Fifty-one years ago, in 1949, Dan Robbins invented the paint-by-numbers system, which eventually enjoyed $80 million in sales in its peak year of 1954.

Robbins admitted he stole the idea from a reputable source.

"I had heard that da Vinci used diagrams and numbered them when he was instructing his students in painting," Robbins said in an interview." I thought, why not do numbered patterns for paintings that people can finish?"

In an interesting coincidence, 1949 was also the year that saw the birth of modern evangelicalism. Thanks in part to extensive coverage by the Los Angeles Times, Billy Graham exploded on the national scene.

In contrast to the paint-by-number phenomenon, which lasted only a decade, evangelicalism has continued to boom, in part because it fostered a similar program, something I like to call "discipleship by numbers."

The paint-by-numbers idea was simple: a subject (a landscape, kitten, flowers) is outlined, and each area of the outline is given a number, which corresponds with a color. The painter merely dips the brush into the appropriate color, let's say #7, and fills in every area marked #7. Before you know it, a full picture emerges.

Discipleship by numbers works similarly. You try to figure out what numbers go with which corresponding activity and then shoot for that number.

Even in the age of grace—when giving "generously,""out of our abundance, quot;"with the measure that we've been given" is the new "law"M

--it is still a lot easier simply to divide income by ten and give that amount. And this is one reason the tithe remains such an important feature for evangelicals.

Liberal and mainline preachers, by contrast, tell us to "give generously," and, at least in my experience, are hesitant to even suggest a percentage lest they be accused of legalism.

Evangelical preachers start with "give generously," but usually don't feel they've done their job until they've offered a specific guideline: 10 percent. They're less concerned about legalism than cheating God out of his due. As a result, as an evangelical, I know each year exactly how far I've exceeded or fallen short in giving.

Just because there is no biblical guideline for praying--"pray without ceasing" is hardly a fair guideline—doesn't mean we haven't tried to create one. In mainline circles, I've been encouraged to pray " regularly," maybe even daily—though the devotionals one finds at the back of mainline church buildings usually require about two minutes a day. In some church circles, prayer is so vaguely defined that you'd think to breathe is to pray.

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Leonardo da Vinci may get dubious credit for paint-by-numbers, but the pedigree of discipleship-by-numbers is even more prestigious: it begins with the Bible.

The Bible is a book of numbers—it even has a book so called—and seems to revel in calculating discipleship, beginning in Exodus.

"Six days a week are set apart for your daily duties and regular work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God" (20:8).

None of this going-with-the-flow stuff; no working-or-praying-as-the-Spirit-moves theology. Work six days; rest one day.

The same is true of giving. Tithing is not just a guideline. God gets riled when we don't meet the numbers:

"You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse."

That's the thing about discipleship by numbers: it's pretty clear when we're cheating God, or ourselves. Lest we imagine this as merely an Old Testament dispensation, we only have to look at that notorious numbers-cruncher, Jesus.

In the parable of the soils, we're told that good news sown in the right spiritual ground will produce spiritual fruit

"thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted" (Mark 4:20).

In the parable of the talents, we're told that faithful disciples will double their spiritual investment (Matthew 25:14–30).

In the parable of the lost sheep, we're taught that a 1 percent attrition among believers is too much, and in a conversation with Peter, we're told that forgiveness should be extended 490 times. And so on.


It's easy to poke fun at our preoccupation with numbers, but there are good reasons to take seriously discipleship by numbers.

One obvious example: numbers hold us accountable. Accountability is one of the sacred words of our world (though I prefer writer Anne Lamott's phrase:

"benevolent pressure"),

and for good reason.

Vows to put a check on gluttony are all well and good. But until I enter in some numbers, I don't get anywhere: I will eat only 2,000 calories a day; I will lose 10 pounds by January 31. Saying I'm going to be a better father amounts to only so much hot air until I set it down on paper that once a week, for one hour at a time, I'll do something with my daughter.

As a result, I know when I've been a "faithful disciple" and when I haven't: I just look to see if I've made my numbers.

