By Pastor Glenn Pease
The world is full of interesting stories about numbers. For example, why does the President get a 21 gun salute. It all began in 1776 when Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, noticed that if you add up the numbers in 1776 they come to 21. He said to himself, why not a 21 gun salute to our President? He submitted his idea to congress and they liked it. It has been in use ever since.
David Barrett set out back in the 60's to find the answer to a question. How many different Christian denominations are in the world? He estimated that the number would be around 5000. By the time he traveled to almost every country on earth he came up with a number exceeding 20,800. In 1982 his massive book, World Christian Encyclopedia was published, and for 95 dollars you can find numbers for every kind of Christian in every land on the planet. His numbers show that a decade ago there were 780 million dedicated Christians in the world, or about 18% of the world's population.
We have come along way from the day when Jesus said to His followers here in Luke 12:32, "Do not be afraid little flock." The flock has grown to the point where Jesus the great Shepherd needs hundreds of thousands of under shepherds to keep the flock from straying. When Jesus spoke these words His flock was indeed little. If the second coming would have taken place shortly after the resurrection, and if Jesus would have taken His bride to heaven with Him in the ascension, it would have been just a little flock. But Jesus died for the sin of the whole world, and His plan involves big numbers. Peter says that the second coming is delayed because Jesus wants everyone to come to repentance. He is not anxious to come and end the chance of millions more coming into the kingdom. His goal will not be achieved until there are people out of every tribe, tongue and nation who are a part of His flock.
So what we have in the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is a great number paradox. The paradox is this: God loves and chooses the small rather than the big, and yet His goal is to reach large numbers. So which is the best-the big or the small? The answer is both. Of course it is impossible for two opposites to be true, but God specializes in the impossible, and the biblical facts make it clear that God's plans are always big, but His means for getting His big plans achieved are always small. The David and Goliath battle is in God's mind all the time. He loves to achieve big victories through small resources.
A major theme of the Old Testament is God getting His will done through the small group. Every time God's people got to be a large flock they forsook Him and went after other gods. He had to judge His people and reduce the flock to a faithful remnant, and then start over with that small group. The flood story is repeated over and over with variations. The masses are eliminated and God starts over with the few. The tree is pruned way back, and with a few small branches God begins again. It never bothered God to work with the small group. It was His delight in fact, for the small group was always more faithful in responding to His will.
I can remember being captain of the team and getting to choose the people who would play. I always went for the biggest guys first and the little guys last. This is called the desire to win, and it is a part of my cultural conditioning. But God is apparently un-American, for He is not so conditioned. In fact, He leans the other way and deliberately chooses the little, the weak, and the ones least likely to win. God says in Deut. 7:7, "The Lord did not set His affections on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples." Now be honest, what would you think of a captain of a team who got first choice and he by passes Mr. America and chooses Casper Milktoast?
Someone trying to psychoanalyze God might conclude that he has a shrimp fixation and a fear of success, for he seems to specialize in sure losers. After all the folly of the Old Testament you would think He would have gotten over that fixation on the inferior, but not so. We come to the New Testament and its rerun time again. Paul writes in I Cor. 1:26-28, "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are."
God is certainly in a rut. He enjoys nothing better than sponsoring an underdog. God could have chosen the Babylonians to be His people. He could have chosen the Persians, or the Greeks, or even the Romans. God had His choice and He could have chosen any of the great people who built world wide empires. But instead, He chooses none of these Great Danes, German Shepherds, or Alaskan Huskies, but rather, a mere Poodle to carry out His plan in history. If God only did this occasionally, you could say He was just experimenting, but God does this habitually. There is no other area of life where God's ways are not man's ways more conspicuously. Everybody except God knows this is not a good strategy. Nobody could convince God otherwise, even though they tried.
When God came to Gideon and told him to go and save the people of Israel out of the hand of the Midianites, Gideon thought it was important to point out a flaw in this plan. He says in Judges 6:15, "But Lord, how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." With any other General planning a war this would have created a crisis and an emergency meeting of the Chiefs of Staff to figure out what confounded computer error advised putting this pip-squeak in charge. But with God it was no problem at all, but just a conformation that He had the man who met His qualifications, for he was the least likely to succeed. Had Gideon said that he was next to the weakest God may have reconsidered replacing him with someone who was in last place, but since he was the weakest, he was God's man.
To get a job with God your resume needs to convince Him that you are the most unqualified of all the applicants, and the least likely to do the job well. Samuel knew God's strange ways, and that is why he knew he had found the right man to be the first king of Israel when he heard Samuel respond in I Sam. 9:21, "But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin?" Men are always using their insignificance for an excuse not realizing that from God's point of view that is their chief qualification. Everybody who is nobody can be somebody with God. In fact, Jesus made it a point to identify with nobodies. He said in Matt. 25:40, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." And in verse 45 he said, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."
