One is the loneliest number, and hardest
Numbers have generally been the basis of our scoring systems. In the main human scorecards have been tabulations or calculations of some sort, the mathematics of assessment. This is because statistics and hard facts are convenient, usually available, and require little definition. Up is up, down in down, more is usually preferred, less an indication that something is wrong. When I lost fifty pounds everybody wanted to know if my cancer had recurred. That's because we typically associate health with more. And, that's the deal at church too. Perhaps it's time to change the scorecard.
The Bible writers also knew how to count. Dr. Luke annotated his Acts of the Apostles with numerical measurements in the earliest chapters. The resurrected Christ appeared to his followers for 40 days (Acts 1:3). One hundred and twenty (Acts 1:15) gathered as the 11 (Acts 1:26) Apostles selected a replacement for Judas. Three thousand were added to their fellowship on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). Their numbers swelled to 5,000 men in Acts 4:4. Then, there was a shift. Numbers slipped to the background and Luke appraised their work by the mission they had been given. The number of disciples, though unspecified, multiplied (Acts 6:1). Then, the preaching flourished (Acts 6:7) and multiplication, still not enumerated, continued. Still later, the church had peace, the people walked in the fear of the Lord, and the church grew (Acts 9:31). Further still Luke noted that the message flourished (Acts 12:24) and that the church was additionally strengthened (Acts 16:5). In a final summation Luke wrote, "So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily" (Acts 19:20). These all indicate, at least to me, a paradigm shift in their evaluative measurements. As they matured, the mission became more significant than the numbers.
Our cultural demographics invalidate numbers and statistics as our most basic
ministry scorecard. Unless you're living in la-la land the spiritual landscape of One
Nation Under God is in a period of serious re-arrangement. We can lean to the
positive side, play around with the numbers all we want to, re-define them
according to a lower bar of expectation, but this is no longer a Christian nation.
I'm aware that some will argue that it never was a Christian nation but still insist
that they're more revisionist in their history than factual. Nevertheless, across the
board, Christianity is in a low, and church attendance in trending downward.
Knowing the final outcome of all things guarantees peace and hope in the closing
assessments of history. But, drooping numbers means that we must find some
other means of assessing how we're doing.
Inquiries about baptisms or people in Sunday School or annual additions or how we're doing with the church budget are the wrong questions today. Which brings me to one, the loneliest number you'll ever do. That was the first line is the Three Dog Night cover of Harry Nillson's song One back in 1969. Of course, it was a love song and lamented the loss of someone dear. But, one is a lonely and hard number even beyond the things of the heart. In Genesis 1:18 God himself said, "it is not good that the man should be alone...". Solomon wrote, "Two is better than one..." (Ecclesiastes 4:9). What is more, throughout Scripture God assembled his people in clans and tribes and families. We join churches because life is hard alone. One is the loneliest number.
But, there's more. The true measurement of effective mission is how I, one single believer, the loneliest number, am influencing the little part of the world God has entrusted to my stewardship. Every single one of us will stand before Christ to give an account of this mission. Paul wrote it like this---
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
Romans 14:12, ESV
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may
receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 2 Corinthians 5:10, ESV
Yes, as a retired Pastor I'll give an account of my spiritual leadership (see Hebrews 13:17). But, all of the numerical measurements and standards we've used as our scorecard won't be laid on my shoulders alone. Each of us will give that account.
That's why one is the loneliest and hardest number for us mortals. We all want to lay our stuff on someone else. So, we usually ask the wrong questions and rely on the wrong things to measure mission accomplishment.
Then again, there's the one. You know, Jesus Christ, the Lord. When I stand before God he will claim me as his own. Paul wrote about his too---
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on
immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is
swallowed up in victory."
1 Corinthians 15:54, ESV
It's the loneliest and hardest number now. But, not then.