The prophet Zechariah is well–known for his use of the expression “the day of small things” (Zech. 4: 10). This has been applied by many to current conditions, where only a minority of professing Christians abide faithful to God and His Word. The parallel drawn is not without merit, and just as God preserved the Jewish remnant of Zechariah’s day, so I believe the Lord will preserve a faithful testimony to Himself among Christians right to up the moment in which the Assembly is called up to be with Him forever. We must be careful, however, not to identify what might be called a ‘remnant testimony’ with any particular group of Christians today. God has only one company before Him, His own Assembly, a body comprised of all saints everywhere. Faithfulness in this evil day is an individual thing: “Let every one” (2 Tim. 2: 19), “He that overcomes” (Rev. 3: 21). The collective idea is not given up (see 2 Tim. 2: 22), but God is not bound to preserve any particular aggregation of Christians right until the end. If some have deluded themselves with the notion that they are the ‘remnant’, then it will be a rude awakening when they finally realise that God is allowing them to drift out of existence! There is nothing wrong, therefore, in God’s people being concerned about numbers. They ought to have nothing to do with maintaining what would be merely a denominational presence, but they should be very alive to being able to continue to enjoy what is collective.
With this in mind, it will be instructive to consider how numbers were maintained in the past. This appears to have been done in three ways and I shall consider each of these in turn.
By Recruitment from Within
It has been said that if the Lord’s people had secured their families for God, then there would be no concern today about declining numbers. This finds a solemn parallel in the story of Lot. Careful examination of Genesis 19 shows that Lot had perhaps nine relatives in Sodom (see also Gen. 18: 32). None of them appear to have been converted. What God says about Abraham stands greatly in contrast: “For I know him that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of Jehovah, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18: 19). Lot lived in Sodom, and raised his family in Sodom, and that was enough to destroy his testimony before his family. Some seem to think they can take their children to hear the Gospel on Sunday, and for the rest of the week seek a place in the world. God is not mocked.
If you cannot keep what is under your immediate care, what hope do you have in seeking to win the lost in the “streets and lanes of the city” (Luke 14: 21)? Nor am I just referring to natural children—you also have a responsibility to those young in the faith with whom you may be associated (comp. Titus 2: 4, 6). For instance, you believe your meetings to be based on the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship (see Acts 2: 42). However, many of the young people view it as ‘just another denomination’. This ought to alarm you, because if the distinctive character of the meeting as rejecting denominationalism, and seeking to walk only in the light of NT teaching and practice is lost sight of, then you may as well give up now. It will not be long before those young people become aware of other Christian companies with gifted speakers and effective evangelism, and seeing no good reason to remain where they are, depart the meetings. Part of this ignorance on the part of the young can be blamed on what passes for ‘teaching’ today. Constantly hand–picking a few favourite texts and stringing them together is not giving God’s people, the young especially, an “outline of sound words” (2 Tim. 1: 13). There needs to be clear and frequent Scriptural expositions of ‘Why we are where we are’. Pointing teenagers to some dusty pamphlet is not the answer. Get them out to the weeknight Bible reading, encourage their questions, and answer them. More than ever, I am convinced that it is among the saints that we learn and grow in the “things concerning himself” (Luke 24: 27). It is the best ‘Bible college’ in the world—or it ought to be.
By Evangelisation of the Lost
In former days, a great deal of evangelism was undertaken. The object was not to recruit men and women to follow ‘with us’—low and miserable aim (comp. Mark 9: 38–40)—but to bring them to Christ. Yet having entered into blessing, many chose to identify themselves with the ecclesiastical position of those who had brought them the Gospel, and so, in an almost incidental way, numbers were increased. With a bright exception here and there, this kind of evangelical fervour has almost entirely passed. Why is this? The need is as great as ever, and the power of God is still available to meet it. One is forced to the conclusion that the problem is essentially that many of God’s people no longer care enough. They care passionately about many things—their children’s education, their careers, their houses, their cars and their holidays, and spend their time and money accordingly—but the Gospel hardly registers on life’s agenda. Have you never been impressed by the fervency with which some of those “not with us” (Luke 9: 49) are engaged in the Gospel? They often appear to have a deeper appreciation of the peril of the lost, and, dare I say it, a more living and powerful “joy in faith” (Phil. 1: 25). It is both attractive, and effective. You and I may be better theologians (though perhaps not as much as we think) but theologians generally do not attract persons to Christ. As has often been said, what we are carries far more conviction than what we say. How much better to be a living expression of Him, “Christ’s epistle”—a message that can be “known and read of all men” (2 Cor. 3: 2, 3)! Many have literally ruined their physical health in doing “[the] work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4: 5). By contrast, some seem to think that the Sunday evening preaching will suffice before they slip back into reoccupying themselves with making life here as comfortable as possible. They talk about heaven and hell, but live as if they never existed. Is it any wonder that their testimony is so ineffective, and, like Lot’s (comp. Gen. 19: 14), laughed to scorn by the perishing world around them?
I cannot leave the subject of the Gospel without mentioning the prayer meeting, for they are intimately connected. Many will be familiar with the Victorian preacher who ministered to huge crowds in his ‘tabernacle’. Few realise that he accredited what God did through him to the prayer meeting in the basement, which hundreds attended. God’s people neglect prayer at their peril. How sad then to see the prayer meeting so poorly attended nowadays, or merely tagged on to some other occasion with the consequent loss of its true character. There is a peculiar preciousness in finding “many gathered together and praying” (Acts 12: 12)—and something quite appalling about a Christian company that wilfully disregards this evident sign of practical dependence on God.
By Attracting Other Christians In
There was a time when it was not unusual for large numbers of saints from the denominations around to crowd into the halls of those gathered on more scriptural lines. This was largely because the spoken ministry delivered there was powerful and distinctive. They came for the spiritual food, and many took the further step of identifying themselves with the ecclesiastical position of the place. Sadly, those days are long gone. The teachers of a past generation were marked by prayer and study of the Word. Today’s generation of teachers pray little and ‘read it up’. Their ministry is as shallow as they are themselves, and its effect as transient as the time they spend in the presence of God. All this is readily taken up as ‘proof’ by those who claim that theological training is a ‘must’. Keeping a round of meetings going is not the point; edification of God’s people is what we ought to be about.
The lack of ‘fresh blood’ in the small gatherings of saints that remain tends to dissuade others from joining. Many like to refer to themselves as just ‘simple believers’ but that is not how they are perceived by outsiders. What they see is a group of persons with a distinct ecclesiastical ‘culture’, partially Scripture based and partially not. These persons even have a way of speaking, more or less peculiar to themselves—certain phrases, particular expressions and the like. And as an Englishman may find it difficult to settle in Japan, so outsiders find it hard to settle in these rather insular meetings—nor, sadly, are they always fully accepted. The answer is to communicate and interact more with other Christians. I am not talking about discarding the Scriptural parameters of fellowship, but I am talking about abandoning an all too cosy ecclesiastical lifestyle. Separation from evil does not mean living like monks in a monastery oblivious to the needs of God’s people generally, whether they be practical or doctrinal. It is easy to find reasons not to get involved. Focus instead on what can be done. If the character of the Good Shepherd Himself was more evident, then it might be that He would be prepared to commit a few more of His lambs to meetings that will otherwise die out.