The Numbers Game
“My people have a law never to speak of sizes or numbers to you…. You do not understand and it makes you do reverence to nothings and pass by what is really great.”
Oyarsa, an angel in C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet.
I recently heard someone say of a mutual friend, “He’s called to greatness,” by which he meant a crowded church, a large budget, a high profile work. I couldn’t help but wonder, what makes us think that God’s call is always upward mobile?
George MacDonald wrote in a letter to his father in 1847: “Perhaps the best thing for me would be a quiet country charge—small enough to enable me to attend thoroughly to all the pastoral duties, and intelligent enough to urge me to use my intellect and holy enough to make us advance each other in holiness. Ambition points to the metropolis—but is not ambition a terrible thing for a motive to the ministry?”
Are there not people in small communities who need to be taught and loved? Why wouldn’t God send some of his best workers to labor an entire lifetime in a small place? He’s not willing that any should perish. Is it not true that when difficulties mount and numbers are scarce a deeper a more lasting work may accrue?
Small churches make up about 80% of all churches here in Idaho. Most number 100 or less. Small is the rule, not the exception. It seems it’s always been that way. Paul, when he wrote to the Romans, mentioned four house churches, small enough to fit in someone's home. Their effectiveness was not hindered by their size.
Our culture equates size with success. Bigger is better. It takes a strong person to resist that craze, especially if he or she is laboring in a small place. As Piglet says, “Its hard to be brave, especially when you’re Very Small.”
It’s not that numbers don’t matter. The Apostles counted the Church in round numbers. There’s a whole book in the Old Testament that bears that name. Numbers represent unique individuals with eternal needs. We should work and pray for many to enter the kingdom, but we shouldn’t use numbers as a basis for esteem. We should treat them with the attitude of John the Baptist who mused as his congregation dwindled away, “A man can only receive what he has been given from heaven.”
John’s sense of worth did not come from his followers, but from the One whom he followed: “The friend (John) who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine.”
Our Lord does not call us to find joy in the amount of work we do, or the number of people who are a part of that work, but in doing our work—whatever it is—for his sake. Serving him in a small place is not a stepping–stone to greatness. It is greatness. Jesus himself set the example: Nazareth was a little place, and so was Galilee.