The Numbers Game

“They’re stealing all our people,” one woman complained about a nearby mega-church. She was a member of a congregation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, back in 1978 when I was a pastoral intern there. I could understand her feelings, though the church did not actually steal people. A few members of our small 100-member church liked the programs of the 3000-people church fifteen minutes away, and so they had left for that church. What was harder though was the general pull of that big church upon others in the area. It was discouraging trying to bring new people in. Nobody knew of us, all they knew was the other church!

Today the situation is not much different, though the disparity has increased. Through satellite campuses and great online media and marketing expertise, the mega-church can greatly increase its reach, and become 10,000 or more rather than just 3000. I have heard these churches addressed as giga-churches. It seems more churches like that Milwaukee church are left in the dust with as little as 10-30 people.

In reality though, only 9% of churchgoing Protestants go to these mega-churches, according to an article in the May 8, 2012 issue of Christianity Today. The article said that 41% associate with a congregation of a 100 or fewer. Not so discouraging when you look at it like that.

It’s easy to play the numbers game, and determine our worth as a church by how big we are. It’s the business model applied to the church. We feel we have to get the biggest bang for our buck or we have fallen short and should hang it up. But God doesn’t look at it like that.

Back in Judges, Gideon had amassed 32,000 warriors to fight against the mightier Midianites. It looked tough to win even with those numbers, yet God ordered him to trim them dramatically. All those who trembled with fear could head for home. All those who lapped stream water like dogs instead of bringing it to their mouths were let go as well. (Maybe the ones left were better, more watchful soldiers, the text isn’t clear.) Now they had all of 300 men. And guess what? They won a mighty victory over the Midianites!

Why did God trim the numbers? Vs. 2 is clear, so the Israelites would not “boast against me (God).” God wanted to show his great power to them. What better way than through a much smaller army. It wasn’t the army then, it was God!

We can easily get discouraged in a smaller church, feeling like we can’t contribute to God’s purposes. But we can take encouragement that he does want to use us for his glory sake. If we do it in His strength, he will accomplish great things, and we can win great victories for the Lord!

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Fighting the Wrong Battle?

Hiroo Onada c. 1944

Did you ever hear the story of the Japanese soldier, who continued fighting World War 2 until 1974? It’s a true story and his name is Hiroo Onada. He was an intelligence officer who was assigned to Lubang Island in the Philippines with the orders to do all he could to hamper Allied attacks on the island. His instructions were specific that under no circumstances was he to surrender! When the Allies overtook the island, unlike most of the rest who did surrender, he took to the hills with three others in his command.

They continued to carry out occasional raids on the Philippine police as they had opportunity. A number of times they came upon leaflets telling them that the war had ended, but they dismissed them as Allied propaganda, so they continued on. Over the years one walked away from the rest and surrendered, and two were killed in gunfire. Only Onada was left, but he continued on for quite awhile.

Onoda (second left) walking from the jungle where he had hidden since World War 2.

It wasn’t until 1974, that another Japanese man went looking for him and found him. The two became friends, but still Onada would not surrender. He would only do so if his commanding officer ordered him. Through his friend the Japanese government found that commanding officer, who met Onada and handed him his orders to cease fighting and surrender.

Have we as the church fallen out of communication with our commander, that like Onada we are fighting for things that don’t matter? Though there is a war with Satan (Eph. 6:10-12), have the battle lines shifted so we are shooting civilians way behind the front? Do we throw spiritual bombs at Catholics? Are we still targeting the fundamentalist-modernist controversy with the liberal denominations? Are we up in arms, when a young woman is dressed immodestly? These are still important issues that need to be addressed. However the biggest battle that we need to concentrate on is the secular wars; they’re slowly eating away at not only our moral base, but also our freedom to practice our faith. Some are called to fight the war in the public arena, but where the everyday person in the church needs to battle is for individuals to come to know the Lord. So we should reach out to people around us, love and care for them, and share the good news of the gospel with them. Like in any war the one with the most territory wins. The embattled¬†territory is people’s lives!

Some are hidden away like Onada, but all it takes is for someone to go look for him and become his friend, and get in touch with the commanding officer for him, so he can surrender to Him.