What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:12-14)
This is a beautiful parable that shows us the love that Jesus has for each of His sheep. The parable is speaking specifically to when believers go astray, and how the Lord seeks after them to restore them and bring them back into the fold. What a comforting truth! Dr. MacArthur says in his commentary “From this parable we see that Christ’s love, illustrated in that of the shepherd, is personal and individual. It does not matter which sheep goes astray. The Lord is equally concerned for any one of them.” (Matthew 16-23; p. 120) It is the emphasis of Jesus’ care of each individual believer that I would like to focus our attention on today.
Beginning sometime around the 1950’s churches, specifically church leadership, began to adopt the philosophy of the church growth movement. The adaptation of this philosophy is essentially taking a business model from the world and applying it to the spiritual kingdom. Theopedia defines the church growth movement as a philosophy that if a local congregation is not growing numerically, it signifies that they are diseased or dying. As an aside, it is never a good idea to take worldly philosophy and try to implement it in the things of God. The two do not mix. Anyhow, to put it simply, success in this system is measured by increasing numbers. But is that a biblical understanding of success in the kingdom of God? Let’s take a look.
Although we have the account in Acts of the birth of the Church at Pentecost (Acts 2:41; 4:4) where large numbers were added to the Church at one time, that is not the typical pattern we see throughout scripture. Starting in the beginning with Genesis 6, we have the corruption of mankind. Out of the world population, there were 8 who were found faithful and were saved out of the flood. Later in Genesis, we have the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Abraham goes back and forth with God, pleading for a lesser and lesser amount of people found righteous among the inhabitants in order for God to stay His destruction. Abraham pleaded down to ten. There only had to be ten individuals found righteous and God would not destroy the cities. But it was not so, and only Lot and his daughters were spared.
Out of the original group who made the exodus from Egypt, only Caleb and Joshua were found faithful in obedience and allowed to enter the promised land of those over the age of 20. All throughout the account of the nation of Israel, we see the principle of the remnant played out: the majority would reject God and follow after idols and their sinful desires, but God always had a remnant of true believers among the masses of apostates. Jesus was very clear during His three-year ministry that many are called, but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14). Many are on the wide road, but only a few find the narrow gate of salvation (Matthew 7:13).
So, you are wondering how this all ties together I bet. Here’s my point: The modern philosophy of the church growth movement says that a healthy church is a large church numerically, and rapidly growing. But scripture shows time and again the principle of the few (righteous) versus the many (unrighteous). The passage of scripture that we began with makes clear that Jesus cares deeply for every individual that is in His flock. The philosophy of the church growth movement ignores scriptural truth that it is Christ who builds His church, not men (Matthew 16:18). Yes, God has chosen to use people as His tools in this process, but He alone is the determiner of how many and how quickly.
The sad consequence of the invasion of this worldly philosophy is that believers become discouraged when they use man-made measuring tools to assess whether or not they are being successful in kingdom work. It is Christ who builds His church. It is the Holy Spirit who determines and dispenses of the gifts (Ephesians 4:11). It is God who determined in ages past the works that we as believers would do (Ephesians 2:10). Those works would include our participation in spreading the gospel, would they not? What if God has purposed that you, believer, are involved in just one person’s conversion during your days on this earth? Are you a failure? According to the church growth movement paradigm you would be. But thanks be to God that we have a shepherd that rejoices in the return of just one little sheep! Scripture is clear that it is God alone who is in charge of quantity, and that He uses faithfulness as His unit of measurement for success in a believer’s life. Obedience, not abundance.
Soli Deo Gloria!