The American measurement of success is numbers.
“How much do you earn?”
“How many do you own?”
“How big is your house?”
So, it only makes sense in America that when you’re “in ministry” — especially local church ministry — someone will inevitably ask you, “How big is your church?” The bigger the church, the better the church, right?
The Wrong Question
This measurement of success has crept into the church world over a long period of time, and on one level it makes sense because, obviously, we want to reach a lot of people for Christ, so we want His church to grow.
But, it’s the wrong question.
The SIZE of a church was never the concern of Jesus or His Apostles. The question was always: How STRONG is your church?!
Jesus told His Apostles, “I will build My church . . . and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18)! That’s strength! He didn’t say, “I will build My church and it will fill the largest buildings man can build!” He boasted (yes, boasted) that not even the devil himself would defeat it because it would be so strong.
When He gave those same Apostles the Great Commission, He told them to, “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). That — again — is strength. He didn’t say, “Go therefore and convert great throngs of people”. The single command of the Great Commission is “make disciples” (“Go…baptizing…teaching” are all participles, not imperatives). When you compare this to what Jesus taught about the demands of being His disciple (Matthew 10:24ff, 16:21-28; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:18-27, 14:25-35), the implication is clear: Great Commission work is leading people to be strong, highly-committed followers of Jesus Christ.
But don’t stop there! To fully understand Great Commission work, we’ve got to understand Acts. We’ve got to understand how those Apostles understood the Great Commission. They certainly worked hard to spread the gospel to lots of people — growth is not bad. The point is that Jesus and His Apostles were most concerned with “strengthening” (establishing) churches.
Luke did note that the first church of Jerusalem included thousands of people, but he emphasized what they were “devoted” to (Acts 2:42) — the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread (the Lord’s Supper) and prayer — their generosity, their gladness and sincerity of heart, their praise, their favor with all the people, their bold witness, etc. He wrote that God “added to their numbers daily,” but notice that it was God who did the adding. The Apostles were focused on strengthening.
In fact, when Peter had the first and only megachurch (a bunch of people all gathering in one place) in the Bible, God allowed them to be scattered — presumably so that the church could expand and the gospel could spread.
“. . . And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles . . . Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:1–4, NASB95)
At first, the church huddled up in Jerusalem (who can blame them, that’s where the Apostles were), but then it expanded due to persecution, and then it expanded intentionally when Barnabas and Paul got on a boat and set sail for Cyprus (Acts 13:1-4). From that point on, the entire focus is directed on Paul and his missionary journeys bent on expansion.
So, what did Paul do on these journeys? Was he focused on numbers? No, he planted small churches in homes and made sure they were strong:
“After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples…” (Acts 14:21-22)
“And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” (Acts 15:41, NASB95)
“So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.” (Acts 16:5, NASB95)
“And having spent some time there, he left and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” (Acts 18:23, NASB95)
The Holy Spirit — through the pen of Luke — never emphasized size, but strength. It is true, Luke wrote that the churches “were increasing in number daily,” but this seems to be the fruit of churches that “were being strengthened in the faith”. Establishing strong churches was goal of Jesus and His Apostles, so our concern should be the same.
Another Wrong Question
“I see!” shouts the small-church pastor who misses the point entirely. “The right question is, ‘How small is your church?’ Right? Since Paul planted small churches, small must be better!” It would be easy for small churches to think this way. While it is true that Paul planted small churches, it does not necessarily follow that “small must be better”. This is the same mistake, different extreme. The emphasis is not numbers, but strength.
There are weak big churches and weak small churches. There are strong small churches and strong big churches. Some of the largest churches in the world are filled with people who are nominal Christians at best, and at worst actually reject some of the core beliefs of Christianity. Some of the smallest churches in the world are very faithful and committed, but are serving Christ in areas that are notoriously anti-Christian.
Numbers can be the fruit of strength, but large numbers do not necessarily indicate strength. Small can be the fruit of weakness, but small numbers do not necessarily indicate weakness. That brings us to the question we should be asking.
The Right Question
The question we should all be asking is: How strong is our church? This, of course, should lead to a conversation exploring other crucial questions: How do you know if a church is strong? And, how does a weak church become strong? The answers to these questions are lengthy and rich, and beyond the scope of this article (we’ll explore this more in future articles). But for now, thing about a couple things:
First, remember that Jesus boasted that His church would be incredibly strong. How? The main answer is that its strength would be supernatural.
“. . . But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”” (Acts 1:8, NASB95)
Jesus was clear that the “power” — the strength — of the church would come from the Holy Spirit. So, you know a church is strong if it is walking according to the Holy Spirit (Romans 8). But, how do you know if a church is walking according to the Holy Spirit? Do you see how involved this can get? Not only is Spirit-walking also a lengthy and rich subject, but there are some pretty heated differences of opinion about it. Peter told us that the Holy Spirit “moved” the writers of Scripture (2 Peter 1:19-21) in order to give us “the prophetic word made more sure” — “a lamp shining in a dark place” — so following the New Testament faithfully is the primary way we can walk according to the Spirit.
Second, remember who was given the assignment to “bring to light the administration” of the church — the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 3:8-10). So, this man we see in the Book of Acts who dedicated his life to “strengthening the churches” also wrote 13 letters by that very same Holy Spirit. Those letters were written to churches. They were written to help those churches become strong churches.
If you want to know the answer to the right question (i.e., How strong is your church?), spend some serious time studying the letters of Paul. Read carefully, asking questions such as: Why did Paul write each of his letters? What problems did he address and what were his solutions? What examples did he hold up as mature and spiritual and why? For what did he praise the churches? What did he emphasize and repeat? How did Paul define a strong church?
So, when someone asks, “How big is your church?” or “Is your church multi-cultural? Does your church have a good children’s program? Does your pastor preach relevant messages? Does your church go on mission trips?” find a way to graciously let them know that these are the wrong questions. Don’t be a jerk about it, but find a way to let them know that asking the right question can make all the difference in the world for every Christian and every church.