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!

A “Missional” Social Experiment

I remember the time that one fellow brought blow pops into a men’s group I was attending. As he walked in, he plunked the bag down right in the center of the circle of classroom chairs where we were sitting. Some conversation ensued about the candy he brought for any who wanted it. As a result two of them sauntered out in the middle and picked one up. (One of which needed dessert for the meal he was gulping down, before the meeting started.) Too bad there weren’t more takers, I thought.

Resse's Peanut butter cupsThe next week someone else brought Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and in the same way, he dumped them right in the center for anyone to take right before the group started. I decided to do a little social experiment. I wanted to see if it was approached differently would there be a different response. So I went over to the middle and picked out a piece for myself and then I went around and personally presented the open bag to each one. And I got the inverse reaction; all but two took some. Interesting, isn’t it?

What made the difference? Well, yes, it could have been that peanut butter cups are tastier than blow pops, but I believe it was that I took the candy to each one which made it easier, less embarrassing than going all the way out into the center to get a piece of candy.

How does this apply to the church? Unfortunately nowadays especially for the younger generations in our culture, it is a little embarrassing to go to church. The church is not perceived to be the positive force in our society that it once was. Unless you are a mega church, you have a hard time competing with the high quality media all around us. So like with the candy, we can’t expect the majority of people to come for the message; we need to go out to them.

mis-sion-al This concept is at the heart of the buzzword echoing throughout the halls of evangelicalism these days – “missional”. It means we approach the non-Christian culture around us like it is a mission field and we the people in the pews are its missionaries. Instead of designing things to bring them in (“attractional”), we go out to them, living out the gospel in their midst. A very Biblical concept. The disciples did it (Mark 6:7-13), Paul did it (Acts 13:2-5) and most importantly Jesus via the incarnation did it (John 1:14). He left the confines of heaven to come and be one of us so that we could receive the good news.

I have become more attuned to “missional” thinking through the Eastern District of the Evangelical Free Church at our annual two-day conferences. I remember one pastor, the Director of Missional Ministry, speaking about what he has seen as groups from his church have, in that “missional” way, engaged their neighborhoods and other relational circles. He showed a video of young adults informally eating around tables, crammed into living rooms and generally having fun together. In it, he told stories of the impact on the lives of people who normally would never darken the door of a church.

Tanya
Tanya explains her move from agnosticism to belief.

One that stood out was that of Tanya, a recovering heroin addict. Though a self-described agnostic, they were able to engage her in conversation about her feeling that God was angry with her and show her God’s love and grace instead. What a picture to see her, Mohawk hairstyle, studs in her lips, and tattoos covering her arms, being baptized in a backyard swimming pool! She would never have come to church, but by going to her, she ended up giving her life to the Lord!

I don’t like buzzwords too much, but I do like the concept of going out with the gospel and in a friendly way engaging people with our Savior. What about you?