Oysters or clams?


by Major Terry CamseyOne of the common misconceptions about church growth is that it is only concerned with large corps. “Bigger is better” seems to be a label that has mistakenly been attached to the theology of growth. In fact, it is always interesting to ask a critic what he means by the term “church growth.” More often than not the question is “answered” with a screaming silence.

If we are looking for the “official” Army understanding of this discipline, I guess we can get no more “red, yellow and blue” than John Larsson’s book How Your Corps Can Grow. This book was written at the request of General Eva Burrows – now entitled to put (R) behind her name. Commissioner (then Colonel) Larsson quoted what he described as “An operational, workaday definition” given by C. Peter Wagner who stated that church growth is “all that is involved in bringing those who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ into fellowship with him and into responsible church membership.” Larsson pointed out the close resemblance of that definition to the official definition of The Salvation Army. It is also closely related to both John 3:16 and the great commission given in Matthew.

There is, to be sure, a measurable dimension implied by that definition, since people won to the kingdom of God can be counted and are surely as valuable to God as a knowledge of the number of hairs on the head of each such convert. But, “big is beautiful”? I doubt it.

The issue has more to do the size of the harvest than with the capacity of barns to hold that harvest. Churches (and corps for that matter, which we hope are churches defined at the very least as congregations of the community of God) come in all sizes as do we humans. Is a small person any less valuable than a big one…or a wide one any less valuable than a skinny one?

A small, healthy corps is every bit as valuable as a large, healthy corps. Some prefer the fellowship of a small corps; others prefer the “anonymity” afforded by a larger corps. As I have suggested, size is not material provided the corps is healthy…doing its best to self-support from a stewardship point of view and to reach the lost from an evangelical perspective.

No, the issue is the size of the harvest. Somehow, we have equated filling the seats inside the hall with success. But who determines the seating capacity of the building? Not God, since, surely, his measure of success is predicated on a continued striving to win all the lost within the corps’ “drawing area.”

So, if you prefer a congregation of twelve, then the challenge is to keep multiplying congregations of twelve until all the lost in your community are won, or Christ returns (“Whichever comes first” as they say!). And if you prefer a congregation of two hundred, then the challenge is the same… keep multiplying congregations of two hundred until all the lost in your community are won, or…

Ten “barns” holding one hundred people, or one hundred “barns” each holding ten? It’s immaterial if the corps are healthy. And who said small corps are not beautiful? Look at what Commissioner Arch Wiggins says in The History of The Salvation Army ­ Volume Four:

“Some of these corps, particularly the smaller ones, were like oysters. They opened up to emit a pearl, in the shape of a convert who was destined to become an outstanding officer, and then closed up again soon after, sometimes never to reopen.”

Oysters or clams? That’s the question!

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