I have been defending the small church. I have not said that a church must be small to be spiritual or that largeness is an evil in itself. But I have said that the small church is the normal church; the one seen most often in the New Testament and throughout church history. I have also implied that there seems to be a feeding frenzy on the small churches by the church growth movement which infers that the small church is inferior because it has not grown, and that therefore it must change its whole way of doing things into a more “progressive” worship style or die. I disagree that the small church needs to change in order to be accomplishing God’s will, and I object to the view of the church growth movement that it must. When we do this, we despise the day of small things—things that have no choice but to trust in God’s Spirit.
We despise the suffering
Martin Luther once said, “Wherever the gospel is preached in its purity, it engenders conflict and controversy.”1 I think it is no doubt that one reason we dislike small churches is that we are embarrassed over what people may be thinking of us if we belong to it. Even though the church may be doing everything to the glory and honor of our Savior, to some people that is not enough to compensate for the disdain that the world has for things that don’t appear to be successful. This is a kind of suffering that we just cannot bear.
Paul told the Galatians, and I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? Then is the offense of the cross ceased (Gal 5:11). Paul suffered persecution in Galatia because he would not intermingle his pure gospel of grace with the legalistic gospel which included the fleshly work of circumcision. For this refusal he suffered being stoned and left for dead. But accepting the offense that came with the cross was of more honor to him than men’s praises. He said, God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world (6:14) . . . . from henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus (17).
I am not proposing that the church growth movement is guilty of gospel legalism as were the Galatian Jews, but if it is true that some allow the world’s demands for worldliness in order to avoid their disdain, is that not the same kind of thing? Hasn’t the offense of the cross ceased for them? It is a hard thing to watch a visitor come into a service in which he is uncomfortable or even antagonistic. You can tell he wishes he had not come and that he probably will not come back. This is where we find ourselves in a battle over this kind of cross-bearing. It may not be a bearing up under physical torture, but a bearing up under social disdain can be an equally challenging dilemma.
The easy solution for escaping this kind of suffering is a total immersion in “redefinition sanctification.” By redefining the long-standing terms of worldliness, godliness, separation, et al, we are able to change our approach to ministry, satisfy the demands of the waiting public, and still maintain a use of the Bible’s terminology. Where separation meant a removal from sin, now it can mean a mere attitude within the sin; where liberty in Christ meant a freedom from sin, now it can mean a freedom to sin; where perfection meant a striving for holiness, now it can mean a satisfaction with confession; where a weak brother meant a backslider, now it can mean anyone who is offended by sin. Where Fundamentalism meant an attitude of conviction about doctrine, it can now mean an irreducible minimum of doctrine.
Even the winsome Os Guinness has observed, “But Scripture and history are also clear: without maintaining critical tension, the principle of identification is a recipe for compromise and capitulation. It is no accident that the charge of being ‘all things to all people’ has become a popular synonym for compromise.”2 The biblical path is to live with the tension and realize it is the path of Scripture, of our Lord and His Apostles.
We despise the soul-winning
This may sound odd, especially if it is true that the church growth movement has adopted the new posture “in order to see as many people saved as possible.” But I would say that the new posture avoids personal confrontation over the gospel and therefore will fail rather than succeed in bringing as many people to Christ as possible.
It is only natural that in larger churches lost people avoid personal contact easier than in small churches. Add to this fact that many larger churches are softening or doing away with invitations and in many cases eliminating the preaching services where invitations were once given. I do think that the small group concept has actually helped make personal contact with unbelievers, but the small church is already a small group (it is the “small group concept” found in the New Testament) and has found this personal contact easy all along.
A greater danger is in making the church a concert and performance hall where we attract the lost but they are just faces in the crowd to us. And if the crowds are large, who will complain that the messy business of altar work, personal soul-winning and especially house-to-house visitation gets lost in the shuffle. I’m not saying that it always does, but I am saying that a smaller church must live or die by these methods of personal contact with people. Alexander Maclaren said, “It is better for most of us to fish with the rod than with the net, to angle for single souls, rather than to try and enclose a multitude at once. Preaching to a congregation has its own place and value; but private and personal talk, honestly and wisely done, will effect more than the most eloquent preaching.”3
We have also seen “redefinition evangelism” in our day. By redefining what a true believer is, we have done in a stroke of the pen what evangelists and missionaries could not do for two thousand years. On a large scale, the ECT documents4 simply took a long-standing definition of “Christian” that excluded Catholics and drew the line differently to include them, thereby, in a single stroke, bringing millions into the family of God. On smaller scales, I have attended funerals for Christian saints, where known unbelievers (to me and others) talked about faith and God and were praised for their “testimony.” In sports and Hollywood, anyone who talks at all about God or Jesus Christ is accepted as a true believer without further question. No doubt, by dropping all barriers within professing Christendom (especially denominational ones) we have opened ourselves up to this danger. And nowhere is this danger more apparent than when numbers mean more to us than true conversions. It has become easier to redefine them than to win them.
