As we walk through these last days, it’s not hard to see that the Church is growing increasingly secular every day. In our attempt to reach the lost and impact society, we have increasingly left the scriptures in search of man’s wisdom and recommendations for building the Church. All one has to do is look at the three main metrics by which most American churches judge their own success to realize how secular we have become. These three metrics are so worldly, it’s rather shameful that they are accepted as worthy indicators of a church’s health. These three metrics are: buildings, bucks, and bodies. Many churches (even little ones) judge their success in Christ (and, as a result the pastor’s self-worth) on the number of people in attendance, the amount of money in the bank, and the size of the buildings being built.
While all three are great (and may God increase all three for the Kingdom), they are not biblical metrics by which we can declare a minister or a ministry a success or a failure. After all, Jesus Christ labored for three and a half years and started His church in an upper room, not a stadium, with no money and only 120 disciples. If these three metrics were a true indicator of God’s hand and a pastor’s success, then every secular rock concert should be labeled an all out revival. Though there is much to be said about money and buildings, I will only focus on the subject of attendance in this article. The aim of this article is to address the differences between multitudes and disciples in our local churches, to encourage the “little guy” (though the little guy is often far more powerful and holy than the mega-star preacher), and to disenchant the mega-churches into a sobering call to reality, repentance if necessary, and discipleship.
The Fickle Multitudes
One of the problems with using congregation size as a metric of success is that, biblically, the multitudes have always been fickle. Beginning with John the Baptist, multitudes were always interested in what God was doing. All of Israel went out to be baptized by him as he prepared the way for Jesus. Even the Pharisees came out in great numbers to watch the wild prophet preach his confrontational message of repentance. But then John’s numbers began to dwindle. Jesus drew the multitudes away from John and they followed Him everywhere He went. Perhaps they left John to follow the newest rabbi on the scene or, perhaps, they left out of a sincere hunger; but nevertheless, John decreased that Jesus might increase. These multitudes came to Jesus to hear, be healed, and to be fed a free meal. The multitudes grew as the people came to have a need supplied, but how many of them stuck around to help build God’s Kingdom after they got their touch from God? For over three years, Jesus had the largest crowds until the messages became too hard or something more than sitting and listening was required of them. Thus, even the Lord’s numbers began to dwindle. How fickle.
Who else in the Bible could draw a multitude? Well, Judas was sent with a “band” of men to arrest Jesus. The Greek indicates that this “band” was anywhere from 500 to 1000 men. Matthew’s Gospel confirms this great number, “And while he yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves,” (Matthew 26:47). I guess Christ-betrayers don’t have a problem drawing a crowd. Who else could draw a crowd during the ministry of Jesus Christ?
It was a “whole multitude” that led Jesus unto Pilate (Luke 23:1). This multitude insisted that Jesus was guilty and that Pilate must punish Him. Barabbas also had a multitude pulling for him. Though this crowd was “persuaded” by the chief priests and elders, they still chose Barabbas (son of the father) over Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father. I wonder how many in the multitude that day, cheering for Barabbas, had been healed by Jesus, had their dead restored to them, or ate of a multiplied fish and loaf. This is the same multitude that cried, “Crucify him!” It may be that once they had received what they wanted out of Jesus, they no longer had need of Him. What a fickle multitude. But we must also ask, “Where was the multitude as Jesus carried His cross? Where was the mega-congregation at Calvary?” Alas, nowhere. The pro-Jesus multitude had abandoned Him. The party was over. The newness had worn off. Only John the beloved followed Jesus unto His death—he and a handful of women. And where was the multitude that waived palm branches just a few days earlier?
To further prove how unfaithful and fickle the multitudes can be, consider the disciple’s qualifications for replacing Judas, the traitor. A season of prayer in the upper room revealed only two qualifications were necessary to become the twelfth Apostle of the Lamb: 1) Judas’ replacement had to have been with Jesus from His baptism by John, and 2) had remained with Jesus until His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:21-23). The two qualifications amounted to basically three and a half years of faithfulness. And how many in this small group of 120 disciples met these two qualifications? Only two—Justus and Matthias. Only two!! Out the great multitude at the River Jordan who heard John declare, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29) only two believed and said, “I will follow Him until the end”—Justus and Matthias. Matthias became Judas’ replacement and the Church began with 120 faithful disciples a few days later.
Multitudes and Disciples
Real church growth is a measure of the growth of the individual believer. Which do you suppose is the stronger church: the church with 5,000 carnal spectators, or the church with 50 discipled members? It is evident from the Gospels that God sees a difference between disciples and multitudes. Consider the following verses:
- “Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude,” (Matt. 15:32)
- “Then spake Jesus unto the multitude, and to his disciples,” (Matthew 23:1)
- “And when he came to his disciples, he saw a great multitude about them,” (Mark 9:14)
- “And he [Jesus] came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem,” (Luke 6:17)
- “And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people.” (Luke 7:11)
- “In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all,” (Luke 12:1)
It is clear that God makes a distinction between those who flock to Jesus in a multitude and those who are actually His disciples. Even in small churches not everyone is a disciple.
In studying the Gospels closely, you can see tremendous similarities between the multitudes following Jesus in His day and the multitudes following Jesus today. The multitudes will be astonished at good doctrine (Matthew 22:33). They don’t necessarily want to live good doctrine, they’re just in awe at how profound it is. The multitudes don’t really mind being taught (Mark 2:13, 4:1, 6:34); problems only arise when you try to get them to act on what they’ve heard. The multitudes also require simple messages. You’ll never be able to really give them heavy meat or deep teachings; Jesus was never able to. Jesus taught the multitudes with parables and then expounded the deeper truths in private to His disciples (Matthew 10:13-17; Mark 4:2). In America today, a general rule of thumb seems to be “the bigger the church, the weaker the message.” I don’t believe it has to be this way, but multitude-based churches just seem to default to this pattern. A pastor of one of the biggest churches in America recently expressed his explanation for why small churches remain small by saying in effect, “I think emphasizing doctrine will keep a church small.” Needless to say, he is known for his mega-multitudes and not for his doctrine. (Never mind that Paul spoke of doctrine 15 times in the three pastoral epistles alone.)
Jesus looked over the multitude as He ministered to them and had compassion toward them because “they were like sheep having no shepherd.” Might that describe the modern church multitudes, sheep having no shepherd? The multitudes often come to see what they can get, but not give. They love to hear the sermon and have hands laid on them (Luke 5:15), but they won’t stick around to help clean up the nursery.
Even the revivals of the early Church (where the day of Pentecost saw 3,000 get saved, and then 5,000 more a short time later) were not immune to this multitude syndrome. With the early Church membership at 8,000+ believers, the Church should have been unstoppable. But, alas, 8,000 believers do not equal 8,000 disciples. When Herod took James and beheaded him, the Church did nothing. But when he arrested Peter, the Church began to pray. Upon Peter’s supernatural release from prison, he made his way to the prayer meeting where the faithful were still praying at the house of John Mark’s mother. A house might hold a few hundred at best, but it won’t hold 8,000 members. Where were the rest of the believers? Of the 8,000 converts to Christ, only a few hundred were faithful to
attend the prayer meeting on behalf of their apostle. Remember, these 8,000 were Peter’s converts. They came to Christ after hearing Peter preach. Where were they when he needed their help? Where was the fickle multitude?
Christ’s Requirements for Discipleship
When we study the Gospels, we can see quite readily that a bulk of any multitude will never become a disciple of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is simply too hard and it takes too much work and sacrifice. Remember, wide is the path that leads to destruction and many be they that enter therein, but narrow is the way that leads to eternal life and few be they that enter therein (Matthew 7:13) Throughout the Gospels, Jesus taught nine requirements to being one of His disciples. For many of the following requirements Jesus would state, “You cannot be my disciple unless you . . .”
- Continue in God’s Word (John 8:31). This requirement alone would eliminate so many Christians today. How many believers spend more time on Facebook than in God’s book? You’ll always make time for your god. How much of our time is Jesus Christ getting?
