Numerical Strength in Assemblies Today
by Ken Cooper (Bromborough)
Barely a month goes by without an indication, in assembly based magazines, of yet another assembly closing. Furthermore it is evident that many assemblies, although maintaining a testimony, are in serious decline. This decline is often measured by numerical weakness.
The sense the author has, through contacts across the country, is that in many assemblies numbers of believers in fellowship are decreasing at an alarming rate. An associated concern is that the numbers of unbelievers attending gospel meetings or other outreach activities has also sharply reduced. There is little growth through the salvation and gathering of souls. In addition changes to numbers within assemblies are more likely to be as a consequence of believers moving in and out of an area.
We must and do give thanks to God for every soul saved and the blessing that comes through sustained and regular Gospel outreach. We cannot know in full how God is working behind the scenes in individual lives and through the personal testimony of the Lord’s people. Souls are being saved but regrettably an increasing number who are saved do not go on in association with assembly testimony.
The external indicators suggest we are facing a most serious situation. The situation in many parts of the UK appears to be almost at crisis point.
Declining numbers is a consequence of many things. Many assemblies are made up of older people and the progression of time has its effect. Decline may be an indictment of our failure to be as active in the Gospel as we should be. It may be the consequence of increasing carnality and materialism amongst God’s people. Many leave assembly fellowship these days because they are rejecting the scriptural pattern. Some leave out of personal pique or for spurious reasons. In some places specific local factors apply.
This article seeks to raise some questions for consideration in the light of these trends.
The Relevance of Numbers
Numerical strength is not unimportant to the Lord. Numbers are used at times as an indicator of strength, power and blessing.
For example in the Old Testament the relative strength of the tribes of Israel were indicated by their numbers. In the New Testament the great blessing on the day of Pentecost and in early apostolic days is confirmed by reference to the salvation of great numbers; 3,000 and 5,000 souls (Acts 2:41, 4:4). Acts 11:21 speaks about “a great number” that believed, an evidence of divine working. Acts 16:5 speaks about churches that “increased in number daily”. Many other examples could be cited.
Conversely there are many occasions when the Scriptures dwell on numerical weakness and reduction, which is no barrier to God working. Gideon was told to reduce his army to 300 to defeat the might of the enemy. The Lord called only twelve disciples. The Lord spoke about His presence being dependent on gathering to His name even if only two or three are present. Again other examples could be cited.
The Lord Himself spoke about numbers and particularly indicated a concern about numerical response. He acknowledged that there is no direct link between the invitation given and the resulting response; “many are called but few are chosen “(Matt. 22:14). In Luke 17 the Lord, having healed ten lepers, questioned why only one “returned to give glory to God” (Lk. 17:18); “where are the nine” He asked. In this question the Lord acknowledged that diligence is often lacking. We too should not be surprised by similar trends in testimony today. The lack of response did not prevent the Lord from continuing to do God’s work. Likewise it should not prevent us today.
The Preoccupation with Numbers
There is, of course, a danger that we can get overly preoccupied with numbers. We invariably judge the “success” of an activity by the numbers attending. Reports of assembly activities tend to focus on numbers present. We are all prone to think in numerical terms.
Numbers are often the first reference point to determine whether an activity has been a blessing or should be sustained. The assumption seems to be that the bigger the number the more power in the gathering; the bigger the number the greater the sense of God’s presence; the bigger the number the more likelihood of blessing. This of course is not necessarily the case.
The emphasis on numbers may arise from looking at things from man’s perspective. We cannot and must not ignore the fact that God can and does bless despite numerical weakness.
The preoccupation with numbers brings problems.
The Problem of Large Numbers
There is a possibility that large numbers can mask an underlying spiritual dearth.
It is possible for an assembly to have 100, 150 or 200 or even more on the roll and for there to be a spiritual dearth among the majority. Large numbers may inhibit the development of local gift, may promote the abdication of personal responsibility in terms of attendance or priestly exercise and may be the cause of increased strife amongst God’s people. There is of course no prescribed size for an assembly but local elders will need to be aware of the problems that large numbers can bring.
