I have ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, two ears, one mouth and at any given time around 1x10^28 atoms (this is a number of atoms greater than all the planets in the universe, an achievement in itself if I may say so) that have assembled themselves in such a hodgepodge way as to create me. I am the product of many, most invariably, largely static numbers. Most of these will stay the same--or in the case of the atoms, roughly the same--for the better part of my life. Then, I will die and the quantifiable nature of things that make up me will gradually wither away. Within a couple hundred years my atoms will be strewn all over the world. Did you know that each of us has atoms within us that once made up historical figures that have long since died? You quite literally have a bit of David, Josephus and even Nero inside of you, though you might want to be careful which parts of you these are. You also have atoms from people who history does not recount, though I'm getting myself off-track.
We can parse our own existence by these static numbers, but it would get old pretty fast. Unless you lose an ear or a toe we don't often need to enumerate our own atomic density or praise our blessed accumulation of digits and limbs. No, we most often define ourselves by numbers that are dynamic, changing and most often growing. If the money in our savings account is declining then that is a problem. If our investments are flat, then we would be well off seeking other investments. Even the Bible seems to have a problem with financial flat-lining (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).
So we look for growth, for capital, for income, to increase our numbers. Whether it be a credit score or a 401K, a batting average, yield ratio, or fantasy football standing we are working toward better and higher numbers. The great American mantra is "We're #1."
All of this has profound implications for the work of the church. When threatened with numerical decline--from loss of membership, budgetary concerns, or worship attendance--we assume that the existence of church is in jeopardy. Healthy things don't decline; they only go up after all. So, for the better part of five decades, churches have been fighting what they perceive to be a tide of secularization and laxity within the church. If the numbers are down, something must be wrong.
I don't doubt the diagnosis; I doubt the methodology.
Organizations have to budget, they have to keep records and due their diligence in assuring their numbers are up-to-date and accurate. This is the way that the world functions. It is quite literally the law at work. The church, as an institution, needs to know where it stands by the rules and stipulations of country, state, county and city; four secular authorities that bound the church institutionally to numbers.
But the church is not only an institution. In fact, it is only incidentally an institution at all. The church is a body, in some ways like my own, filled with fingers, toes, eyes, ears, and mouths. And yet, the church is a body in ways completely unlike I am a body. Where my body is static, the church body is dynamic. Where my body decays, the church body grows. Where my body is quantifiable, the church body is unbounded. And none of this has the least this to do with numbers.
The body of Christ cannot be perverted by the numbers game. It refuses to fit the schema of any -ism that is captive to the premise that life is a more complicated version game of Life where the one with the most toys wins. No, the body of Christ consumes the numerical game. We are more than the sum of our parts, more than the atoms that define and separate us. Where our physical body meets its limitations in trying to exhort itself, the body of Christ catches our fall and brings us the kind of redemption that numbers, static or dynamic, can never achieve. The law and the gospel are this: We are not #1, but we are part of it.