- Love one another (John 13:35). This does not refer to the new post-hippie love. This refers to the God-kind of love. The love that speaks the truth and restores one overtaken in a fault. This is referring to the kind of love that lays down its life for its brother. The love that doesn’t get offended. How many church members live in offense today? Read Psalm 119:165.
- Bear much fruit (John 15:8). There are nine fruit of the Spirit we must bear. All we have to do is ask ourselves, “Do I have all nine fruit of the Spirit working in every area of my life?” No? Time for more discipleship.
- Hate all to follow Jesus (Luke 14:26). Our post-hippie society doesn’t have a clue what biblical hatred even means. But then again, we don’t have a clue what real biblical love is either. Are we willing to walk away from absolutely everything to follow Jesus or do we establish our own lives and give God what little bit is left over, commanding God to bless the life we choose for ourselves?
- Bear a cross daily (Luke 14:27). A cross is a walking death sentence. Death to our own will. Death to our flesh. Death to our selfish dreams and desires. Yeah, try selling that to the average American. You can preach this in your church, but half the congregation will be busy worrying about their cappuccino getting cold.
- Forsake all (Luke 14:33). This passage warns the convert to seriously weigh the cost of serving God before committing to Him. Many Christians are determined to serve God on their own terms and conditions. Jesus does not negotiate with us. We come to Him on His terms and conditions and often they include things we must suffer for His name’s sake.
- Desire to be just like Jesus (Matthew 10:24,25; Luke 6:40). True disciples end up looking and talking just like their Master. It is a true disciple’s greatest ambition and desire to be just like their mentor. When you are truly a disciple of Jesus, you’re not going to look much like the world at all.
- Be bossed around (Matthew 11:1; 21:1,6). In this post-modern era no one likes to be told what to do. Unfortunately for us, Jesus is still in the business of commanding His disciples. Jesus is the Master and we are the slaves. How many church members today still pray, “Lord, here am I, send me,” or, “Not my will, but your will be done”?
- Make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Like begets like. What does it say when a church never produces a single disciple? Is that leadership team comprised of disciples or salespeople? You will always produce what you are. A true disciple can’t help but produce new disciples and carnal people love carnal pastors.
We need to be reminded that the Great Commission is a commission to preach the Gospel and make disciples, not build big buildings then pack them full of lukewarm multitudes. If you can build a mega-hot mega-church, more power to you, but the Bible teaches a pattern of remnants. In Noah’s day, the faithful remnant was only eight people. In Lot’s day, the faithful remnant was a mere three people (and maybe just one—Lot. Poor Lot and those lusty daughters, sheesh!) After David was anointed king, the multitude still followed Saul. Only 400 men were joined to David in a lonely little cave. In Elijah’s day, out of an entire nation, the faithful remnant was only 7,000. On national worship Nebuchadnezzar day, the faithful remnant was only three—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. On the day of Pentecost, the faithful remnant was only 120. Even after the Lord had appeared to more than 500 at once, still, only 120 were faithful to the upper room. After Paul’s sermon at Mars’ Hill (an amphitheater seating 17,000), only a handful of converts sought Paul afterwards for discipleship. Where was the multitude?
In those churches of thousands, do you really believe everyone there is a disciple of Jesus Christ, capable of reproducing Christ in another believer? Of course not, but what is being done to give those lukewarm peripheral members the opportunity and instruction to become a disciple? What percentage of your church membership do you truly believe are disciples? Fifty percent? Twenty percent? Ten percent? It is impossible to make disciples catering to the “seekers.” What will you do to make disciples out of those that are faithful to attend? As a pastor, I’d rather lead 20 disciples to heaven than follow the whims of 5,000 seekers to hell. Let us not be impressed by the masses nor be disheartened by the empty seats. Rather, let us be faithful to preach the Gospel. It’s the Lord’s job to build the Church, not the preacher’s. We just preach the Gospel—He builds His Church. You can’t build a ministry on the multitudes, so why build one trying to cater to them? Above all, don’t be deceived by church size, after all, this modern church growth revival may be nothing more than Christians comfortably falling away from Jesus Christ and landing in local goat pens and tare garners, replete with all the latest trendy entertainment comforts and accessories.