A blowhard of a blogger has recently borne false witness and scurrilously misrepresented and rubbished Richard for saying that that “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.” And someone on this blog recently reminded me, after I referred to Jesus emptying the church in Nazareth in Luke 4:16-28, that “a text out of context is a pretext“, and suggested that, on the subject of church size and growth, we look to the “whole counsel of God” in scripture. That’s a good idea. So let’s turn to Lesslie Newbign on the subject - Newbigin being one of the truly great missiologists of the twentieth century.
“Anyone who knows Jesus as Lord and Savior will rejoice when men [sic] come to know him … This is something which surely cannot be gainsaid. And when we turn to the story of the first days of the church as we have it in the Acts of the Apostles, we find a lively interest in numerical growth….
“But when one has given due weight to this obvious delight in the numerical growth of the church, one must also observe that the rest of the New Testament furnishes little evidence of interest in numerical growth. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus does not give the impression of being interested in large numbers…. It is indeed interesting that Luke, who shows such evident delight in recording the multiplication of believers after Pentecost, also records several sayings of Jesus which suggest that the coming of God’s kingdom does not at all depend on the number of those who expect it and pray for it…. The emphasis falls upon the faithfulness of the disciples rather than upon their numbers.
“Neither does a study of the Epistles seem to disclose any interest in numerical growth. We do not find Paul concerning himself with the size of the churches, or with questions about their growth. His primary concern is with their faithfulness, with the integrity of their witness…. There is deep concern for the integrity of the Christian witness, but there is no evidence of anxiety about or enthusiasm for rapid numerical growth. In no sense does the triumph of God’s reign depend upon the growth of the church.
“In the Johannine Gospel and letters there is a persistent concern about the world … But there is nowhere any suggestion that the salvation of the world depends upon the growth of the church.
“Reviewing, then, the teaching of the New Testament, one would have to say that … there is no evidence that the numerical growth of the church is a matter of primary concern. There is no shred of evidence in Paul’s letters to suggest that he judged the churches by the measure of their success in rapid numerical growth, nor is there anything comparable to the strident cries of some contemporary evangelists that the salvation of the world depends upon the multiplication of believers….
“If we turn from the New Testament to the later pages of church history, …. we have to ask whether the church is most faithful in its witness to the crucified and risen Jesus and most recognizable as the community which ‘bears about in the body the dying of Jesus’ when it is chiefly concerned with its own self-aggrandizement. When numerical growth is taken as the criterion of judgment on the church, we are transported with alarming ease into the world of the military campaign or the commercial sales drive.”
Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 139-42.
Comments, of course, are welcome, but some folk might remember Mark Twain’s famous advice that it might be better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.