Judging by numbers
Fiona Gibson: 12 March 2016
I wept as I read something on the internet this week. That’s not an uncommon occurrence: my heart is often broken by the realities of a fallen world. This time I wept because what I read seemed to imply that people like me, churches like mine, are a waste of time and won’t help the next generation learn about Jesus.
I was reading the online apology from Andy Stanley (pictured above) after his comments that parents who ‘drag their kids to a [small] church they hate’ are ‘stinking selfish [and] care nothing about the next generation.’
First of all, I want to acknowledge that Stanley has unreservedly apologised for what he said, saying that even he ‘was offended by what he said’.
But, what he wrote still hurts. And it hurts because it’s an attitude I see replicated elsewhere. That attitude seems to be small = failing, large = successful = God is pleased. Now, small can mean failing, but so can large. And large can mean successful, but so can small. It depends on the criteria you’re using to make your judgment.
As I reflected on why this attitude hurts so much, my thoughts turned to my own situation. I am the vicar of three small churches. On the Stanley Scale, where small means 200, I’m actually the vicar of three tiny churches.
Whenever I get together with other vicars, one of the first questions they ask is, ‘How big are your congregations?’ Immediately, I feel the need to start justifying myself, in the way I did when my children were tiny and I took them to the clinic to be weighed. ‘Oh, er, well, not that big really…’ I trail off into silence as I feel myself, my ministry, and the people I serve judged by numbers.
When did we get to the point where raw size equals success? And what does God think about it?
That really got me thinking as I reflected on my reactions. Where, in the talk of small = failing, large = successful, is the thinking about how God chooses the weak to shame the strong? About how God chose the lowly things, and the despised things, and the things that are not?
We small churches often feel like the weak, the lowly, sometimes even the despised.
Which son of Jesse did God choose to be King? The youngest, the smallest, the overlooked one. Which mother did God choose for his incarnate Son? One who was so poor she could only offer the least sacrifice at the temple. Which people did God choose to be his own? The fewest of all peoples. The weak. The lowly. The despised.
So, what gifts can the small and the weak offer to the large and the strong?
We do ‘inter-generational’ brilliantly. One of the most moving relationships in our churches is between a teenage girl and a woman in her 90s who has never married or had children of her own. They love one another. They actively seek each other out after church and chat for ages, sharing stories, sharing lives. I’m not saying that could never happen in a large church, but I suspect it would be considerably harder, as they would have found it harder to find one another. They would most likely have stuck with their own age groups.
We do ‘one-anothering’ brilliantly, because we know one another deeply. Some of the relationships in our village churches go back generations. People know one another’s stories, we are ever ready with a casserole, a cake, and a hug. And we can easily notice and welcome new people.
We know that church is not something we go to on a Sunday, but somewhere we gather to grow, and where we all have a part to play. In the larger churches I’ve been part of, one of the greatest frustrations was that 20 per cent of the people seem to do 80 per cent of the work. That doesn’t happen in my small churches. We all muck in. We know our neighbours and communities really well. We’re part of them. We serve them.
And, yes, we want to grow. In faith, hope, love. In wisdom and understanding. In prayer and mission. And, as God gives the growth, in numbers too. But we will never be large in the world’s eyes. And I try not to get too stressed about that.
After all, not everything that counts can be numbered.