Recently an Atlanta-area megachurch pastor called parents “stinking selfish” if they attend small churches without big youth ministries.
He said, “When I hear adults say, ’Well I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids [or] anybody else’s kids’ … If you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church. Instead… you drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church. They go to college, and you pray that there will be a church in the college town that they connect with. Guess what? All those churches are big.”
After some intense online outcry he apologized, saying, “The negative reaction to the clip from last week’s message is entirely justified. Heck, even I was offended by what I said! I apologize.” The interview explaining his statement.
I’ll take him at his word. But that attitude is out there. Some people believe that the size of a church does matter. They believe that bigger churches are better than smaller churches. Or they believe that smaller churches are better than big churches. There can be no argument that there are not quantitative differences between churches. But in every respect that really matters there is no difference. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). He didn’t say wherever two or three thousand are gathered in My name. He said two or three.
Sadly this pastor isn’t the first to get caught up in the numbers game. And he won’t be the last. God has been warning his people against counting numbers as a measure of worth since the very beginning.
King David made the same mistake this pastor made. Against God’s wishes, David ordered that Israel’s army be numbered. Joab, the commander of his army, tried to talk sense into David, but David was the king and what David wanted David got (think Bathsheba). God was displeased with what David did and all Israel suffered for that decision. (1 Chronicles 21) Now maybe you’re wondering why numbering the army was such a big deal. It was a big deal because it revealed a lack of trust in God. The reason a king numbers an army is so that he can compare the strength of his army against that of a foreign nation. This was a “no, no” for Israel because God made it clear to them that it was not by their strength but by His that they would win the day.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Gideon. Gideon was a judge (a leader in Israel before they had kings). And God directed Gideon to lead Israel in battle against the Midianites. Before that battle could commence, however, God said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for Me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’” God then whittled down Israel’s fighting force. He sent 22,000 away who were afraid. Of the 10,000 who remained, he kept just 300. He didn’t choose that 300 because they were the most qualified, or highly trained soldiers. He choose them because of the way they drank their water. (Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself in Judges 7) And with that 300, God granted Israel victory over their enemies.
Counting becomes a problem because it reveals a lack of trust in God. For David, knowing the size of his force was important because he didn’t trust that God would protect him regardless of the size of his army. In his youth David knew what trust in God looked like. Standing before Goliath, he confidently shouted, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, Whom you have defied. [After you have been defeated] all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s.” (1 Samuel 17:45,47) But as the years went by and his victories mounted David began to trust more in himself and the size of his army than in God.
David began to measure his success as a king by the size of his army. Sadly some churches and pastors fall into that same trap. And I get why it’s so tempting. Numbers and growth are easy measurements to gauge. And so what happens is that we begin to judge the success of a church or a pastor on growth. Yes, we are called to go out into the world and make disciples. We are called to shine the light of Christ into the dark places of this world in the hopes that those who are not the children of God become children of God by His grace. But we aren’t the ones who control the results.
The apostle Paul said it best, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.”
– 1 Corinthians 3:5-8
So stop obsessing over the numbers! It doesn’t matter in the end whether your church has 50 who gather together or 50,000. What matters is God who gives the growth. What matters is proclaiming Jesus to a world of people who desperately need to hear His good news. So, whether you worship at a large church or a small church, give thanks. The same Jesus is present in both places. The forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life delivered through the Word, and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, matter. If those are missing, then no amount of programs or tight knit relationships can make up that difference. Size really doesn’t matter. Two or three. If you’ve got that, you’ve got Jesus, the One who lived and died for you!