After three long years of ministry Jesus left the earth with only 120 faithful disciples.  After his very first public sermon, Peter baptized  3.000 into the fold.

  • Who was the bigger failure?
  • Was Jesus a bigger failure because his numbers were so small?
  • Does Peter represent the bigger failure because he compromised the Gospel to get big quick?

I would argue that there is no good answer to these questions, because the questions themselves are flawed.

In the life of More Than Cake, I have argued consistently that the church in the West needs a reformation. One recent example was in my series on Elders and the corporate structures of the Church.. The problem, however, is that just like my questions above, many would-be reformers base their criticism on the superficiality of size and systems.  Some folks think that just because a church is big, it has compromised the Gospel.  Some people believe that since they hold a minority view and worship in a small group, that their faith must be more pure.  I have read the ranting of more than one modern-reformer who is convinced that only their small minority of disciples will tear down the hegemony of “big-church” and usher in the “true” revival of God’s “pure” little-church.

Through the lens of history, Karl Barth offers a reasoned approach to looking beyond the surface of size and into the substance of what constitutes truth for the church.

Certainly great membership rolls and good attendences and full churches and halls (and even lecture rooms) are facts which naturally impress us—who can fail to be impressed by them?—but what do they really have to do with the truth? … The Scribes and Pharisees were certainly in a majority against Jesus and His disciples, and yet they were wrong … The truth may undoubtedly lie with the minority … It may lie only with the two or three gathered together (Mt. 18:20) in the name of Jesus Christ. That they number several millions is of no avail to those who are not gathered in His name. The whole legitimacy of the Reformation rests upon this possibility. There are some who go further and boldly affirm that the truth will very likely, indeed will fairly (or most) certainly, be found within the minority. An empty church is regarded as a comforting indication and prejudice in favour of the fact that the pure Gospel is proclaimed in it … In certain circumstances does it not involve a genuine pleasure and exaltation to be in a minority … the little flock to which it is the Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom, which is therefore a kind of advance guard of God? In Schiller’s words: “What is majority? Majority is folly.” Good sense is never found but with the few.

But here again we must be careful. There have been minorities whose resistance to the majority has not been legitimate because their cause has had nothing whatever to do with the veritas catholica [true Catholic Church], because in them we are dealing only with manifestations of an utterly a-catholic individualism—in the garb of particularism and sectarianism. In the history of the Church both before and after the 16th century there have been far too many little movements of reform instigated by men who appealed readily to the fact that a majority proves nothing, that truth and the good God are more likely to be on the side of the small and even the smallest battalions, and yet in the long run they proved to be no more lasting than a kind of carnival procession…

We have also to consider that in the long run every minority, however content it may be as such, however proud of itself, has all the same a concealed or open tendency to become the majority, and that this has, in fact, often been the case. The transition is undoubtedly a dangerous one and sometimes fatal. There was something very far wrong when the little flock of Lk. 12 became the imperial world-Church of Constantine, and many a minority in the Church has lost more than it has gained by becoming a majority, or a big Church instead of a small. But it is not fundamentally the case that when the few become many the truth also becomes error. [emphasis mine]
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV, 1, p. 709f. The Holy Spirit and the Gathering of the Christian Community.

I want to encourage my brothers and sisters who seek a reformation of Faith in America to move beyond the banal attack against size.  Corruption in past approaches to church growth must not keep us from being a people for the multitudes.  Let’s work together to reform the church, but let’s not join together based on a common disdain for size (big or small).  Let us join together based on our passion and ability to pursue Christ.  For if Christ is our bond and cuase, then size will take care of itself.  In our zeal for revival and reformation, let’s put aside fear, anger, and bitterness of the past.  Let’s keep Christ first and thus ensure we do not become the very thing we fight against!

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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