As I sit here in my local Starbucks, a perplexing question comes to mind: is Starbucks big or small?
Well, everyone knows Starbucks is huge! Right? A corporate giant presently valued at $62 billion on the stock market. Yet, the Starbucks I’m sitting in is downright small. Looking around I count 25 seats and estimate the size of the store to be about 25’x50’, not very big at all. Just a few doors down is a Subway Restaurant which is even smaller than Starbucks! Yet the home page of Subway’s website proudly declares there are 43,088 Subway restaurants in 108 countries. Is Subway small or big?
What about the church? Is the church small or big?
The average assembly
Over the course of a year I have the privilege of visiting some 30 to 35 different assemblies, mostly in the Middle Atlantic region of the United States. Most of the assemblies I visit are small. While there are a couple of exceptions, most will typically have less than 100 people present. Maybe this describes your assembly?
At times it can be discouraging to see so few at the meetings of a local assembly. Yet, when I see a Subway or a Starbucks I’m reminded that small doesn’t always mean small!
A part of the whole
As members of the Body of Christ we are part of something WAY bigger than Starbucks and Subway combined. Our Lord and Savior said: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” Matthew 16:18 ESV. He IS building His church and His church is something much bigger than I am able to comprehend.
When contemplating the size of a local assembly my thinking tends to be one-dimensional. Are there more or less people here than the last time I was here? Over the years has attendance trended up or down? It seems that I’m fixated on what I can see. I’m looking on the outward appearance.
A true evaluation
Is this how our Lord Jesus Christ evaluates local assemblies? No. He gets to the heart of the issue by looking beneath the surface. In Revelation 2 & 3 our Lord reveals His personal evaluation of seven different local churches. It is important to bear in mind that each of these churches were actual local assemblies. By examining His evaluation I believe we can glean an understanding of what is important to Him regarding the health of a local assembly.
A cursory reading reveals a number of issues our Lord is concerned about: love for our Lord Jesus Christ (Rev 2:4), good works (Rev 2:2), faithfulness in persecution (Rev. 2:10), doctrinal purity (Rev. 2:14), moral purity (Rev. 2:20-21), spiritual vitality (Rev. 3:1-3), faithfulness to God’s Word (Rev. 3:8) faithfulness to His name (Rev. 3:8) and others.
It’s interesting to note that the issue of numbers is conspicuously absent. Numbers tend to be the first and only characteristic we consider. Yet, our Lord doesn’t even mention the issue.
“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of [Saul’s] stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” 1 Samuel 16:7
The real issues that matter
Maybe ‘numbers’ isn’t the issue? Maybe the issues that really matter are referenced in Revelation 2 & 3? Maybe if our individual and corporate love for Jesus Christ increased, and we did the good works we were saved to do (Ephesians 2:10), and we pursued doctrinal & moral purity both individually and collectively, maybe, just maybe, the Lord would see fit to bless our assemblies numerically.
My friend and fellow assemblyHUB contributor Mike Dilione recently commented to me on this issue:
“I often think of how the church grew in the book of Acts, it normally talks about the Word of God increasing. That has always been my prayer… that the word of God would increase in our assembly and personally.”
I’m not trying to say numbers and numerical church growth are unimportant. Rather, I’m attempting to point out that focusing on numbers as the only, or even the most important barometer of an assembly’s health is overly simplistic. Such one-dimensional thinking overlooks factors of greater importance.
If small really is the new big then we may not be able to perceive the growth in numbers. Based on what I can see, Starbucks feels small—yet I know Starbucks is anything but small.
Consider the following:
- Does “church growth” mean growing the number of believers in a local assembly or does it mean growing the number of assemblies globally? Or, does it mean both?
- Should we rethink what the ideal size of a local meeting is? Instead of a city having one assembly of 150, maybe three geographically dispersed assemblies of 50 believers each is better suited to reaching our modern society.
- Should we rethink the ideal size of our local meeting spaces? Many assembly buildings are disproportionately large considering the number of believers in fellowship. Does it make sense to maintain a building built for 200 when there have been only 100 in fellowship for decades?
- It’s painful for me to be in a meeting place built for 200 when only 100 are present. It feels empty and lonely; it feels like something is wrong, even foreboding. It feels like an empty restaurant during lunch hour; where is everybody? What do they know that I don’t? Should I even eat the food??
- In contrast there is something wonderful about being in a meeting place that is appropriately sized. It feels warm and friendly; it feels welcoming. Being physically close may even inspire closer spiritual fellowship with one another.
- Many assembly buildings are 50+ years old. They were built for and by a different generation. Often the décor hasn’t been updated since the 70s or 80s. Walking into many assembly buildings is like stepping back in time. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but then again there is something wrong if we update and modernize our homes but ignore the condition of the buildings we meet in. What does this say to the community around us?
- Maybe the time has come for the assemblies to intentionally pray and think about these issues. For many assemblies it could be beneficial to downsize and modernize their meeting spaces. Doing so may even produce a surplus of funds that could be used to plant a new assembly across town.
- Good works, maintenance of faithfulness in an antagonistic society, doctrinal purity, moral purity, spiritual vitality, faithfulness to God’s Word, faithfulness to God’s name all matter. The time has come for the assemblies to return to their first love.
- If we do the work of planting and watering the seed God WILL give the increase. See 1 Corinthians 3:6 ESV.
Small is the new big!