Jesus’ little flock

Bigger churches aren’t necessarily better

Jan 21, 2019 by and

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Megalophobia is the fear of large things. Jesus spoke favorably of small things, and his followers aren’t wrong to adopt their own skepticism of mega­churches.

Obsession with church growth (or decline) is a distraction stemming from consumer societies. Success isn’t measured in average weekly attendance or quarterly trustee reports but in the simple question of how spiritually vibrant are members of a faith community.

In Matthew 14, Jesus didn’t seek out the 5,000 he wound up feeding. He simply cared for the people around him. He didn’t invite them to fill out prayer forms or visitor welcome pads for a follow-up or church-plant feasibility study. He kept on moving. He called his followers “a little flock” (Luke 12:32). He praised the mustard seed and widow’s mite.

The Sermon on the Mount begins: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down” (Matt. 5:1). In Matthew 8 he healed a leper and told him to keep it to himself. Instead of clearing his throat to deliver the good news when he sees a crowd, he boards a boat to get away.

The church was a post-Christ invention by followers desperate to be ready for their Messiah’s immediate return. In Paul’s New Testament letters and John’s rebukes in Revelation 2 and 3, we can learn from their missteps. The church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-21) is wealthy and lukewarm — likely a seeker-friendly experience short on countercultural distinctives — and fit only to be spit out.

Fellowship is important for Christians, but the threshold is as low as it gets: Jesus said he is present where two or three are gathered (Matt. 18:19-20). It’s a binary, on/off arrangement. A thousand followers doesn’t mean a thousand-fold sense of Christ’s presence, though for some people it might seem that way. The first communion took place around a dining-room table without input from a worship committee.

Jesus deconstructed religion, taking it out of the synagogue. Anabaptist reformers faithfully re-enacted this 1,500 years later by rebelling against powerful state churches. These renegade bands did so in houses, barns and caves, keeping each group’s numbers down to avoid the authorities, because size brought dangers.

Today, size brings the danger of comfort. A big church lets someone blend in and be anonymous. Many hands make light work, but when was that ever a Christian’s goal? Yes, we are called to expand the kingdom, but that kingdom is a spiritual one not measured by earthly metrics, even church size.

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