Numbers also inspire. I've always been fascinated by math evangelism: If I win just one person a year to Christ, and so do for each of ten years, and each of those converts another person for each of ten years, well, we're looking at over 3 million new Christians at the end of a decade. Though unrealistic, the logic is inexorable, and in some small way it encourages me to share my faith.

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It doesn't take a rocket scientist (most of whom are pretty good at math) to see that numbers can also inspire small-minded discipleship. The Door is famous for its

"Truth Is Stranger than Fiction"

column that features, among other things, the many wacky gimmicks promoted by Christians to get the numbers up at church or revivals. In one, an evangelist went around slashing a cucumber held in the mouth of his son.

In another, women from an Indiana church baked a cookie four feet in diameter, using 30 pounds of sugar, 11 boxes of oatmeal, 1.5 pounds of cocoa, and 11 pounds of butter—as part of the "World's Largest Cookie" attendance drive.

Of course, a church's growth has no intrinsic relationship to its spiritual growth. Many big churches are filled with tiny souls, and many tiny churches are filled with big souls.

Even more insidious is the idea that everything in the spiritual life can be quantitatively measured.

I remember studying a scale in seminary in which each person's spiritual progress was given a numeric value—negative numbers for stages before conversion, positive numbers for stages after conversion. I was pretty excited about this at first, especially when I could catalog my friends as simple integers: Harry was a 2, John a –3, and Mary a rockin' 6.

It didn't take long, however, to see that this was just plain silliness and simply does not correspond to the rich dynamics of a person's spiritual journey.

Nor can I take easy comfort in my own discipleship math. Even if one year I tithe, it may have no bearing on the greed that still eats at my heart.

Another year I may be able to afford only 5 percent, but that may be the year that I'm so dependent on God for my needs that greed is not even an issue.

I may pray two hours a day, but ultimately be only praying to my own spiritual ego. I may spend a quality hour a week with my daughter but be so distracted that she actually comes to resent me. In sum, discipleship by numbers does not always add up.


It would be easy to end this little essay mocking all the little souls who resort to such silliness.

The problem is that there are a lot of us little souls. We know there is no intrinsic connection between discipleship by numbers and genuine spiritual growth, but neither is there a necessary disconnect. The fact is that a little soul like mine needs these simple numeric devices.

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Great writers offer an analogy: At a recent conference, John Up dike was asked about his writing routine. Updike said that early in his career, he decided that a writer is someone who produces books, and that he wanted to produce two books a year.

Updike knew more or less how long he wanted his books to be, and he could easily calculate how many words a day he would have to produce to achieve his goal. He set the number—1,000 words a day—and simply got into the habit of making his numbers every day. This is a story repeated endlessly in the tales of great writers. There is hardly a one who doesn't set an arbitrary number of words as a daily goal.

Making the numbers does not make them great writers, but they know that they are "little souls" who will never become great writers unless they submit themselves to a number.

Discipleship by numbers isn't the whole counsel of God, but without it, I think most of us would be much smaller Christians than we are.

Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today articles on discipleship include:

Make Disciples, Not Converts (Oct. 25, 1999)

The New Cost of Discipleship (Sept. 6, 1999)

The Cost of Discipleship? (Sept. 1, 1997)

The Challenge of the Lenten Season (Mar. 14, 1960, reposted Mar. 8, 2000)

In our sister publication, Leadership journal, Dallas Willard argues that discipleship is not as hard as we make it. Another article in Leadership shows how broken people can become whole disciples.

Computing Today (now Christianity Online magazine) looks at digital discipleship.

Regent University Professor Jon Ruthven argues that a central theme in the New Testament is the importance of living like Jesus.

Discipleship resources for churches and small groups are available from Church

North Park Seminary's Discipleship Encounters, a comprehensive discipleship/evangelism resource for individuals, is available free on the Web in a variety of languages.

The Christianity Online Bookstore stocks a variety of books about discipleship, including: The Cost of Discipleship, The Spirit of the Disciplines, and The Training of the Twelve.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.