When Zechariah was asked that question by the interpreting angel in the fourth chapter of his prophecy (Zech 4:10), the present temple project looked dreadfully small compared to the glory of the former temple. But the prophet as well as the people who worked on the walls were reminded that God’s work is Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts (Zech 4:6). One day, in a more glorious age, the Lord Himself will build a temple in Jerusalem that will overshadow Solomon’s, Zerubbabel’s and Herod’s combined in glory, beauty and splendor.
The churches of Jesus Christ today are apt to forget the same thing. As a matter of fact, they are being persuaded to forget it! George Barna, for example, has a current online article1 (advertised, ironically, on many local church web sites) in which he proposes that smaller churches (defined as 100 or fewer) have fewer spiritually active people (percentage wise) than larger churches and even fewer born again people. The survey (the church’s current prophetic voice) is taken of 4501 adults from “Protestant” churches. Barna proposes that people in larger churches are more likely to have a solid theological foundation. Some, I suppose, might take that at face value. But one must understand what a “Protestant” church is and what all the “Protestant” congregations, liberal and otherwise are like, which would be represented in that class.2 Also, the fact that people in larger churches are more “spiritually active” does not necessarily mean spiritual. In addition, of course, I always question the answers given in a phone conversation compared to the reality of a person’s life.
It has been my opinion for a long time that the present-day church growth movement is the same as it has always been but with newer methodologies and with wiser terminology.3 Smaller churches are told or given strong implication that they are inferior, that they lack a proper vision, that they are out of touch with reality, etc., because God has not blessed them with growth. This theme comes across strongly (as every small-church pastor knows and senses) although we always hear the caveat that smaller is not necessarily wrong, if God has so willed it. In a more postmodern lingo, we are even boldly told that they believe smaller is better. But that claim always comes with “insider” understanding (for example, that a small group may be good under the umbrella of a large church oversight).
I am still trying hard to believe that the church-growth movement is doing what it is doing in order to see as many people saved as possible. The idea is that if the churches are larger more will be hearing the gospel, more may be called into full-time service, more money will be given to missions, and the organizational institutions will continue (all worthy and honorable objectives). I am trying hard not to believe that a more sinister motivation is at work here—that the church growth movement is uniquely connected to a change toward a contemporary4 ministry philosophy and that this new style of church is what the masses are really after (not those other objectives). Yes, they will come and give as long as that is what they experience and they will be gone if it ever stops. In the meantime, however, church leaders are willing to do this in order to bring in the resources for getting people saved (or so they think).
Regardless of the motivation, the proposition that “bigger is better” when it comes to winning the world to Christ has not been, and need not be, the attitude or the methodology of God’s people and churches. More has been done throughout our history by small churches and personal evangelism than in any other way. These are the biblical norms as well and we should not despise them. As a matter of fact, we ought to embrace them as the blessings of God and seek to promote more of them. I think that our modern day rush to find success in bigness will not bring the best results, but will only cause us to despise the day of small things—things that can only succeed by God’s Spirit and not by man’s might or power.
We despise the size
Although the church at Jerusalem grew rapidly due to the influence of Pentecost, it is not the normal thing we see in the New Testament. We are glad for the blessings of God when they have truly come, but neither should we be sorry when we find ourselves within the biblical norm of small, local church congregations. Charles Ryrie wrote, “Indeed, one receives the impression from the New Testament that the Lord preferred to have many smaller congregations rather than one large group in any given place. And there seemed to be no lack of power that stemmed from lack of bigness.”5 One of the articles in volume 3 of The Fundamentals (from 1917) argues strongly for a return to this biblical pattern so that true evangelism and church life may continue.6
Many today are criticizing the smaller, pastor-led, church as a “hub-and-spoke” model.7 This church, they say, can only grow as big as the pastor can handle the situations. This is limiting growth, they say, and only with a change in philosophy can a church like this break out of the smallness mentality. But I see the “hub-and-spoke” church as the normal church in the New Testament. The pastor is responsible before God for all of the members and it is his stewardship to be involved in their lives (Heb13:17, 1 Tim 4:6). When the church grows to the size where he cannot do his God-given responsibility, the church should divide and start a new congregation. Who knows how many soul-winning churches there might be in America today if this had happened rather than building empires to men’s glory.
