What would Jesus do with a big, fat crowd?
Crowds are fickle, but oh how we love a crowd.
There is an obsession in the world today with getting popular approval, mass support, and adoration. I sometimes wonder just how much this desire has infiltrated the church. Some pastors (not all) want big churches because big churches mean big popularity. Some church members want their church to be big because that means we look credible and impressive in the eyes of the world. It’s nice to tell your friends or colleagues how many hundreds or thousands of people are at your church.
I’m not against big churches or the very deliberate effort to grow churches. On the contrary, I believe that is the very definite plan of God. I’m convinced the Bible predicts a very, very impressive picture with regard to the future of the Church. As one preacher put it, “Jesus is coming back for a massive bride…” (an unfortunate turn of phrase, I’ll admit.)
However, despite this very definite trajectory that the Church of Jesus Christ is set on – unstoppable growth – it is nevertheless equally true that the crowds we call churches may be deceptively big. Not everybody in a church is necessarily in the Church.
What do I mean? It’s obvious when you think about it that size does not equate to success in any direct sense. If it did, then the Catholic Church is clearly doing quite well… Jesus isn’t interested in gathering crowds if the individuals in that crowd can get the wrong idea that they’re part of Jesus’ Church, when in fact they’re not. There may be a feeling of safety in numbers that actually stops people getting saved.
For this reason Jesus does some very interesting things when he’s faced by crowds in the gospels. On the one hand, there are many, many occasions when Jesus is surrounded by crowds and he enjoys a good rapport with them. He teaches – they listen and are amazed. But there are some very significant moments when Jesus sees the crowds and then proceeds to say things that he knows will turn them away in dismay or disgust. He deliberately cuts through the mass hysteria and whittles down the mob to allow true faithfulness to emerge.
On one occasion he tells his followers that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood, they won’t inherit eternal life (John 6). The immediate effect is that a good deal of his own disciples abandon him, because he sounded more than a little crazy. Here is another example: ‘When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation…” ‘ (Luke 11:29 ESV). I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon open with that line.
Here is one final example, and it’s worth quoting in full:
‘Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” ‘ (Luke 14:25-26 ESV)
My point is simple, but important. If preachers are softening their messages in order to grow bigger churches, then they are not preaching like Jesus preached. Instead, the truth should attract and repel; it should woo and it should come down like a hammer on anything resembling half-hearted commitment. To fail to do this is simply unloving, since it perpetuates the confusion people have that there is safety in numbers.
What would Jesus say to so many ‘successful’ churches where the numbers are up, but truth is down?