A Lust for Numbers


More, more, more. Bigger, better, best. I have blogged before about our national obsession in the United States with being the greatest, the biggest, the best of all that has ever been in history. (See Why does it matter if America is or isn’t the greatest country on earth?) Perhaps a desire to improve yourself or your nation is not that bad, but when a competitive edge comes in combined with a lack of reflection on motives, it can quickly turn to an unhealthy trend.

The lust for more, often reflected in a lust for numbers, can quickly take us from a place of peace and contentment to where we are never satisfied. And when the lust for numbers finds a foothold in the Church, or in followers of Jesus, there is something very wrong. Last week one of my models passed away at the age of 85. Eugene Peterson was a pastor for over 25 years before transitioning to teaching in a seminary in Canada. An ardent critic of mega-churches, he wrote that he had never pastored a church where he couldn’t learn all the names of the people there. He resisted throughout his life the lure of wanting greater numbers.

But remember that it is not the numbers themselves that are the problem. Perhaps you are called to lead a very large company, or church, or ministry. The problem is what it can do to you internally to begin to fall into the deception that greater numbers means greater success. And greater success means needing to compete more with the church or ministry down the road. To be the best church in your town, or nation! To be the greatest nation on earth, no matter what rot begins to grow inside.

The question is why? Why do you want to be the best? Why do you need to be biggest? Why do you need to compete at all? It is in asking questions like these, whether we do it individually, as a church, as a company, as a ministry or mission, and asking fearlessly, that we will find life and peace. Self-reflection as a leader is perhaps the most important quality in leadership, in my opinion. As important as self-control is for a leader, without self-reflection even upon that self-control, there can be deeper motivations undiscovered.

A few years ago I heard a Christian leader of a ministry with global reach talking about the steps that had led to their downfall and his going to prison for fraud. He even wrote a book after his release called I was wrong, referring to his living a lavish lifestyle and other areas of failure. But as he shared, he mentioned how one of the ways they had gotten in trouble was in feeling like they had to alway be expanding their global television reach. It had become such a burden in raising money, living with the fame though his marriage was breaking. Somehow he had felt that God was leading him to this expanding ministry, and this man said it was for “God’s glory in the earth.”

But as I listened to him and read his book, I found myself asking the question: Was the TV ministry for God’s greater glory, or for this man and his wife’s greater glory? Were they really called to expand their ministry globally, especially when their marriage was not strong enough to withstand the pressures that would come? And perhaps the global reach was right, but was it really the right time?

But sadly, these kinds of questions never seem to have been asked. At least he doesn’t mention them.

Are we asking questions like these? Why do we want the USA to be the greatest nation on earth? Why do we want to have our church be the biggest in town? Why do we want personally to be thought of as the best in our circle of friends? Why does it matter how many countries we’ve been to?

There is an ancient Christian practice/discipline called the Examen. It can be practiced daily, weekly, whenever. I have found it to be important in my life, to ask key questions like 1) what brought me life today? 2) what brought me a lack of peace or contentment today? 3) what areas of resistance today were in my life to God’s sensed purposes? 4) where today did I participate in those purposes, however small or big?

You can ask your own questions of your life, or ministry, or company, or church, or nation. But I implore you, do ask the questions.

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