This week’s lesson emphasises the need to report about witnessing and to keep accurate statistics. This is not the most exciting topic. I taught history and religion at Newbold College for ten years but in one course, on economic history, I regularly taught what I called “quantitative data methodologies for historians”—i.e., statistics. Every year, as the students, realised that, though they were taking a history course, they were going to have to grapple with statistics, I could see certain looks on their faces—first tedium, then often, fear and finally something like betrayal. (I never felt any regret, however, since I felt learning about statistics was good for them!) But I wonder if perhaps there has been a similar negative response to this week’s theme in the Adult Bible Study Guide.
It is notable, though, that collecting statistics, especially on mission, is something the Seventh-day Adventist Church has always done. From literally our earliest days, an official annual report on statistics, which emphasised the numbers of members, numbers of baptisms and numbers of congregations, was presented to the General Conference Sessions (which up to 1889 were held every year). This annual report was also published: initially in the Review and Herald, then from 1883 in the Yearbook, and in the 1890s in the (now defunct) General Conference Bulletin, where an annual report was published according to a standardised format, and no longer simply as the written form of a report to the GC Session. Since 1907, it has been published as a standalone volume, the Annual Statistical Report (http://www.adventistarchives.org/documents. asp?CatID=11&SortBy=2&ShowDateOrder=True).Keeping statistics, as a way of charting the success of the mission of the church, is thus a very Seventh-day Adventist activity.
Yet if we look to scripture, at first sight, the work of keeping records of membership can seem rather dubious. In I Chronicles 21 we find that when David decides to number the people, it is a truly demonic idea: verse 1, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” And in response, verse 7: This command was … evil in the sight of God; so he punished Israel.” (NIV) Now, we, as the Church, are the spiritual Israel; so what is the lesson here for us? Ought we to be keeping statistics at all?
The first point to note is that, in fact, the Israelites were regularly numbered—we see this not least in the Book of Numbers, and in the Book of Ezra, but we also find statistics of the Israelites, during David’s reign, in I Chronicles chapters 12 and 27. Tracking numbers, quantifying the size of the “church”, is very much a part of the Old Testament. Why, then, was David condemned for numbering the people?
The evil of David’s actions, described in I Chronicles, was not in the enumeration, but in the motivation. Ellen White writes about it thus in Patriarchs and Prophets, page 747:
It was pride and ambition that prompted this action of the king. The numbering of the people would show the contrast between the weakness of the kingdom when David ascended the throne and its strength and prosperity under his rule.
There is a sobering lesson here for Seventh-day Adventists.
Counting membership, counting numbers of churches, numbers of employees and institutions, the volume of tithes and offerings—all of this is absolutely essential if we are to make the best use of resources and if we are to carry out mission effectively. How can we plan for church-planting, or investing resources in mission outreach, if we don’t know how many Adventists there are, and where we live? Without comprehensive, accurate, meaningful statistics, we could very easily end up continually reaching out to areas where the church is already strong and investing very little time, effort and money into areas where we are weak. This is not theory: this has literally happened. Seventh-day Adventists are clustered heavily in certain parts of the world: in Brazil, there is one Adventist for every 152 people in the population as a whole; in the Philippines one for every 132; in Papua New Guinea one for every 27; and in Jamaica, remarkably, there is one Adventist per 11 people. Meanwhile in most European countries, there are thousands of people for every one Adventist; in countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Turkey, the ratio is well over half a million; and in Afghanistan and Iran, there millions of people to each Seventh-day Adventist. This is not grounds for complacency and easing up in those areas where we have been successful; but an important part of Seventh-day Adventist history has been our willingness, ever since the General Conference was established 149 years ago, to take resources from the whole and apply them where they are most needed. If we collect and analyse statistics effectively, they can guide us in investing resources most effectively so that the Third Angel’s message really does go to “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, NKJV).
But there are other ways in which statistics can be used, and this brings us back to David’s census, God’s reaction to it, and Ellen White’s observation as to why it angered God. Of course, denominational leaders often use statistics to help them do mission better. But sometimes, leaders can emphasise growth in statistics from a sense of pride: they may contrast, whether explicitly or implicitly, the statistics for numbers of churches, members, pastors, and tithes and offerings, with those from when they took office—the words “Is this not great Babylon that I have built” are not spoken, but the sense is plain! Alternatively, there may be the temptation, and not only among administrators, to contrast our numbers, whether in this local church, conference, this union, or this division, with those elsewhere—and to draw the conclusion that we are more faithful than Adventists in other parts of the world. Sometimes we are tempted to contrast our growth with that of other Christian churches, and again contrast the closeness of our relationship to God with theirs.
However, whenever we do any of these things, we are focusing on ourselves and on our own strength. Whereas we need to be focused on Jesus and on the strength that comes from trusting in Him. Here, I think, the story of David’s census of Israel has a potent lesson for God’s remnant church, as the spiritual Israel of the twenty-first century. All too often our statistical reports are a source of pride; all too often, we imply that numbers—and big numbers at that!—are what matter. But scripture teaches emphatically that, with God, strength does not lie in numbers.
There are two reasons to ensure that reporting and statistical data-collection are an integral part of outreach. The first, as already mentioned, is to ensure optimal use of the resources of the church as a whole for mission. But the second is to deliver better pastoral care. The Seventh-day Adventist Church does very well, at least in some parts of the world, at “recruiting”; but retention, everywhere, is a significant issue. Of every hundred people baptised as Seventh-day Adventists in the 2000s, just over 20 are no longer members. Yet if we don’t know who our members are, and how many we are, how can we take appropriate measures to nurture them in the faith? If we perhaps have too often fallen into the error of thinking there is strength in numbers, it has been just one type of number that we have been interested in: baptisms. Yet our real task is to bring souls into the heavenly kingdom—the great commission instructs us to teach people and make them disciples as well as to baptise them. When we reflect that the good shepherd put everything aside and put all His efforts into searching for just one per cent of His flock that was missing, our loss rate in the Adventist Church should be a cause of serious reflection, and even repentance.
In sum, then, this week’s Sabbath School lesson is quite right to emphasise the importance of data collection and analysis for evangelism and witness. We need to know how many sheep are in our flock, so that we can be good shepherds; and so that we can utilise resources where they are most needed. Numbers must never become an end in themselves; but having accurate statistics is a vitally important means if we are to achieve our end, of proclaiming the gospel and the third angel’s message.