This preference for the little and the least was inherited by Jesus. Like Father-like Son, and so Jesus made it clear that the value system of the New Testament is not different from that which we see all through the Old Testament. The small is significant with God. You can't spell it out any plainer than Jesus does in Luke 9:48. "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all-he is the greatest."
Therefore, it ought not to be surprising to hear Paul, the man most considered the greatest of the Apostles, saying what he does in I Cor. 15:9, "For I am the least of the Apostles and do not even deserve to be called an Apostle..." By now, of course, we know that is what made him qualify for the job in God's eyes. Had he deserved it he would have been passed over. It was his being the least that made him so great.
Now the reason I have pursued this theme through the Old and New Testament is because it is a theme so contrary to our culture and the value system that guides us in our thinking, and also plays a major role in our sense of worth and self esteem. To get a better picture of the contrast between the biblical and our cultural value system let me share with you why the bigger is better theme came to dominate the American way of life.
As a nation we have moved from a rural to an urban culture. As people left the farms and gathered in the large cities everything went from the small to the bigger. The small school for the few went to the large school for the whole community. The banks got bigger; the stores got bigger; and the gas stations got bigger. You name it, and it got bigger, and so did the churches in the big cities. So the church just went along with the changes in the culture. As the malls across America have developed, and bigger and bigger centers for shopping were the in thing, so church growth became the in thing. The idea of masses of people all going to one spectacular church where every need could be met fit right in with the American way of doing things. Nobody asked if this was the biblical ideal, for all that mattered was that it was the American way, and it was working. People flocked to the malls and to the mega-churches. Big was king.
Before this the small was in and all through history most stores, most schools, and most churches were small. David Ray in his book Small Churches Are The Right Size writes, "History is on the side of a small church. Bigness is the new kid on the block. Historically, Protestant denominations in the United States have been comparatively small. At the time of the Civil War, the size of the average Protestant church was less than 100 members. A few large churches were in the center of the city, or at the center of the ethnic community. By the turn of the century, the average congregation still had less than 150 members."
His point is, the modern trend toward the big church cannot change the historical reality that most churches will always be small. The big is in and that is a fact, but there is no escaping the fact that there is a value in the small church that cannot be replaced. The big church movement has not made Christianity a stronger force in our land. It anything, it has weakened it, for the more people you have in one church the more of them are inactive and uninvolved. The more big churches we get the higher percentage we have of non-involved Christians. It is a paradox, but as the church grows the Christian impact often weakens because the majority are forced by the very nature of things to be spectators. The small church demands a higher level of commitment, for everyone is aware of your presence and your participation. In a large church you can be gone and never missed.
The need for bigger churches was also caused by an economic factor. As denominations became large corporate structures with vast headquarters and huge payrolls, the expenses became such that there was a need for larger churches to pay for it. Small churches do not give as much as large churches, and so there was a need to push for big churches to pay the bills. Again, nobody asked if this was good for the people, and if Christians were made stronger by this. Money talks, and money said bigger is better. Don't start 10 churches of 100 each, for they need most of their money to minister to the 100. Start one church of a 1000, and then there will be a pile of money left over to give to headquarters. One big church will give more than many little churches, and so go for the big.
Preachers knew also that there is a larger salary in a 500 member church than in a 100 member church, and so money spoke to them too and said, go for the big. Big means more money for everybody. It is the American way. You give up some intimacy, but you buy more to balance out that loss. But its not just the money. In our culture size is linked with success. So what if the corner grocer makes a nice living and is happy with his life. He is no success, for he is too small. The big time is the only time that rates the label success. So what if the big executive is on his third wife and has kids who hate him. If he is big, he is successful, and that is what matters. Size is the name of the game, and small just won't cut it.
We all play this game for we can't help it. It is a part of our culture. We ask how large is your church and we judge the value of that church by its size. If somebody tells us their church is 57 people, we assume that it is a group of losers. But if they go to a church of 780 people, we feel they are a successful group of noble souls from all walks of life. It is a terrible judgment, but it is the way Americans evaluate worth. Size alone is the key without knowing anything of the character and commitment of the people. All we need to hear to judge a church a success or failure is the number of people in it. This is prejudice of the worst sort, but it makes life easier when it comes to making snap judgments. You don't have to know anything but a number to come to a quick value judgment.
This affects all of us, and the impact on the suburban church that is small is even worse than on the small rural church. When there is a large church just down the road with a large staff and budget, and a commanding presence, it is easy to feel you are of little value in comparison. In the small town usually all of the churches are small, and so there is not the comparison issue. The only way to maintain a sense of self-esteem as a small church is to recognize that being small does not mean that one has to be any less successful. In fact, it may be are more successful in achieving the goal that God has for the church.