If a particular church grows to the size a pastor can handle and remains at that size, what is the difference between that and a mega-church growing to a certain size and stopping? Both have reached a plateau. Neither is growing now. Is a church of 1000 which has leveled off in growth doing more for Christ because they have 1000 than ten churches of 100 which have leveled off? It is wonderful if a man can faithfully pastor 1000 people. It is equally wonderful if a man can faithfully pastor 100. Ten churches of 100 and those ten faithful pastors can accomplish a lot for God.
In 1792, in the area of Nottingham, England, a group of pastors met to discuss foreign missions. They had about $50 among them and “were pastors of small, poor village churches with congregations numbering in some cases no more than twenty-five members.”8 But among them were Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliff and William Carey. More was done from those few small churches for missions than we can imagine. Similarly, included in a list of Baptist churches in Shropshire, England from 1839 to 1851 are thirty churches, the largest having 103 members. When these churches overcame the cold hyper-Calvinism and the lethargic worldliness of their day, they truly attempted great things for God and expected great things from God.
Recently, in a day away from my own pulpit, my wife and I attended the most well-known Baptist church in Colorado (a SBC church) for the morning service, and then probably the least-known Baptist church for the evening service. There was no comparison when it came to the blessing, warmth and evangelistic atmosphere of the two. The large church of about 1000 was a mix of contemporary music, videos and lights and sounds, and a light message geared for the light-hearted. In the evening we found ourselves in the midst of about 50 people giving testimonies, singing (all of them!) hymns from the heart, and hearing an expository message geared for the thinking person. If I had to take a lost friend to one of those two churches for the conviction of sin and moving of the Holy Spirit, it would no doubt be the smaller of the two.
We despise the shame
Usually we find ourselves in a position to either be ashamed of the gospel or shamed by the world. If we fear the world, we will be ashamed of the gospel, but if we fear God we will, no doubt, be shamed by the world. Jesus said, Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). Paul admonished Timothy, Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord (2 Tim 1:8) and reminded him that Onesiphorus was not ashamed of my chain (16). Timothy was to be a workman that needeth not to be ashamed (2:15).
If Saul of Tarsus persecuted Christ because he persecuted His church, I think that most Christians today are ashamed of their Lord because they are obviously ashamed of His church. They are ashamed to have a lost person walk in and see them the way they should be: kneeling, bowing, in quietness of spirit before the Lord, reverent, as well as singing, listening, and responding in a way that would make their lost friend uncomfortable. That is why we have decided to make the churches more comfortable for the world than for Christ or the Holy Spirit. John R. Rice once wrote that he was sure that the Holy Spirit made His home in every believer, but was equally sure that most of the time He locked Himself in His room!
American churches are the only places where we look at pictures of brothers and sisters in foreign lands under persecution, meeting in small, dirty places, giving their very lives rather than to recant their faith, and then in the next hour discuss how we can keep a crowd coming and giving in order to pay off our multi-million dollar church building debt. William Wilberforce once paraphrased John Owen as saying, “Religion in a state of prosperity is like a colony that is long settled in a strange country. It is gradually assimilated in features, demeanor, and language to the native inhabitants, until at length every vestige of its distinctiveness has died away.”9
I have never been there, but I recently saw pictures of the catacombs under the Coliseum in Rome. It is a ghastly sight, even in pictures, to see the graves, human remains and desperate writing on the walls. Above all of that is the magnificent structure of the Coliseum where Christians were tortured and killed while Roman citizens cheered. America’s twenty-first century legacy has moved from the catacombs to the Coliseum. The world cheers with us now and our churches are larger and more entertaining than even Rome could have devised.
Are we ashamed or shamed? Herman Melville in Moby Dick had his Father Mapple preach a sermon before the sailors left for sea, “Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appall! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation.”10
To be continued in the next issue: