Is a small church inherently virtuous and godly? Is a large church intrinsically venomous and worldly?
I come from a bit of prejudice on the subject, I'll admit. All of my earliest church experiences were small (by which I mean not merely under 100, but under 50), and I liked it. But then I also was part of larger churches (over 200, over 500), and I liked that too. That said, I do tend to see the need to be as large as possible as evil...but also contentment with remaining comfortably small as comfortable no less evil.
Oops, I've given away the conclusion, without so much as a Spoiler Alert. Well, let's back-track. Let's lay some Biblical framework.
The Bible is literally riddled with stories whose whole point is to glorify God precisely because of the smallness of the beginnings. "Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him" (Isaiah 51:2), for instance. He was one, he was old, and he was married to an infertile woman. All this served to glorify God all the more by what God made of this old believing man with his infertile wife.
Moses did not free Israel from Egypt by amassing a huge army. It was just two little old men, and one great big God. That was part of the point, and the glory, of the story.
Very famously, there's the story of Gideon, raised up to liberate Israel from Midian. Though Gideon surely did not agree, Yahweh thought 32000 troops were far too many (Judges 7:2-3). In fact, he thought 10000 troops was overkill (v. 4). But 300 was just right (v. 7). Just right to reassure Gideon, or the three hundred themselves? Surely not. But just right to glorify God by the deliverance He'd work.
Many other stories make the same point. King Saul's son Jonathan decides to take on a whole Philistine garrison, just by himself and his armor-carrier, explicitly reasoning "It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few" (1 Samuel 14:6b). Then l ater, in the name of the God of Israel, little punk shepherd-boy David knocks down the giant that had a whole king and army trembling (1 Samuel 17). In many ways, the OT warns against despising "the day of small things" (Zechariah 4:10).
The New Testament has many such stories and many such teachings as well. Jesus famously warns that the popular and crowded road is the one that leads to Hell, while its opposite is narrower and vastly less popular (Matthew 7:13-14). He warns his spokesmen to expect rejection and persecution (Matthew 10:21-22), and that whole towns might reject them and their preaching (v. 14).
Jesus was glorified by feeding huge masses by supplies that were paltry and cheap (John 6:9ff.). But he had no problem teaching things that sent people running away in droves (v. 60ff.). When that was their reason for leaving, attrition didn't bother Him a bit (v. 67).
Fast-forwarding, Paul warns that the church age will not be marked by gradual grown and development into a glorious golden age on earth. No, he says that the latter days will be marked by rejection and unpopularity of truth, and love of error (2 Timothy 4:3-4). The man who would be a man of God must be prepared to preach doggedly and persistently and consistently, when it looks like the very worst time for it (vv. 1-2, 5).
First we have to remember the passion to see God glorified.
People who love God as they ought can't be content just to see Him glorified a little, if anything can be done with it. Their vision is God's vision: to see the earth "filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14). Their sigh is, "Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, And for His wonderful works to the children of men!" (Ps. 107:8 NKJV; cf. vv. 15, 21, 31). They long for God to be known and loved and marveled at and praised from pole to pole (Ps. 148:7, 13; Isaiah 42:10, etc.).
So they're like Paul, who knew everything we know from the first section, and yet it was his ambition to preach Christ and His gospel everywhere, particularly where He was not yet known (Romans 15:20-24). You would search long, hard, and utterly fruitlessly to find in Paul any spirit of "Oh well, God's sovereign, I've done what I can, you can't save everyone."
So there are explosively big moments here and there in Scripture. The one that leaps to mind is the birthday of the church, on Pentecost. Growth from maybe the under-200 range to over three thousand, as a result of one sermon, is what most of us pastors would count a "really good day" (Acts 2:41; cf. 4:4 for another leap).
And something like this continues through Acts. There are persecutions and treacheries a-plenty, but there is also the constant refrain:
6:7 — And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
12:24 — But the word of God increased and multiplied
13:44 — The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.
13:48-49 — And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.
17:11 — Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
19:10 — This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
19:20 — So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
These facts of revelation leave us with two problems. The first is often insoluble.
First question: Why is this happening/not happening to me/him? You look at a work that is plastic, formulaic, and all-wrong. They don't preach the Gospel deeply, they don't teach the Bible very intensively; it's like toy-time for toddlers. But they grow explosively. You've heard the story a thousand times. "We started with three people, and in a year we had 1700." No big budget, just tons of quick and impressive growth. It's years later, and they're still going strong.
Or on the other hand, you're a preacher who preaches the whole counsel of God with everything you've got. Every prayerfully-formed-and-delivered sermon/lesson exalts God, edifies saints, points to Christ, to the best of your God-given ability. And your church has at least some people who evangelize, and show love. And you're in a target-rich location.
And you just. Don't. Grow.
Now, we can make guesses about both. About the former, we can prate on about "itching ears" and Zeitgeist and all — except it's not really a cult or a heresy. They do preach Jesus and gospel, if not very deeply. It's just not what we believe Biblically it should be.
Yet they multiply like bunnies, looking for all the world like a real work of God for explosiveness.
About the latter, we could say there's not enough evangelism, they're too young/too old, their style is too this or not enough that, and yadda yadda yadda.
But none of those items were factors in Acts. If someone's heart is touched by God, if he wants to know and serve God alongside genuine believers, this would be a perfectly fine home for him. In fact, a terrific home. And for such a work to grow would bring great glory to God.
Yet it just doesn't happen.
I have no idea. Worse, I know of no way to tell until the Judgment.
Well, that's a sucky answer, isn't it? Not what you come to Top Men to hear. Well, I'm not a top man, and I hate the answer too, but it's all I've got. How many followers did Isaiah have? Jeremiah? Ezekiel? What happened with Jonathan Edwards at his church? How wildly popular was he in his lifetime?
No clue, other than to say something like "because thus it pleased the Lord to deal with His servants."
Second question: Is what is happening to me as-should-be? Should I be happy, concerned, or...?
Ah, now, there I might have some help for you. Some help.
Friday, Lord willing.
UPDATE: this way to the Conclusion.