We despise the Spirit
Paul asked the Galatians, Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Gal 3:3). He wrote to the Philippians, For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit, and have no confidence in the flesh (Phil 3:3). Zechariah was criticizing the Jewish remnant precisely for their lack of faith in God’s powerful Spirit when he said that God’s work was not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord of hosts (Zech 4:6). How can we deny that the modern mega church with its lights, sounds, screens, bands, videos, and multiple programs finds it easier to lean on the arm of the flesh for its strength and success than on the smaller church who must trust God for provision?
Tozer wrote, “Our meetings are characterized by cordiality, humor, affability, zeal and high animal spirits; but hardly anywhere do we find gatherings marked by the overshadowing presence of God.”5 Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “Churches are emptied in proportion to the failure of pulpit occupants to discover the anointing of the Spirit.”6 And G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “There has been much quenching of the Holy Spirit by service that does not wait but rushes, and by the burning of false fires upon the altars of God. The attempt to carry on the work of the kingdom of God by worldly means, the perpetual desecration of holy things by alliance with things that are unholy, the pressing of mammon into the service of God, have meant the quenching of the Spirit; for God will never allow the Fire of the Holy Spirit to be mingled with strange fires upon His altars.”7
Have you ever noticed that the Holy Spirit’s ways are not our ways? None except the Son of God Himself, including the Apostles, seems to be able to discern completely how the Holy Spirit is pleased to work. Paul wanted to go to Ephesus from Galatia on his second missionary journey but was forbidden by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6). The same was true for his desire for Bithynia (16:7). But the Holy Spirit called him to Macedonia (16:10) and he went, suffering opposition and leaving small churches of baptized believers in every city. It was not until his third journey that he could stay in Ephesus and plant a church. This time the Holy Spirit blessed and did His wonderful work upon twelve men. These twelve men, before Paul’s life was over, planted churches all over Asia which remained until the end of the century. This was more common in New Testament church life than Pentecostal growth found in the early chapters of Acts.
In truth, the only safe way to follow the Spirit in ministry is to follow His Book in detail. It is impossible for us to devise how the Spirit will work if we depart from what He wrote through inspiration. It alone is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim 3:16-17). In a day of large things as well as small things, it is dangerous business to despise a particular path because it seems unwise to us. God only knows what can be accomplished if we, with His Word in our hands and His Spirit in our hearts, are stirred (Acts 17:16), pressed (18:5), purposed (19:21), and bound (20:22) to follow Him in church planting and soul winning.
And So . . . .
Let us not despise the day of small things, nor the value of small churches. A hundred years ago, in the third volume of The Fundamentals, Bishop Ryle wrote,
Notes: 1. Quoted by R.C. Sproul, Willing To Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997) 19. 2. Os Guinness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993) 28. 3. Quoted by A.T. Robertson, Paul and the Intellectuals (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959) 132. 4. “Evangelical and Catholics Together” has been an attempt by Evangelicals such as Chuck Colson to persuade us that Catholics have always been true believers. 5. A.W. Tozer, Worship and Entertainment (Camp Hill: Christian Publishers, 1997) 30. 6. From Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing: The Preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994) 37. 7. G. Cambell Morgan, Understanding the Holy Spirit (AMG Publishers, 1995) 166. 8. Bishop Ryle, “The True Church,” The Fundamentals, vol III, R.A. Torrey, A.C. Dixon and others, eds.(Grand Rapids: Baker Book Reprint, 2000) 319.
“This is the Church which does the work of Christ upon earth. Its members are a little flock, and few in number, compared with the children of this world; one or two here, and two or three there. But these are they who shake the universe; these are they who change the fortunes of kingdoms by their prayers; these are they who are the active workers for spreading the knowledge of pure religion and undefiled; these are the life-blood of a country, the shield, the defense, the stay and the support of any nation to which they belong.”8