Perhaps it isn’t obvious after all.
The other day I wrote: “…although I’d rather see a full church than an empty one, we really do have to give up the notion that the church with the most members is the one that’s transmitting the gospel most effectively.”
I didn’t think that was particularly noteworthy, but it has been suggested to me via email that to some this might sound like I’m suggesting that the church should be empty. So just in case you think that’s what I mean, allow me to clarify.
First, note the first part of that sentence fragment: “I’d rather see a full church than an empty one”. I don’t know any preacher who’d argue with that. Anyone who suggests that I somehow like or prefer empty churches is either deliberately mis-representing what I’ve said or has problems comprehending the English language.
I said what I meant, and meant what I said. It is not true that “the church with the most members is the one that’s transmitting the gospel most effectively”.
I think of a little congregation on a tough housing estate which has been reaching out into its community offering care and compassion for years in the name of Jesus. The gospel has been (and is being) faithfully proclaimed in word and deed in that place, and despite setbacks of every kind the folk there remain true to their calling to be the church in that place. The congregation there may yet grow. I hope and pray it will. But if it does not, that will not be a judgement on the discipleship of the wonderful people there who have quite literally kept the faith against all odds.
If you’re tempted to believe that full churches or packed meetings are a sign of God blessing the faithfulness of his disciples, get to a telly with cable or satellite. Find one of the many channels that where you can watch one or more of the TV evangelists. Listen to the rubbish that is peddled in the name of Christ and observe the crowds that are lapping it up. Then tell me that large numbers are a sign of the gospel being effectively transmitted.
The truth is, neither a large congregation nor a small one by itself means anything. Our task is to sow the seed we’re given, to remain faithful to our calling and do our work even when it is hard and dry.
When the harvest comes, it won’t be because of our plans, systems, schemes or efforts.
If we lose sight of that, we risk losing sight of the gospel itself.