Success and the Danger of Numbers

Success and the Danger of Numbers

How do you define success? Most Americans tend to "crunch the numbers" to determine if they've been successful. But, are numbers really the best (or most accurate) way to gauge success?

Years ago, I had the privilege of listening to Elizabeth Elliot speak at a conference. Her books have had a tremendous impact upon my life. Elizabeth had been a missionary (with her husband, Jim) in the jungles of Ecuador, seeking to reach an unreached people group named the Aucas.

In the attempt, however, Jim and four fellow missionaries were killed by the Aucas. However, Elizabeth and other widows remained and brought the gospel to this tribe. Many came to believe in Jesus.

Here's a 5-minute video that tells the story: (skip if you're rushed)

During her conference talk, Elizabeth told the story of a man who'd asked her, "Was your husband Jim a success? After all, he didn't actually reach the Aucas for Christ, since he died beforehand."

A rather rude, vulgar question. But Elizabeth's searing response has stayed with me for 40 years. She replied,

"Of course Jim was a success – he obeyed."

For Jim and Elizabeth, the definition of Success was simple: obedience, not outcomes.

Christian Organizations

There are many Christian organizations today that are seeking to help fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). I applaud their efforts. But sometimes in the pursuit of the goal, they end up defining success by sheer numbers – a quintessential American thing to do. Lost in the shuffle are the obedient steps of God's faith-filled people, which never show up in raw numbers.

Having served in ministry nearly 40 years, I recall various attempts to quantify our success. The results often left me empty. I heard the phrase, "we count people, because people count." That's a snappy line, and I love snappy lines! But, it never really worked for me.

I've now come to think that a numeric approach to gauging success (in ministry) accidentally fosters an extrinsic motivation (share the gospel because your job is numbers) rather than an intrinsic motivation (share the gospel because people die without Jesus). The numeric approach seems mostly stick, with little carrot. Worst of all, it simply isn't a biblical motivation to do ministry.

How Many Heard?

I once listened to a speaker opine on why "recording numbers" was such a good idea. I wasn't convinced, and I soon conjectured a less charitable motive: impressing the donor base.

The Problem with Numbers

The speaker justified the collection of evangelistic numbers by citing the Book of Acts, noting these verses:

"In those days, Peter stood up among the believers, a group numbering about a hundred and twenty..." Acts 1:15
"Those who accepted the message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day." Acts 2:41
"But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand." Acts 4:4

120. 3,000. 5,000. Those indeed are numbers, so perhaps I was wrong? I decided to dig deeper into Acts.

The Book of Acts: Progress Reports

In Acts, I discovered 21 distinct progress reports, citing the Gospel's impact as it moved out to the world. Here they are:

  1. "In those days, Peter stood up among the believers, a group numbering about a 120..." 1:15
  2. "Those who accepted the message were baptized, and about 3,000 were added to their number that day." 2:41
  3. "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." 2:47
  4. "But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about 5,000." 4:4
  5. "The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the
    people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number." 5:12-14
  6. "Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never
    stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah."
  7. "In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food." 6:1
  8. "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." 6:7
  9. "Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of
    peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers." 9:31
  10. "The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord." 11:21
  11. "But the word of God continued to spread and flourish." 12:24
  12. "On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord." 13:44
  13. "When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the
    Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." 13:48
  14. "At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish
    synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed." 14:1
  15. "They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch..." 14:21
  16. "So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers." 16:5
  17. "Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women." 17:4
  18. "Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized." 18:8
  19. "...discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord." 19:9-10
  20. "A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power." 19:19-20
  21. "When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law." 21:20
Numbers and such.

Key Observations

  1. Of the 21 progress reports, only 3 give a numeric headcount: 120 in Acts 1:15; 3,000 in Acts 2:41; 5,000 in Acts 4:4.
  2. In these three cases, the numbers are approximations (note: about 120, about 3,000, about 5,000). Luke (human author) makes no attempt to discover the exact numbers.
  3. The remaining 18 progress reports avoid quantitative numbers entirely, leaning on approximations and qualitative descriptions. Examples:  
"more and more believed"
"the number of disciples increased rapidly"
"a large number of priests became obedient to the faith"
"the Word of God spread and flourished"
"almost the whole city gathered"
"all who were appointed for eternal life believed"
"[the Church] grew daily in numbers"
"quite a few prominent women [believed]"
"the Word of the Lord spread widely"
"thousands of Jews have believed"
Vintage 80s retro calculating machine computer main-powered calculator
Should We Really Add These Up?


  1. While the Gospel message went viral in the first century, bean-counting conversions didn't concern the early church. What mattered was obedience to Jesus' command to go.
  2. While recording these progress reports, Luke seems most interested in disciples (not merely conversions) who now identify with the community of Jesus. (Note the emphasis on "disciples" 6:1; 6: 7; 14:21, and "churches" 9:31; 16:5). Luke isn't counting how many people checked a box to receive Christ – he's painting a picture of the growing communities of disciples.
  3. Obviously, the early church never used numbers for fundraising purposes. This is an American invention. Last time I checked, God doesn't primarily need more money to fulfill his Great Commission.
  4. An unintended consequence of a numeric emphasis is the subtle temptation to overworked campus ministers to exaggerate their numbers (to look good to superiors). A friend of mine coined this phenomenon, "evang-elastic numbers." Sadly, I've seen leaders tally specious numbers for donor correspondence.
  5. Once I heard a speaker justify number-counting, saying: "Hey, God named an entire book of the Bible, Numbers!" (loose quotation). My response:
  • First, no He did not. The Hebrew name for the fourth book of the Bible isn't Numbers. It is, In The Wilderness. It records the 40-year period of wandering in the wilderness, from Mt. Sinai (final word in Leviticus) to Jericho (final word in Numbers) just outside the Promised Land.  The Book of Numbers is an unfortunate title taken from the Septuagint (Greek translation of OT), inspired by the two censuses recorded in the book (Ch 1-4 & 26).
  • Second, only 5 of 36 chapters focus on numbers (Ch 1-4, 26), and they’re never about conversions. Rather, they're population census numbers.

David's Sin of Number-Counting

Finally, one of King David's great sins was numbering his fighting men (1 Chronicles 21). After ordering the census, even David's unscrupulous general (Joab) called the order "repulsive" (1 Chr. 21:6-7). Afterward, David admitted he'd "sinned greatly" and done "a very foolish thing" (1 Chr. 21:8).

What was so bad about cataloguing the number of his fighting men? Pride. David's trust had crossed the line: from God to his army. Were David's victories due to his army ... or God? God shares His glory with no man (Is. 41:8).

So why do many Christian organizations count numbers? Is it possible we're more concerned with observable outcomes than invisible obedience? Should we primarily focus on the external (numbers) when God looks at the heart? If so, may the Lord gut all our numbers, until we return to the only true metric of success in His eyes: Obedience.

Elizabeth Elliot was correct. "Of course Jim was a success – He obeyed." May we be found marching in his parade.