Part 5: The Numbers Game
We’ve seen a conversation in politics recently around whether the popular vote should matter more than the electoral vote. That debate reveals an ever present desire in our society to focus our attention on high-populated areas as if they are “more significant” than less-populated areas.
I think the farmers who provide significantly for our country have a valuable opinion about this topic…
I don’t think it’s unrelated that some of Jesus’ most important explanations of the spread of the Gospel and how the kingdom of God shows up on earth are agricultural. Here are a couple:
Matthew 13:3-9 – “He told many stories in the form of parables, such as this one: “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”
John 15:1-8 – “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”
Farms & Gardens Matter
It’s fascinating that over the last generation many kids in the suburbs and urban areas are having to be taught where their food comes from. Since the advent of modern supermarkets and grocery stores, many people in high populated areas have become more and more disconnected from nature and the way things were created by God to work.
So now, classes take field trips to farms and there has been a whole push for community gardens and gardening at schools. Why? Because we recognized that we cannot get everything we need as humans from the commercialized life. In fact, the commercialized life is really only viable as long as an agricultural life flourishes…
The question then becomes: Is the same true of the spiritual realities for the American Church? Is the commercialized model of church lacking something that agricultural models of churches still understand?
The Church Superstore
Let’s be honest about a perception in the modern American Church: We have started to believe that what happens in the highly populated areas is more valuable than what happens in the less populated areas.
Why is it that the voices, models, leadership styles, etc. that come out of churches in those areas garner greater attention?
Why do the pastors of those churches end up on conference stages at a higher rate?
Why do we glorify the numbers of those churches (when percentage wise they may not necessarily be reaching people at a higher rate but many times just have more numbers to count)?
But here’s a question in response to this trend:
What do we still have to learn from a Messiah who remained relatively obscure for 30 years and spent 3 years with a small number of committed disciples before He even accomplished His own purposes?
Small Town Jesus
Honestly this focus on numbers doesn’t surprise anyone, probably not even Jesus. I mean, he was born in Bethlehem and not Jerusalem… (Micah 5:2 – “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf.”)
The problem isn’t inherently with large churches. It’s in value-based assumptions concerning small churches. Many great movements of God in America have started in smaller contexts (See You At The Pole). In fact, the Methodist Movement (during the Second Great Awakening), which transformed our country during the 1800’s, found much of its most rapid growth thru circuit riders who went into pioneer communities.
Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe we should be asking the leaders of small churches what ministry should look like and looking to the smaller contexts for answers about the Christian life. Maybe we’ve overlooked some of the most important lessons of what the Messiah is doing in the small villages because we are too busy looking for Him in Jerusalem…
So as we reflect on Lent and the events coming up as we get closer to Easter, let’s remember that most of Jesus’ own disciples deserted Him as He accomplished His mission – and certainly the crowds did.
Our desire to gather crowds, and our glorification of the models which do, must end at the cross. Our focus must be on the mission of multiplying disciples. And that sort of a movement usually starts with smaller groups of believers. There is no “trickle down” effect for spiritual awakening – actually, it’s usually the opposite as you track historic moves of God.