29 December 2015

Small and static versus larger and growing: opening thoughts

by Dan Phillips

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.

First, one definition: for the purpose of these posts, I'll define a "small" church as 100 or fewer, assuming a town of 25000 or more.

One the one hand: small can be glorious

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).

On the other hand: explosive can be good, too

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.).

And people who love people as they should cannot be content to see their fellow-man living in darkness and despair, and skipping gaily off to a hopeless eternity under the relentless and endless wrath of God (cf. Matt. 7:12). They can't claim ignorance, and wouldn't dream of it (Proverbs 24:11-12).

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.
8:4 — Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
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.
So, the combination: eager, inventive, tireless preachers + actual saving Gospel + lost men and woman + saving hand of God = spread of the Word among converts. 

Growth, in other words. Good, sound, holy, God-honoring, healthy, appropriate growth, built and based on the pure word of God. Faithfulness and fruitfulness.

The two problems we're left with

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.

Dan Phillips's signature


Jim Pemberton said...

We tend to think the fruits of a good ministry are in the numbers. But the fruits of a good ministry aren't quantitative - they're qualitative.

There should be the expectation that if you are evangelizing faithfully, that some will come to Christ. Often this is the case. Sometimes it doesn't happen. Make sure the message of the Gospel is true and complete. That's primary. But secondly, do the best you can according to the gifts and resources God has provided to explain it strategically and effectively. That strategy involves including them in your church after they come to faith. You have to expect it. You shouldn't be winning them to a particular way of doing church, but you are winning them with a Gospel that involves a meaningful fellowship where they can grow and contribute to the spiritual development of the other members of the local church. That means that they will necessarily bring some kind of change, small or great, with them.

This was a point I taught this past year in our church in Venezuela and again in our church here in the States from Dr. MacArthur's The Master's Plan for the Church. (I don't have the book in front of me and I don't recall the page number.) A healthy church is not averse to change.

For those who come to faith, they may not join your church, but may join a church that's closer to them. They may join the church of a family member who is already a Christian. Ideally, many will join your church. Somebody needs to slide over and give them some pew space.

donsands said...

Just wanted say Merry Christmas; a tad late. And a blessed 2016 in our Savior's awesome grace and love. J. C. Ryle says, "if your foundation is upon your love for the Lord, you are standing on sand. But if your foundation is on your Lord's love for you, you are standing on a rock."

donsands said...

I forgot to say, excellent and very well said thoughts, as usual my brother. A bit deep for my C- brain. Yet i was blessed, and you always give me/us something with depth to contemplate. And that helps the mind and heart to be edified in our Savior's truth.

BTW, I know you know; 'Chicago' finally in. About time.

"If you don't hear it you can tell us
If it's good you can tell us all
Or you can smile, that's alright my friend
It could be so nice, you know
If only you would listen."

Biju Itty said...

Whether we did business till He comes will matter more than how many minas we had received.

JackW said...

Great, this is a subject that interests me. I’ve been involved in a few church plants, so I too have a bias for the small. On the other hand, my favorite teacher preaches at a mega church (which are really kilo churches, but I digress).

I was curious about what the fruits of really good gospel centered preaching at a large church would be, what would that congregation be like? So I visited a couple of times and I liked what I saw. I came away thinking that It’s more than the preaching, though the preaching was important, there was something more to it. I’m thinking that polity plays a big role in the outcome, though the biggest role is always God working.

Looking forward to your conclusions.

Ted Bigelow said...


I'd like to suggest the answer is Paul's doctrine of ecclesiastical schism, taught in 1 Cor. 1:10-13, 11:17-20, 12:24-27.

Blessings, Ted

Rob Steele said...

Regarding Edwards' popularity, apparently he had some fans. I happen to be reading Thoughts on Public Prayer by Samuel Miller and saw this passage that begins on page 206:

There is a tradition that the following circumstances once occurred in the life of the elder President Edwards. He had engaged to preach on a certain Sabbath for a neighbouring pastor. When the day arrived, the
pastor went to his pulpit at the appointed time, but did not find Mr. Edwards there. He waited as long as he thought proper, and Mr. Edwards still not appearing, he began the service. In the course of the prayer which usually precedes the sermon, Mr. Edwards, who had been retarded by an unexpected occurrence, entered the church; and, being remarkably gentle and quiet in all his movements, he came into the house, made his way to the pulpit, and placed himself by the side of the pastor without being observed. The pastor, in his prayer, taking for granted that Mr. Edwards was still absent, had allowed himself to express regret that he had failed to come, and that the congregation was to be disappointed : He also launched out in expressions of profound respect for the talents, learning and piety of Mr. Edwards, thanking God that he had raised up so eminent an instrument for doing good, and that he had been enabled to accomplish so much by his learned and able works; and praying that his important life might be spared, and his usefulness extended to the remotest parts of the land. At the close of his prayer, to his astonishment, he found Mr. Edwards standing by his side, and ready to perform the service which had been expected of him. "With some little embarrassment he said, *' Sir, I did not know that you were present if I had known it, I should not have prayed as I did." But feeling as if it might do good to throw into the scale something to balance his compliments, he added—"But after all, they do say that your wife has more piety than

Anonymous said...

I find an interesting thing happening in our church. We are kind of a group of refugees from other churches, I think. Our area has a lot of unhealthy churches that teach incorrectly. Eventually, people start to leave. Some land in a healthy church. Our church is one of those, people have been landing there. So, we're growing. We are also producing couples who marry and have children, and who stay in our church. So, for now, it's growing. There's a need, people are hearing the truth preached, telling their friends, and so it goes. But, there are also churches where truth is preached and no one finds it, no one joins the very small congregations. I do not know why this is. I do know our church has chosen to plant a few churches in other nearby communities, and has thinned out our congregation a bit so some could go to these plants (which happen to be near by where these people live, so it's a win for them in terms of having a church closer to their home). That is one way growth happens and ebbs, and happens again as well.