Don’t Take A Census?

I’m a church leader yet I don’t currently know who is fully part of our church community. This may sound strange but following the pandemic, many of us who have the privilege of serving God in churches are finding ourselves in a similar position. People have come, people have gone, some have said hi, some have said goodbye. Some have moved to other churches, others have found garden centres to hang out in and some have bought camper vans and decided that regular holidays are better than regular holy days. Then there are others who are sitting discretely and silently on the other side of our livestream broadcasts. Our in-person gatherings on Sundays can be fascinating – some weeks we find ourselves adding ‘emergency chairs’ to accodate the surge of attenders only to find we have too many chairs set out the following week. It’s a tricky time to know who is with us….

When I began ministry as a youth pastor I read of a scandal in a national newspaper which added some caution to my practises. It involved another youth pastor who took his young people out on a day trip but on their return he found one of the young people weren’t actually on the bus. It must have been an awful experience for the young person, parents and youth leader. Thankfully the young person was found safe and well but the youth leaders failure to ensure the well-being of all the young people cost him his job – and with that story in the back of my mind, I always made sure I carried out a headcount. Knowing who was with us was important.

Today in churches we tend to have complex databases which lists everyone who has expressed a desire to journey with us and over the last few years I’ve wanted to go through this on numerous occassions and carry out a census – a sort of headcount to find out exactly who we have. Now we obviously try our best to edit this database as we become aware that people have moved on etc – but every time I’ve thought of carrying out a definitive census I have been reminded of the time King David aroused the anger of the Lord by conducting one.

2 Samuel 24:1-2

The Lord’s anger burned against Israel again, and he stirred up David against them to say, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab, the commander of his army, “Go through all the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba and register the troops so I can know their number.”

David knew he had done something wrong. We read in verse 10

David’s conscience troubled him after he had taken a census of the troops. He said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I’ve done. Now, Lord, because I’ve been very foolish, please take away your servant’s guilt.”

Now to gain understanding of the significance of David’s sin – here are the list of severe judgements which God gave David the option of choosing between in order to pay an appropriate price for his sin (verse 13)

“Do you want three years of famine to come on your land, to flee from your foes three months while they pursue you, or to have a plague in your land three days?

David was a king, a good king, a responsible king – and one whom God had described as being a ‘man after His own heart’, despite his various failures and indescretions. He conducted a headcount – but rather than being applauded for this he was chastised. It seems he wasn’t being responsible but actually sinful – and this sin resulted in David choosing a three day plague which killed 70,000 men. What is going on here?

Who tempted King David?

Firstly with a risk of us getting sidetracked, you may have noticed that verse 1 indicates that the Lord stirred David to do this sinful thing and you are probably wondering how God can incite someone to sin and then punish them for doing so. If we contrast this with another telling of this story in 1 Chronicles 21 we read that it was ‘Satan who stood against Israel and incited David to number the people’. So was it God or Satan who incited David? A verse that helps us answer this question is found in the book of James.

James 1:13

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God,” since God is not tempted by evil, and he himself doesn’t tempt anyone.

God doesn’t tempt us and he didn’t tempt David – but He did allow Satan to tempt David and the king walked right into Satan’s trap.

Why was David’s census so wrong?

This was clearly not a small matter – it cost 70,000 lives. It was a significant sin and David knew soon after committing it that he had done something terrible. But wasn’t a census a sensible and responsible thing to do? How did Davids action constitute sin?

There were two sins in David’s census

  1. David wanted to know how strong his nation was. He would use this headcount to measure himself against future challenges of his strength. Before facing an enemy he would compare his headcount against those of his enemy. If he had more on his side then he would enter into battle confident of victory. If he had less then he may be tempted to defer the battle.

  2. A census was only legitimate if it was instructed by the owner. A neighbouring farmer couldn’t carry out a census of animals on an adjoining farm. A shopkeeper couldn’t carry out a census or stocktake of another shopkeepers store. A census could only be instructed by the owner. The people of Israel didn’t belong to David. They were Gods people. Jeremiah 30:22 says ‘So you will be my people, and I will be your God’. David had counted people that weren’t his – only God had a right to instruct a census be taken of His people.

So when I reflect on David’s sin and consider taking a census of our church community I am reminded of the following:

  1. My strength doesn’t come from numbers – it comes from the Lord. There is a temptation for us to place our eyes on our resources, our successes, our growing congregations and decide whether we are strong enough for adventures that come before us – but our strength doesn’t come from these things. As Psalm 20:7 says ‘Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God’ (see previous blog for more thoughts on this) – we will be much stronger if we place our confidence in God and not in our resources. Therefore it is important to check our motives when desiring to know who is with us – we may be better off spending time in prayer than in gathering census information. We are called to ‘Trust in the Lord with ALL our hearts’ and anything that acts as an addition to this God focused trust is a distraction. Jesus told his disciples to ‘count the cost’ not their resources. When it came to resources he encouraged his followers to carry nothing for the journey as they were to trust in his provision. We have too many business models inspiring our approach to following Jesus today and have become more conversant with spreadsheets than we are with the Spirit. May Faith-filled leaders and churches arise.

  2. We don’t own the church. It is Jesus church and we are called to serve Him in the leading of it. Let’s not elevate ourselves to claim any glory for the ‘fruitfulness’ of the church or ministry we serve in. I know we have responsibilities in our role as leaders and will give an account to God one day – but the main thing we will give an account for is our servant hearted obedience. So avoid ego induced censuses – It isn’t our church so we cannot act like it is. We should only take a census if we sense the Lord asking us to serve Him in doing so. In the parable of the good shepherd, the shepherd is aware that one of his hundred sheep is missing – but He is the shepherd in this story – we are His undertsudies. Churches have acted like they have owned their congregations for too long and it has resulted in us building towards larger Sunday gatherings rather than a more effective commissioning of the saints. Our loudest message should be ‘go into all the world’ but it’s more likely to be ‘come to our high quality gatherings’. If we are going to count something then count the number of kingdom adventures there are among the church community and use that information to prayerfully mourn, recalibrate and humbly invite the wisdom of the Lord.

There is so much God is up to in these days but if we adopt David’s sin by misplacing our trust or confusing stewardship for ownership, then we are unlikely to be part of it. It is not so much about counting but why we are counting. So let’s rise as Faith-filled, God honouring, Kingdom focused servants – trusting in God’s strength not ours, faithfully stewarding all He has entrusted to us and giving our lives to wholeheartedly obeying our Lord.

One response to “Don’t Take A Census?”

  1. I was going through this very book of 1 chronicles 21 and notice what happen , this is such a confirmation on Gods word, our trust and confidence should be in God not how much persons we have praise be to the Almighty God


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