I should just go home and we can do the lesson next week.”

I was relieved that Karen quickly agreed. I wanted to go home. As I was about to stand up, I sensed God’s urging not to go. I needed to stay.

Though I felt foolish, I mumbled, “Actually, is it okay if I stay? We can talk about the lesson, or anything you want, since it’s just us.”

Karen nodded and we started talking. She had many questions. About things not in the lesson. About truth. About Jesus.

I remembered when she first came to our annual summer study. At the end of that summer, she confessed that her most significant takeaway was learning she wasn’t a Christian. She had long attended church, which she enjoyed, but she hadn’t known there was anything else. And now that she knew, she wasn’t sure she wanted what it entailed. Having real faith affected everything. It involved commitment. And trust.

But she kept coming back. For two years she came faithfully. For two years she asked questions.

She asked why God wanted animal sacrifices. Why God seemed different in the Old Testament. And why Jesus was the only way.

But tonight’s questions were different- more personal, more searching, less skeptical. After an hour, all her reservations seemed satisfied. She grew quiet, processing all we’d talked about.

I turned to her and asked haltingly, “I know you go to church, but have you ever made a personal commitment to Christ?”

She shook her head no.

I pressed further. “Would you like to? Now? With me?”

She thought for a minute and then softly said yes. Karen and I bowed in her living room as she committed her life to Jesus. I listened as she prayed, in awe of what God had done that night.

As we were finishing, we heard the door. Her husband and children came in quietly. Bible Study was supposed to be over. As they took off their coats in the hall, she whispered, “Thank you. I never would have done that if anyone else had been here. I’m glad it was just us.”

We hugged and I slipped my coat on. I stepped out into the night, into the pouring rain. I didn’t mind getting wet- it was almost as if God’s Spirit was pouring over me.

I was so grateful that the Lord encouraged me to stay. That he used me, despite my reluctance. That he let me participate in his work.

That one night was better than any Bible study I’ve ever led, better than teaching to a crowded room.

I almost missed that moment. I almost left Karen’s house, thinking that doing a Bible study for one person, when I had prepared for many, wouldn’t be worth it.

How foolish I am. I want a crowd. Why? What’s behind my desire for numbers?

Me. My pride. My craving for applause and praise.

And our culture often reinforces that unhealthy tendency. Our popularity on social media can define our value for us. Tweets and re-tweets. “Shares”, “likes” and “followers.” The more people notice us, and like what we say and do, the more worthwhile we feel.

We start to live life on the outside, for what other people think. We can lose our focus- who we are and what we’re called to. We can forget that we are Christ’s ambassadors- that a book or a blog post that touches even one person is more valuable than a best-selling book or a viral blog post that doesn’t further the God’s kingdom.

When I think that this world is about me, of course I don’t consider others. I need to maximize my happiness, feel good about myself, do what’s best for me.

But if this world is about God, I must think about what he wants me to do, where he is working, what his plans are. As Paul Tripp says, “As I think about my life and the glory of God, I need to remind myself that this life is not my party. You and I have been born into a world that was created to celebrate God.

I have to continually remind myself of that. It’s not about me. It’s about God.

And all I do is ultimately for an audience of One.

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