Gatherings such as conferences are sometimes deemed to be excellent because they are attended by many hundreds of believers or because the “atmosphere” is one of encouragement and the opportunity for fellowship is enjoyed. Ultimately the quality of ministry given and its effect upon God’s people should be seen as more important factors.
The Problem of Small Numbers
There is nothing inherently virtuous in small numbers. The fact is that many assemblies now have only a handful of believers in fellowship. As a consequence it is not always possible to sustain activities that have characterised assembly testimony for many years. Work among the young and cessation of Gospel activity is often the first casualty. Other meetings become hard work for the few that are left and are far from uplifting spiritual occasions. The problems are exacerbated by inconsistent attendance and participation by some when the local need is obvious. Part of the problem would be overcome if believers attended their nearest local assembly. The increasing practice of believers travelling many miles to distant assemblies, often past other small assemblies, is contrary to the spirit and practice of scripture which teaches the importance of the “local” assembly.
There are of course exceptions to every generalisation and many small assemblies have precious times when just a few are gathered and the presence of the Lord is felt deeply. God has chosen “the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty” (see 1 Cor. 1:25-29). God’s grace is sufficient, His strength “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
However at times there is a lack of realism with regard to the true benefit that is being derived or the blessing that will come. The solution is not of course to promote a wholesale closure or amalgamation of assemblies. But it may be the time to think about doing some things differently and in a way that scripture is not compromised in relation to church order and principles of gathering.
Closing the doors of an assembly is no light matter. Any spiritual person would deem such a step to be the last resort. But, apart from questions about the effectiveness of the testimony, there are matters of stewardship of the Lord’s resources to be taken into account.
Some Observations to Consider
- We should not use the decline in numbers to become a pretext for unscriptural change and the compromising of scriptural standards and the Biblical pattern. The honour of Christ’s name must take priority over all other considerations. This criterion is far more important than the numbers that may be attracted through rejection of divine order.
- Reducing numbers should cause us to cast our lot more wholeheartedly on the Lord as we serve Him in a given locality.
- Moving assemblies because of good numbers elsewhere or declining numbers locally is not a step to be taken lightly. It quite often masks an individual’s underlying spiritual instability and will not be the answer to personal spiritual problems.
- Moving assemblies and/or travelling distances to support those who are numerically weak is not the long term answer, in most cases it simply delays the inevitable.
- We should not arbitrarily use scriptures such as Mt. 18:20 to continue to gather where it is evident that a testimony is no longer sustainable. A “keep the doors open at all costs” mentality can hardly be the ground for moving forward. This is investing too much emphasis on buildings rather than outreach work and principles of gathering.
- Local elders need to reconsider the current arrangements of some local activities. For example in an area where there are two or three small assemblies it may be better for assemblies to come together for outreach activity or teaching meetings where local gift can be better used. Care must be taken to not undermine the autonomy of the local assembly but combined activities could potentially lead to greater encouragement. Inter assembly fellowship is to be encouraged and does not necessarily compromise local autonomy (Mal. 3:16).
- Declining numbers generally will mean declining material resources and there will be a need to consider whether the maintenance of expensive buildings is sustainable in future.
- Declining numbers means there will be fewer able to maintain the public side of the testimony. The non-existence of a dynamic outreach activity should raise the question about the future of any testimony. It may be better to consolidate assemblies by joining together and using building facilities as preaching posts. This is currently the case in some more rural areas. It could be an approach in some urban areas.
- The need for “full time” workers to concentrate on the “homeland” should be the priority.
- The potential for overseas workers to return to the UK to work among different ethnic groups should be encouraged. One intuitively questions the need for believers to be commended to places where there is a strong assembly testimony.
We are in challenging times. The potential to look at current numerical weakness and descend into a negative, downward and depressing spiral is obvious. However current trends should act as a rallying cry to each of us. We need to be more positive and pursue a more definite path. More prayer is needed. Recovery to the scriptural pattern is needed. Many modern unscriptural practices work for a short time but often end in disarray. We need to give even greater attention to Christian family life and children and young people need to be supported, cared for, trained and guided in a way that does not cultivate worldly interests. Above all we need to pray and pray that God will preserve and bless the testimony.