Discipleship by Numbers

A pretty effective formula for small souls (like mine).
2000This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

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 ...

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