In modern times, the numbers philosophy was invented by men such as J. Frank Norris. Chester Tulga called it “jumboism.” There was a constant emphasis on numbers, a constant reporting of numbers, a constant boasting about numbers. The numbers were published in Norris’s paper. In September 1921 it was reported that the Sunday School had 5,263 present. In Sept. 13, 1919, it was reported that 12,000 attended First Baptist of Ft. Worth’s three services. The numbers racket increased when Norris pastored Temple Baptist in Detroit and First Baptist in Ft. Worth at the same time. He used every opportunity to brag about the big numbers. In the front of his 1946 Practical Lectures on Romans, Norris reported on 11 years of joint pastorate in terms of numbers: 18,200 additions; $1,900,000 raised; $2 million in real estate; 15 million copies of the Fundamentalist paper distributed; traveled 854,000 miles. He boasted that the two churches had “the two largest Sunday Schools in the world judged by the average attendance.” The combined membership in 1946 was reported to be 25,000. Norris boasted of pastoring the largest church in the world.
The philosophy of “jumboism” was adopted by a great many fundamental Baptists who came after Norris. It seemed to be summarized by “get as many as you can as fast as you can.” It was promoted by the Sword of the Lord in John R. Rice’s day. I saw it practiced at Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when I was a student at Tennessee Temple in the 1970s. When Lee Roberson became pastor in 1942, the membership was 1,000, the Sunday morning attendance 400, and the mid-week service attendance was about 10, so 60% of the members were nowhere to be found, totally inactive, and only 10% had enough Christianity to attend a mid-week service (James Wigton, Lee Roberson: Always about His Father’s Business, 2010, p. 22). That pattern has been typical both for Southern Baptists and for fundamental Baptists, and that pattern never changed at Highland Park even as the numbers exploded. When Dr. Roberson retired in 1982, Highland Park’s membership was reported to have been more than 60,000, but Wednesday night attendance was about 3,000. That is the best measure of active membership (we will ignore the fact that the 3,000 included by Temple students who weren’t members of Highland Park), and that would leave 57,000 unaccounted for! The huge membership numbers got Highland Park listed as the world’s largest church in some years, but since the vast majority of those “members” were not active, what did it mean? And the church no longer exists. It didn’t even survive one generation beyond Dr. Roberson’s pastorate.
By the test of numbers, the “increased with goods” church at Laodicea was preeminent over “little strength” church at Philadelphia (Re. 3:8, 17), but we know that this was not true in Christ’s eyes.
The pastors in the early churches are never introduced as “great,” and the churches are never called “great,” “biggest,” “fastest growing,” or “most exciting.” That is not New Testament language; it is the language of the world.
To seek to be the biggest and the greatest is not the lowliness of mind whereby each esteems others better than themselves (Php. 2:3). It is not being clothed with humility (1 Pe. 5:5).
A church of 50 that is striving to be a pure lump for Christ (1 Co. 5:6-8) and a true spiritual house made up of living stones (1 Pe. 2:5) is far more pleasing to God, has far more true spiritual potential, than a church of hundreds that is a mixed multitude.
“Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Co. 5:6-8).
Instead of “How many are you running in Sunday School?” or “What’s your Sunday morning attendance?” or “What was the attendance of your last special day?” or “How many kids were at your camp this year?” biblical questions would look like the following:
- Are you seeing any life-changing conversions of sinners?
- What percentage of those who have professed Christ have gone on to be baptized and to grow in Christ and serve Him?
- What percentage of your members are true disciples of Christ and real Christian pilgrims?
- What percentage are real Bible students?
- What percentage faithfully, enthusiastically attend prayer meetings?
- Do you have real prayer meetings?
- What percentage of your homes are holy and separated from the world?
- What percentage of your homes are effectually raising their children for Christ?
- What percentage of the husbands are the spiritual leaders of their homes?
- What percentage of the wives are keepers at home?
- What percentage of the youth are on fire for the Lord, meaning surrendered to Christ and separated from the world from the heart and testing their friends, music, and social media by God’s Word and being transformed by the renewing of the mind by being serious Bible students and seeking to prove the perfect will of God according to the path of Romans 12?
- What percentage of the members are actively, daily seeking to share the gospel and win people to Christ?
- Is the church holding the line against the world’s music?
- Is the church training any men for the ministry?
- Is the church spiritually stronger today than it was 10 years ago?
- How many new churches have you started?
If these are the questions that preachers are asking, they will have different goals, different plans, different programs, different emphases than most churches today. But they will be laying a foundation to avoid the great collapse that we see on every hand.
When it comes to numbers, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. When Gideon had an impressive army of 32,000, God said, Too many. When 22,000 went home, God still said, Too many. For His own purposes, He cut Gideon’s army down to 300. God doesn’t want man to get any glory for what He does (Jg. 7:2). When David counted his people to ascertain his greatness, God was far from pleased (2 Sa. 24:1-17).
One day God said to the church at Corinth, in effect, “You have too many members. You must excommunicate one because of his unrepentant sin. Then you will have a pure body and then you have my power.” See 1 Corinthians 5. To decrease in numbers by biblical discipline is the path to spiritual blessing. This is God’s way of thinking and operating.
There are no “great” men, only faithful or unfaithful ones. The same is true for churches. Jesus taught that when we have done everything that God has commanded, we should say, “We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Lu. 17:10).
The preacher who takes the Bible seriously in these days and sets out to lead a church that is striving to be a pure lump (1 Co. 5:7-8) and a spiritual house (1 Pe. 2:5), will probably lose people, at least in the short term. It’s almost guaranteed, because the foundation wasn’t properly laid. But having a truly biblical church that pleases the the Lord is worth any price. Every shepherd will give account to the Chief Shepherd. There will be no joking and boasting on that occasion, and the judgment of pastors will not be in groups so that there can be support from one’s preacher buddies. “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Ro. 14:12).
Let me hasten to say that we don’t have a goal to make churches small. The goal is to make churches pure. And a pure church has power with God. It will grow, because God is the God of fruit, but it will grow properly in God’s will and God’s way and God’s time, not by human methodology and pragmatism.
It is very sad that men have spoiled God’s plan with their worldly thinking.
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