The fact that many assemblies are very small in number is not in and of itself any cause for concern. When the focus of the saints gathered together is appropriately fixed upon the Son of God to the exclusion of fleshly entertainment and carnally driven emotion, small meetings are to be expected. However, as the news reaches us of more and more assemblies who no longer meet at all, the Lord Jesus having removed yet another once thriving and faithful lampstand from its place (Rev. 2:5), perhaps we should be considering our own situations of dwindling numbers more carefully.
Old Testament Prophets
The Old Testament, which was “written for our learning”1 (Rom. 15:4), records events relevant to this modern question. As the divided nation of Israel and Judah approached the time of judgment, when they each would in turn be carried off into captivity, God sent a flurry of prophets to warn them (Hos. 5:1; Joel 1:15). God was appealing to His people to repent so that He would not have to judge them.
When the northern kingdom of Israel was carried away by the Assyrians (2 Ki. 17:5-6), the southern kingdom of Judah was left intact. God sent further prophets to Judah, now with an additional component to His message: to consider the judgment of Israel and know that the same judgment would fall upon Judah if they continued unrepentant in their sins (see Jer. 3:6-8). Our gracious God, our faithful Creator, will use everything in His power to draw us back to His loving side when we stray, including the example of failure in someone else (Rom. 9:22-24). In time, Judah was also carried into captivity after refusing to repent of their many sins.
It must be noted that despite God’s severe judgment on Israel, that nation is not lost, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Those same Old Testament prophets who brought warnings of judgment also foretold a day when Israel would be saved and fully restored to their promised land (Joel 3:17-21; Zech. 13:9, Rom. 11:26)—a day we eagerly await.
The Assemblies of Today
As we hear the sad stories of assemblies today no longer meeting, we can be assured that no individual believer from those assemblies is ever lost. Of course we understand this. But at the same time, the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ that these assemblies once were is gone, as though carried off into exile. The church as a whole goes on, but so many individual expressions of it are lost, and each loss adds to the reproach we endure as the world looks on and sees what they view as an irrelevant (or imaginary) God unable to keep His people together.
Consider the words of the Lord Jesus to the assemblies (churches) of Revelation. In five of the seven cases He demands that they repent or He would bring discipline, to include removing the assembly completely (Rev. 2:5, 16, 21-23; 3:3, 19). And just as God used the judgment of Israel as an added warning to Judah, we too may take as an added warning that so many of our sister assemblies have already fallen, the Lord Jesus Himself having removed their lampstand. Let us consider soberly what is happening around us and honestly examine ourselves to see if we, in our assemblies, need to repent.
Let Us Examine Ourselves
Let us examine whether we’re truly looking to the Word of God to govern our lives and assembly practices or if we’re simply following a formula we inherited from a previous generation (for example, 1 Cor. 11-14). Are we following God’s order or man’s order? It’s not enough to have the right form. The Lord Jesus quoting Isaiah said, “This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Isa. 29:13; Mark 7:6). We have to beware of this happening to us as it did to Israel in the days of Malachi. It should not be a surprise if the Lord doesn’t bring new people to our assemblies if we don’t ourselves take His Word seriously.
Let us examine whether we have a genuine love for one another (1 John 3:14, 16). We call each other brother and sister, but do we try to know one another, to be involved in one another’s lives? Our culture is busy with a thousand distractions from career to hobbies to entertainment, not to mention the miles between our homes. So, we’ll have to sacrifice in order to know and love one another. The Lord Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It should not be a surprise if the Lord doesn’t bring new people to our assemblies if He knows we aren’t going to love them.
When we have hearts to recognize and repent of our own sins in our assemblies and are willing to seek His correction and guidance through fervent (and sometimes public) prayer, and we’re willing to wait on Him to answer, it’s at this point we’re ready for effective evangelism.
Personal Effective Evangelism
Not all are gifted evangelists (note the word “some” in Eph 4:11), but regardless of spiritual gift, we can all live our lives in obedience to 1 Peter 3:15 which says, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” Some people will be curious if they see Christ in us. And there is no evangelism more effective than answering someone’s genuine questions about “the hope that is within us.” It’s an open invitation to tell them of God’s wrath they deserve and the love He showed through His Son’s death and resurrection (Rom 1:18, 5:8, etc.).
Then when people do repent and put their trust in Christ alone, let’s not forget to teach them to be baptized (Matt. 28:19). Baptism has nothing to do with salvation, but it is an important part of the gospel message and is a requirement for obedience to the Lord Jesus. A lot of New Testament teaching makes no sense unless a person is baptized and understands what baptism means (for example, Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 1:13; 12:13; Col. 2:12). Once baptized we can bring them into the fellowship of the assembly, love them, and teach them the Word of God so that they will become effective fellow-laborers with us. This is evangelism at its heart.
There is no biblical formula to grow the numbers of an assembly; and numbers aren’t our primary concern anyway. Being concerned with numbers has too often led to employing man’s wisdom to “grow the church,” methods which may bring people in the door but can never please the Lord. Ours is simply to love the Lord Jesus and each other (1 John 4:7-21), to assemble ourselves together (Heb. 10:25) according to His pattern to fulfill His purposes (1 Cor. 11-14; Acts 2:42), and to remain dependent on the Lord (John 15:5), praying always to Him who will meet our every need for the assembly as well as our individual lives (Phil. 4:6,19). Then in His time we will see His abundant blessings upon us, including the increase of numbers as He sees fit.
1. Quotations from NKJV
by Joe Wilbur