With that preface out of the way, here's my initial effort:
I like small churches. Always have, always will. This is true for a number of reasons, but the core of it is simply this: I think discipleship happens in smaller groups rather than in bigger ones.
When I look at the life of Christ, I notice a bit of a pattern. When Jesus chose to reveal a little bit of Himself, it was almost always before a small group of people if not a single individual. The servants at the Cana Wedding, Nicodemus, the woman at Jacob’s Well, the blind, the demon-possessed, and most notably the Twelve, all received private and semi-private glimpses of who this Jesus of Nazareth really was.
Now crowds, on the other hand, did not seem to be something Jesus enjoyed. It was a crowd in Luke 4 that wanted to throw Him off a cliff -- not the most effective way to start a public ministry. And though the crowd at the Triumphal Entry shouted “Hosanna,” that same crowd just days later would be shouting “Crucify Him!”
Throughout the Gospels, crowds are filled with people demanding more of Jesus - more food, more healings, more miraculous signs. In fact, it seems like every time a pretty good sized crowd started following Jesus, He made every effort to thin them out.
In Luke 14, we find the following verses:
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple... In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”And again, in John 6, when Jesus teaches that He is the Bread of Life, and that His disciples must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, we find that his was too much for the crowd: “On hearing it, many of his disciples said,
“This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’... From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”It seems to me that if any modern evangelical pastor had been standing near Jesus when He said things like these, he would have been tempted to correct the Lord. “Jesus, you are making it unnecessarily difficult for people to come to you. You should lighten up and be a little more ‘seeker sensitive.’ How do you ever expect to get a church up off the ground?”
And maybe that’s just it. Jesus wasn’t concerned with building a following, building a crowd, building an organization or institution. Jesus was building disciples. Individuals. Persons who knew Him, and loved Him, and desired to follow in His Way. And that’s what church should be about today as well.
Discipleship happens when we get into each others’ lives in an intimate way, when we are honest with one another, when we give each other permission to speak into each others’ lives the very utterances of God (1 Peter 4:11). It doesn’t happen where I can show up, talk to no one, go unnoticed, and anonymously blend into the crowd; where I am nothing more than a consumer -- a customer to be sold to, pleased, and encouraged to come back.
And so, my heart soars when I walk into a congregation of 100, or 75, or 50, where the pastor can mention people by name in his sermon and the whole body knows who he is talking about. I love worshiping in a place where people are missed when they’re gone, where there’s a sense of unity and wholeness that comes by not just sitting in the same building together an hour a week, but by doing life together.
Put more simply, crowds are not intimate; churches ought to be.