In 1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan tempted David to number the people of Israel. David commanded Joab, the captain of the host, to take a census of the people. Joab recognized what king David was thinking by taking a census. David’s numbering was for the purpose of ascertaining the military strength of his people so he could bask in the pride of being the head of such a great fighting force. The motivation for David’s asking was wrong. Joab tried to reason with David, asking, “May the LORD make His people a hundred times more than they are. But, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? Why then does my lord require this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt in Israel?” (1 Chronicles 21:3). Joab, in essence, was calling upon David to examine his heart in this matter and answer why he was delighting so much in numbering the people. But Joab’s cautions could not prevail against the king. David was set on the census being taken, so Joab gave David a sum (1 Chronicles 21:5). God was displeased with David and punished Israel; David then quickly saw his sin (1 Chronicles 21:7). Instead of being submissive to God and giving Him the glory, David’s heart had a moment of pride that caused him to number the people.
While it is not intrinsically sinful to take a census or count attendance, I wonder if the attitude David had in this instance is not sometimes among God’s people today. When we think of a healthy church what comes to our minds? We know that a healthy church has Christ as its head and foundation (Matthew 16:18-19; Ephesians 1:22-23; 1 Corinthians 3:11), is evangelistic (Matthew 28:18-20), edifies each of its members spiritually (Ephesians 4:15-16), and follows the pattern of scripture in its teaching and practice (Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). However, this image often goes out the window when we start looking at statistics. It is not wrong to note statistics and even look at the attendance trends. We have a section in the bulletin called “Gauging Our Faith” where we track such numbers. By inspiration, Luke mentioned that 120 disciples were gathered together after the Lord’s ascension (Acts 1:15), the number baptized on Pentecost day were about 3,000 (Acts 2:41), and by Acts 4:4 the number of men in the Jerusalem church was about 5,000. However, numbers are conspicuously absent in the rest of the New Testament. Other than the initial growth of the first congregation in Jerusalem, where is there any scripture that gives the numerical size of any New Testament congregation of the Lord’s church?
Much of the New Testament is addressed to congregations of the Lord’s church in order to help them maintain spiritual health, but the measure of spiritual health obviously goes beyond head-counting. We must be careful we do not get trapped into thinking that a congregation is healthy merely because it is growing numerically. “Church growth” is a term that is almost always used today to refer to numerical growth. Such thinking is over-simplistic because numerical growth can take place for the wrong reasons. In John 6, the multitudes followed Jesus because they were fed (v. 26), but when they heard hard teaching from the Lord many of them left and walked no more with Him (v. 66). Haven’t we all seen churches in the denominational world grow for the wrong reasons? While spiritual growth is perceptible to the spiritually-minded person, it does not always fit into our simple quantitative measures that we like to put down on paper. Instead of boasting in numbers, let us glory in congregations that are made of people becoming more like God, no matter how many or few their number.