When my children were born, my husband and I counted each finger and each toe on their tiny little hands and feet. When I make cupcakes for my daughter’s class, I always count to make sure there are enough for everyone. This past week, we counted pumpkins at our pumpkin patch to see how our fundraiser was going. Some nights when I want to ponder the wonders of God’s great universe, I even try to count the stars. In fact, if you stopped right now you could think of hundreds of things you count every day. We count dollars, plates on the table, chairs in a room, and the number of days left until Christmas.

In our ministries, we count students at Bible study so we can have enough food and chairs for them. We count students going on a trip to see how many adult volunteers we need as chaperones. We count students to see if we grew during the last year. We count Bibles to make sure we have enough for everyone. And our parents appreciate it when we count to make sure we leave no one behind at Six Flags.

Things and people are counted in the Scriptures: the number of disciples sent out by Jesus; in Acts when the church grows Luke sometimes tells us by how many; the Israelites were counted several times during their wanderings; the number of men on the hillside that Jesus fed were counted (we can talk in another article about why they didn’t count the women and the children); we know how many of certain animals were on the ark; and one of my personal favorites is when Nebuchanezzar counted to see how many people were in the fiery furnace, and there was an extra person he didn’t expect.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think we should compare our ministries based on numbers. Numbers aren’t the end-all way to measure our success. But numbers are important, not for bragging rights, but as tools for planning and evaluation. In fact, I often have to remind myself and my volunteers that we have to keep our counting in perspective lest we become all about the numbers and not about the true quality of what we do.

So I ask myself, why do we count? Why do we keep roll, and why does the number matter? I’ve come up with three reasons why counting is important.

Preparation

God has called us to excellence in ministry; excellence takes preparation; and one part of preparation is counting. We found this out the hard way this past summer: during our youth week activities we’d planned to do a service project each morning. Based on experience, we thought only a few students would show up and that my intern and I could easily manage them with only one van. We never asked the students to raise their hands or sign on the dotted line, and 42 showed up the first morning. We had to scramble around to find vans and drivers. Many would say “what a great problem!” and yes, it was a good problem to have, but it could’ve been avoided if we’d counted. We could’ve done more service if we’d not wasted time getting last-minute rides.

To be prepared for our students we need to know how many of them there are. We need to count adult/student ratios, transportation needs, money, and lots of other things. Do I believe God can provide for us on the spur of the moment? Yes, God did it for the multitude on the hillside and for me many times. But I think it makes sense whenever possible to be prepared.

Back to the counting of my children’s fingers and toes…my oldest daughter recently asked me why parents do that. She wanted to know if we’d have loved her less or thought badly of her if she wasn’t all there. I told her we would’ve loved her no matter what, but that as parents we wanted to see what this baby was really all about. We wanted to hold and touch each finger; we wanted to know how to take care of it and how to meet its specific needs, what handicaps it might have, what strengths it would possess. As parents, we wanted to know all we could about this baby in our care so that we could be the best parents possible.

I think as youth workers we should want to have all the knowledge we can about the body of Christ we’re serving. We should want to know how many fingers and toes there are, and how many ears, how many mouths, which parts are strong, and which need work. To serve this body as we should, we have to know it.

History

I hated studying history in school. Most of the time the numbers seemed relatively unimportant. In fact, one look at the Biblical book of Numbers, and most of us go, “Yuck. Lists…how boring.” But those numbers and those lists in that book are part of our history, and they’re important. They help us determine the genealogy of Christ our Messiah, and they give us a real picture of what it must have been like to wander in the desert with all those people. Most of the numbers in Scripture help us put handles on things about which we know little.

Think about Christ feeding the multitude. A multitude to one person may be 500 and to another 10,000. The scripture tells us it was 5,000 men plus women and children. We now have a better picture of what that might have looked like. Noah’s ark is another example of how numbers help us imagine something more vividly. The numbers let us know the size of the ark, how many animals of each kind were on board, and that only eight humans were taking care of all those animals for all those weeks. What a picture the numbers help to paint.

In the future, others will want our numbers to help paint a picture of what ministry was like in this place and time. They’ll need to know what worked for whom and for how many. In fact, I love the stories of how many souls were touched at a camp or a revival and how many students came forward for prayer.

I don’t love these numbers because they point to human success or to a friend’s bragging rights but for the “wow” that God did in those moments.

God Does It

One of my favorite parables is found in Luke 15—the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus is talking to the crowd and says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

How did the shepherd know one was missing? He counted. God counts us and, if one of us is missing, goes out to get us and brings us back. Every week at our youth meeting we take roll; we count because we want to know who’s there and who’s missing. We want to keep all of them in the fold, and we have to count to know if they’re present.

Each number represents a soul. They represent God’s sheep, God’s children; and I don’t want to lose one of them. But counting isn’t just how we know which ones are missing but also which ones are present. And I definitely want to party with the angels in Heaven each time a soul is added to God’s kingdom.

Jean Tippit is the youth minister at Spanish Fort United Methodist Church in Alabama. She's been working with students, for 20 years as a youth minister, writer, and speaker, and she is married with two girls.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Youthworker Journal. Used with permission of CCM Communications. For information on how to subscribe to Youthworker Journal, please click here.