Numbers and stories
April 18, 2021
So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. —John 21:11
Take note. The Bible says Peter and the other disciples caught 153 fish. Lots of ink has been spilled trying to make sense of this. Augustine is among those who have attempted to figure out why the text says there was 153 fish. “When to the number of ten, representing the Law, we add the Holy Spirit as represented by seven, we have seventeen. And when this number is used for the adding together of every serial number it contains, from one up to itself, the sum amounts to 153” (Augustine, quoted in ACCS via Logos). Augustine goes on for quite a while on the meaning of the number. Plenty of others have tried their hand at explaining why it says 153.
The patristics didn’t seem to think that perhaps it just meant that they literally caught 153 fish. (It’s ironic that some people these days say the Bible should be read literally, when literally no one used to read it that way. But I digress.)
I often hear people say things like, “Jesus doesn’t care how many people come to church” or “Numbers don’t matter to God.” Apparently these people haven’t read John 21, let alone the rest of the Bible. Twelve disciples. Forty years. Seventy-two missionaries. There are a lot of numbers in the Bible. In fact, a very good case can be made that God care a lot about numbers but not for their own sake.
Those 153 fish mattered, because it’s 153 more than they had before they listened to Jesus. The number of people who come to church matters, because if the number is going up, we are doing well at our mission to make disciples of all nations. A change in the average amount people give to a church matters, because financial generosity is an excellent outward indicator of inward spiritual health.
We would do well to measure more things, not less. The trick is that we have to know the story behind the numbers. If my pulse is 120, that only means something if you know whether I’ve just been running or sitting still for the last 30 minutes. Seeing how many people are involved in a church only means something if we know the story.
On Good Friday, the number of apostles was just 11, down eight percent from a recent high of 12. Sounds like decline, right? But if course, we know that Matthias would soon be called. Eventually the church would spread around the world. Decline didn’t define the church, but it was part of the story.
Our church is in decline, by almost any measure. Will that define us? Will we be willing to measure our ministry? Will we learn the story behind the numbers and seek to redefine the story? Numbers matter, especially if we see them has helping us make disciples.
Icon photography by Flickr user Ted.
I attend a very tiny Episcopal church in northern Michigan. It has been a struggle to keep going. But just prior to the pandemic, we gained 3 members and we have added 1 more last fall. We do much to assist our community, a vegetable garden for the local food pantry, rides for those lacking transportation, spiritual help through services like ‘blessings to go,’ support to a recovering alcoholic. The numbers ARE small, but the work is so valuable.