None of can escape being products of our culture, but we need to be aware that culture can lead us astray. Back in the 1930's and 1940's the educational reformers urged the small public school districts to become consolidated with others into much bigger units. This became the craze and in one generation the small school was eliminated. Now after a few decades of big is better education the authorities are changing their tune. Lyle Schaller in his marvelous book It's A Different World quotes the prominent child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim as saying, "The one room school was the best school we ever had." It was like family, and older children helped the younger, and there was more one to one interaction.
Some are so convinced it was the best that they are trying to bring it back as a superior environment for learning. From Nebraska to Manhattan the one room school is making a comeback. The greatest growth is among the Amish and Hutterites, and by a growing number of fundamentalists churches. Liberal Protestant churches in the inner city are also moving in this direction.
The big is better theme was carried to extremes in our culture, and the result is that we have damaged many of the values that made us the great nation that we are. The big is better value system is one of the reason for man's loss of self-esteem as a person. When science began to reach out and discover just how big and vast this universe is, it made our planet a puny speck of dust. There are stars out there so big you could put a million of our earth inside and they would rattle. If big is better, then the logical conclusion is that our earth is of no more value than a fallen leaf in a vast forest. In other words, we are worthless. We are among the least of all heavenly bodies, and this has led men to conclude that it is ridiculous to think that God would have any concern about this infinitesimal speck. It would be like a man devoting his life to try and communicate with a bacteria.
Man lost his self-esteem and this led to his loss of faith in God. He concluded that he was too small to matter, and if size is the measure of worth then he was right, for we are just a puny part of reality. Many of the great leaders of our nation became Deists. A deist is one who thinks that God is too big to be bothered with the insignificant likes of us. He made all that is in its vast wonder, but he has no care or concern for the minor details like man. We have better things to do than get involved with the insects in our lawn, and God has better things to do that get involved with us.
These great men are just following the logic of their value system that says big is better. They do not see that this is the very thing they laugh at when the small child chooses the big nickel rather than the small dime, or the big marble over the small diamond. Einstein was once asked what he was thinking, and he replied, "I am thinking that, after all, this is a very small star." He was right, but it is a very small star that produces an Einstein, which as far as we know, are not produced by the very big stars in our universe. Size just cannot cut it when it comes to the values that really matter. If matter is all that matters, then size is the only measure that matters. But if mind, spirit, and relationships matter, then size is no longer the issue.
The self-esteem of man is not based on the size of his planet, but the size of his God in whose image he is created. Likewise, the self-esteem of a church is not based on its size, but on the Savior to whom it is committed. There are tens of thousands of small churches where love for Christ and obedience to His will is the supreme good, and I defy anyone to find a text in the Bible that says these least in size are not as loved by Christ, and as useful for His cause, as those greater in size. In fact, unless God has recently changed His ways from the Old Testament and New Testament days, He may be using the small and the least even more. In Luke 12:32 Jesus says to His followers, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for the Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom." It pleased God to give the biggest and most everlasting kingdom of all time and eternity, not to the massive forces of Rome, or the lesser legions of Israel even, but to the least likely of all groups, the little flock of Christians.
Is all of this to be seen as a justification for not growing? Not at all. God chooses the small, but for big goals, and the goal of the little flock was to reach the whole world. The church has an obligation for all time to reach as many people as it possibly can, and to grow as large as it can. There is no anti-big spirit in the New Testament. Big can be beautiful and better if the values of the small are preserved, and it has been proven that they can be even in the biggest church. The point is, no church needs to feel a sense of worthlessness just because they are small. The whole Bible rejects size as the measure of worth. If a small church fails, it is not because of the size, but because it ceases to care about doing the will of God, and it stops trying to reach out and grow.
It is important to understand the facts about the small church because the majority of churches are small, and if this is a sign of failure then the whole plan of Christ is a failure. Lyle Schaller is a leading authority on church statistics. He says that one forth of all churches on this continent have fewer than 35 people in attendance. One half of all churches average less than 75. Ninety per cent of all churches reach their peak by their 15th birthday, and seldom grow beyond that level. All of this means that the odds are against any body of believers becoming a large body of believers.
It is not smallness of size that should bother us, but smallness of our commitment to love God with our whole being, and our neighbor as ourselves. A small church with a greater degree of such love honors God more than a large church without such love. Just as we love the puppy more than the elephant, and the kitty more than the lion, not just because they are smaller, but because they show us love back. So God loves those churches regardless of their size where their love is expressed in their commitment to Him. The church in Ephesus in Rev. 2 is scolded by Jesus because they had forsaken their first love. The little flock that is a loving flock is doing the biggest thing that can be done on this planet, for it is pleasing God and giving pleasure to the Savior. May God help all small churches to be such a loving little flock.