Metrics really matter in our current moment in Western culture. By them we can measure the popularity of a movement, the legitimacy of a cause, the trajectory of social change, and the influence of an individual. Social media sites emblazon a person’s influence on the sidebar of each user, flagging up the weight an individual carries, and the currency of their name and/or brand. We can even work a ratio between ‘followers’ and ‘following’ to ascertain just how much power a person wields in relation to their dependence on, or esteem for, others. Corporate policies and marketing are counting clicks, and monitoring the zeitgeist, ready to brand and rebrand, to champion the cause that carries the popular vote, or carries emotional freight. We are no longer merely numbers in the system, but have coded our preferences and priorities, our allegiances and affections into a system which is constantly reading us, individually and collectively.
In such a world, the singular can seem worthless, the individual an impotent unit in a larger economy. This mindset pervades a world where the only singularities which count are celebrity figures, modern gods who can carelessly govern the weather systems in the hearts and minds of millions, with no concern for their individual welfare. Sadly the church has not been immune from this kind of thinking. Gather a group of pastors together at a fraternal or conference, and numbers will inevitably form part of the conversation in terms of the health of the congregation they serve in. Christians are encouraged to read where the numbers lie, picking bestselling texts which either make new waves, or ride the most prominent ones. Conferences can now count delegates in their thousands and tens of thousands in physical attendance, not to mention the millions who can connect via live-streaming. The weight of numbers presses hard against the momentum of the evangelical movement, and we have readily bought into the idea of influencers which has been so disruptive in our wider culture.
One of the tragic consequences of this kind of mathematics is the disposability of the single soul. Twitter-storms and social media spats pay little mind to the collateral damage of individual Christians who watch in horror, or are tempted to walk away when confronted by uncaring words, inaccurate caricatures, and utter disregard for people as people who matter all by themselves. The increasing secular tribalism in politics feeds this further – people can be lampooned, epithets can be forged, aspersions can be cast, men and women can be ‘owned’, and ‘schooled’, and ‘destroyed’ and a watching world applauds.
Into this eco-system the words of God about the individual sound distinctive to the point of absurdity. In Matthew 18, the Saviour devotes extended time to the theme of the ‘little ones’ who have come to trust in him. We have lost some of the force of what he teaches in this passage because we have come to assign these words to infants – imagining that Christ’s words are most aptly applied to some of the abuse scandals that have floated to the surface of our news in recent years. Jesus, however, is not speaking here about literal children, but the little children in the faith who follow him – the vulnerable and seemingly insignificant band of believers who find their identity and their eternity in him; this exposed and fragile crew of exposed citizens, who are mere expendables to the power and might of the bigger culture.
Jesus is adamant that even one of these souls is singularly precious to God, that Christians should sooner sever their limbs, and surrender their sight, than dare to damage, destroy, or despise them. This is exemplified by the angelic watchfulness invested in the welfare of the individual Christian (Matthew 18:10), and the divine diligence to seek out and restore the soul that wanders from the well-fed flock (Matthew 18:12-14). Not one, not a single soul, is God willing to lose.
This should stop us in our tracks in terms of the local church. If we have built a model for growth which demeans the need for believers to be treated as valued souls, then we are working against the grain of how God builds his kingdom. If we easily dispose of Christians whom we find angular or awkward, or who differ from us to lesser and greater degrees we are out of step with how God measures the life of a fellowship. If we have become obsessed with exponential growth at the cost of individual growth and discipleship then we are abdicating the very care that the living God has exercised on our behalf and on the behalf of others.
This means that I will not wish to offend you, my brother or sister, not merely because it’s not a ‘nice’ thing to do, but because I am radically undervaluing the soul that the Saviour suffered to save. It means that I will be careful as a pastor not to so emphasise the corporate welfare of the church that I can casually let believers drift from the care and counsel of the local church. God does not believe in ‘blessed subtractions’, and it is to our shame if we can jokingly or sincerely say that we do. The wandering of a single soul should charge our hearts with sadness, it should make us willing to abandon the upward curve on our growth graphs to seek a single person out in terms of restoration and reintegration among God’s people. That is what our God himself does, and if his motto is ‘no man (or woman) left behind’ then it ought to be ours also.
It will also mean I weigh my words, and audit my actions, in terms of the damage I could do to others. When I interact with a fellow believer online, when I profoundly disagree in person with another Christian, when I am irked and rattled, even when I feel offended or perplexed with other personalities, I need to constantly keep in mind the value that the Lord places on this person, as one whom he has redeemed for his own glory.
Let the world have its ticker tape parades, its popularity contests, its straw poll politics and morals, it megastar and minor-soul ethic, and lets follow the heart of our God after the individual believer, and the path of our Saviour who drank the bitter cup that he might sup with individual believers gathered together in his kingdom.