“OBEDIENCE, NOT NUMBERS”
June 22, 2007
It had been a particularly dismal Sunday. Our traditional new church plant had been in decline almost from the beginning. Without any denominational backing, very limited support, only a small handful of committed members, and no real home of our own, we had little chance of success. For the past two years we had been meeting in another church facility on Sunday evenings. Though we ministered to many people who came to our services and found what they needed at the time, they typically chose to move on to what they deemed a “real” church with all the programs, bells and whistles that come with a well established, much larger congregation. With little means to attract new visitors our numbers had been steadily plummeting.
But this Sunday evening brought out fewer than a dozen people and my own tithe check comprised the vast majority of the offering. I had finally had enough. Our vision, which I was convinced had been received from God, was to be a church-planting church. We wouldn’t have to worry about passing the dreaded “two-hundred attendance barrier” which plagued most congregations and stifled their growth. Long before we reached that boundary we would farm out several of our families to begin a new church in another neighborhood. It was a strategy I had been dreaming of for years, but one which looked like it would never materialize. What could we do with so few numbers?
In a state of despair and bitter disappointment following our evening church service I drove up the hill behind our home to a parking lot which overlooked the valley. Alone in the darkness I wept, grieving for the loss of a dream, the death of a ministry, my failure as a church planter, my inability to provide for my family, and for how God had seemingly abandoned his servant. I can’t do this any more, Father, I prayed. It is far too difficult for me and I haven’t the strength to go on. The numbers just aren’t there, and apparently neither are you. I feel so alone. I am so sorry that I have failed you. And then, in a statement that I would never forget, one that would come back to haunt me, I cried out loud, “Lord, I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
The very next morning I was startled by a phone call from the Contra Costa Sheriff’s dispatch center requesting my services as a police chaplain. This was the first call out I had received in several months and I was not at all thrilled about the interruption to my continued wallowing in the pit of depression. An elderly woman suffering from muscular dystrophy was being abused by her adult daughter who had been living in her home. Apparently this had gone on for quite some time as the woman was reluctant to ask for help fearing she would never be able to see her grandchildren again. In desperation she had picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1 and then changed her mind and hung up. This had triggered an automatic welfare check response from the local police who, upon arriving at the scene and assessing the problem, had called for a chaplain.
At the home I was briefed on the situation by a police officer and introduced to the despondent woman. She invited me into her kitchen where we sat down facing each other across a small wooden table. I began by asking her what I could do to help. The very first words out of her mouth nearly knocked me off my chair.
“Chaplain,” she began, wiping her eyes with a soggy tissue, “I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
The fact that this call out was so unusual and came within hours of my exact same heart cry left no doubt in my mind that this was a divinely instituted appointment. Still in shock over the woman’s choice of words I somehow managed to minister to her pressing needs and in the process, felt strangely comforted. Later, back at my own home I was drawn to a study of the prophet Elijah. He is looked upon as perhaps the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets and afforded the honor of representing all such prophets on the Mount of Transfiguration along with Moses and Christ. Yet almost his entire ministry was spent in relative obscurity. He lived for a long time alone in the wilderness after which he was sent to minister to one widow woman and her son. For three and a half years he labored to a congregation of ravens and two people.
On the top of Mt Carmel he was at last able to have his moment in the limelight. 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah were slaughtered there in a dramatic, fiery contest in which Elijah was gloriously triumphant. Perhaps he thought all would now change in Israel and he would be afforded the respect due to a prophet of the Lord. Maybe he envisioned a life of ease preaching in palaces and dining on royal delicacies. However, one encounter with Jezebel sent all his dreams crashing to earth. With a death sentence hanging over his head Elijah fled to the desert where he sat under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. He may as well have said, “Lord, I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
Strengthened by an angel’s provision he ran further into the desert for forty days and nights until he reached the mountain of God. In a fit of despair and bitter disappointment Elijah complained to God in a whining tantrum that sounded eerily similar to my own hilltop rant. God’s answer to his discouraged prophet had always been somewhat difficult for me to comprehend, until I found myself standing in Elijah’s sandals.
What are you doing here, Elijah? – 1Kings 19:9.
When Elijah repeated his list of complaints God also repeated His question, not in the whirlwind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a gentle whisper. What are you doing here, Elijah? – 1Kings 19:13.
The implication of what the Lord was saying finally began to dawn upon me. God had not told Elijah to run away to this remote mountaintop. Why had he done so? There were still many tasks left which God had called the prophet to complete, but they couldn’t be accomplished on the mountain of despair. Oh, and by the way, he wasn’t alone in his calling. Seven thousand others were still allied with him in his battle against false gods.
The Lord seemed to be saying to me, “What are you doing here, Bill? I didn’t call you to the mountain of despair. I still have many tasks remaining for you to finish, but you can’t accomplish them on this mountain.”
I also learned that success has nothing to do with numbers, nor does it imply recognition and invitations to speak at conventions and mega churches. Success in God’s eyes is simply listening to His voice and obeying what you hear. Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. – 1Samuel 15:22. Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it. – Luke 11:28.
A few weeks after my encounter with God through a desperate woman’s cry for help, I again whined to Him complaining about the vision I believed He had given us for being a church-planting church. “How can we plant churches with only a dozen people?” I inquired of the Lord.
“Reproduce what you have!” I clearly heard Him answer.
Once again I was forced to rework my idea of success. The vision I had received from God was still valid, but the strategy was clouded with years of doing church in the traditional format, striving for greater and greater numbers. In obedience to God we moved our small group back into our home and began a four-year process of reprogramming ourselves, learning how to be the church 24/7 rather than just do church once a week, learning how to obey God’s voice and be faithful in ministering to the one rather than preach to the hundreds. Oh, and by the way, we are certainly not alone in our calling. Millions across this country are following the Lord’s direction into similar ministries.
By God’s grace we have finally realized our vision of being a church-planting church, several times over. I am convinced there are many more daughter churches on the way soon to spring up all over Northern California and beyond. Will these all be small group fellowships? Probably, but God doesn’t seem to be much impressed with numbers. Does this mean God is calling everyone to accept and implement the house-church model? No, it simply means He is calling everyone to listen to His voice and obey what He is specifically speaking to each individual. I do, however, believe the Lord would have us not be overly concerned with numbers. Such an emphasis is too easily born of pride rather than an honest desire to see the kingdom of God advance. If only we would be as obsessed with hearing God’s voice as we seem to be with achieving a larger attendance!
Tragically, the body of Christ is filled with discouraged servants weary of the struggle for greater numbers. Before you would ascend the mountain of despair heed this lesson from a couple of enlightened mountain climbers. As Elijah and I would both readily testify success is all about hearing His gentle whisper and doing what He says, not in building a larger following; it’s all about obedience, not numbers.
Bill, a child of God striving to listen and obey