When the Numbers Stop Working

Leadership is broken because leaders are unbroken

We use numbers to hold our lives together and demonstrate our value in life.

Numbers measure time or distance or height or age or the amount of power we have or value, especially the value of our identity: our address, our net worth, our power (an office suite or a penthouse on the 50th floor is a lot more impressive than the 2nd floor), our business success (25 years on the job is more impacting than 5 months).

And now we use numbers to tell us how to be happy and (maybe) how to please God. I say maybe about pleasing God because for many of us being happy is far more important than pleasing God. In recent years a new phenomena has come into being: step sermons. Sermons that end with steps—three steps, five steps, or even ten steps to apply what we have learned from the text. I’m sure many of these steps are helpful. They are designed to make the Bible relevant (as if it’s innately irrelevant and the Holy Spirit needs us to finish what He failed to do by giving us an irrelevant revelation), but I’m struck by the fact that none of the biblical writers, thinkers like Moses or David or Isaiah or Paul, ever ended their writings with numbered steps. You have to wonder why. I know Moses gave Ten Commandments from the hand of God, but there are no steps to go with them. Instead God just gave the whole rest of the Bible to teach us what He meant by the Ten Commandments.

There comes a time in all of our lives when the numbers stop working, when simple solutions to overwhelming realities don’t make it, and we need more, much more. We need hard thinking about sin and evil and holiness and grace and mercy and how it all comes together in seasons of pain and struggle and grief. What do we do when the numbers stop working?

If you’re a leader/communicator and the first thing you think of when you approach God’s word is how you can make it relevant with numbered steps, I assure you that you are not a thinking leader/communicator because thinking about God and life and leading and truth demand a whole lot more than a few steps at the end of a sermon. And that takes time, time we seem to be unable to carve out of our lives.

The real issue with numbers when it comes to God is that you can’t paint life by the numbers. It’s just too complex and the generations before us knew that and were willing to do the hard work of immersing themselves in the theological principles of reality, something many in our time don’t seem to be willing to do.

When the numbers stop working thought begins, brokenness occurs, and leadership starts. And this is really relevant.

(From "When The Numbers Stop Working" on

Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International, Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary where he served full-time for twenty-four years (1981-2005). During this time he also was the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership for twelve years.

One Comment

  • Doulos Hal

    Give me the formula!

    As a teacher gifted member of the body of Christ (not just my opinion) I like outlines and order to the teaching (e.g., simple to complex, known to unknown, general to specific) similar to Luke (Luke 1:1-3. Acts 1:1,2).  However, I agree that in our seeking the solution to our problems we can actually be seeking a formula from God and not God Himself.  Keeping in mind that God does everything in the interest of building relationships…. then why would He give us a formula such that we think (and we will) that we no longer need Him since we have His formula for success? For example, we might think that we have the three step formula for having everything we say; therefore, I really do not need to seek an intimate relationship with God! 

    Actually, that is one of my litmus tests for teachings about God… do they make me more dependent on God or less, do they bring me into a closer relationship with Him or make me more independent and is it simply more rules to keep to get what I desire (legalism) or is it living out the gospel in good times and bad cultivating a deep dependence on God for everything (relational Christianity)?

    Nevertheless, I know God loving accepts us as we seek His formulas for at least we are seeking the only true God. For we are all born again as simple children that must grow up in Him . I am so grateful that He has grown me through that period of seeking God for the formula and not just seeking the author of life simply because He alone is worthy of all my devotion. And yet there is much room for further growth and grateful that we can help each other see our blind spots as He leads.

    Thanks for sharing!