At my university, there is an enrollment minimum for each class.
It works like this. Every single class has an “enrollment cap” – that is, the maximum number of students allowed to be enrolled in a single course at a given time. The enrollment minimum is a third of that number. So, if the enrollment cap for a course is 24, the enrollment minimum is 8.
If any course at the university dips beneath its enrollment minimum, then the course is canceled. Period full stop. The instructor receives no pay for teaching it beyond the initial few days of instruction; the students have the cost of the class refunded and are told to fill the hole in their schedule themselves.
This happens because, at its heart, the American university is a business first and foremost, and it wants to make money. The way my university sees it, hiring a professor and giving up the room space and resources to run an entire class for less than eight students is financially wasteful. It’s a simple act of cost-benefit analysis, practical if heartless: yes, the university says, we understand that these students have shown up to learn, but since not many others did, this isn’t financially feasible for us and it’s not going to work.
It disturbs me to find that, more and more, churches seem to be sharing the same philosophy. And what I mean by that is this: in many projects related to both ministry and church life, the church seems to equate “number of participants” or “percentage of congregational involvement” with “value” and “success.”
We’ve all been there. I once hosted a barbecue for my college small group and remember praying that at least twenty students would attend – anything less, I felt, would be a “disappointment.” (I remember feeling triumphant when we surpassed that number, too). A friend of mine teaching a church class only felt that the group would be viable if more than five attended, reasoning that five or less meant it wasn’t worth bothering because “no one is really interested at that point.” Church members often post pictures and news about well-attended events crawling with members and students, while the sparsely-attended gatherings simply aren’t discussed. Megachurches and the large community churches that pull in hundreds and hundreds of believers are often considered the overachievers of their denominations.
It’s easy to give in to this way of thinking. It’s tempting to believe that more is always better, and that it’s wiser and smarter to expend our resources on the maximum number of people who might benefit from them. It’s simple to stamp something as a “success” when lots of people came or participated and when we don’t feel that we wasted a whole lot.
But God doesn’t think that way. Think of Jesus, whose parable advocated abandoning ninety-nine perfectly good sheep for one wild wanderer. Think of the prodigal son’s father, who welcomed back his profligate, debt-ridden son by spending more money on a great party. Think of Mary, who poured out a container of obscenely expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.
The Bible is a study in bad calculations and ludicrous generosity: much given in the seeming pursuit of very little. And indeed, this is God’s very nature. Timothy Keller points out in Prodigal God that the definition of the word “prodigal” is to be wastefully extravagant, reckless in the spending of money and resources. It is we and not Jesus, Keller reminds us, who refer to the son as the “prodigal” due to his debt-accumulating lifestyle – yet doesn’t that word also describe a God who is willing to bankrupt heaven for the salvation of one lost sheep?
With that attitude it mind, it becomes clear that equating large numbers to value and success can be a dangerous way of thinking for the believer. What makes an event a “success”? What defines its value? Numbers in the hundreds? The fact that all of the food got eaten? That everyone who attended came away satisfied? Or do we dare to define success differently, and to acknowledge that one person meeting Christ, or simply reaching out, matters as much as 900 showing up to a church?
To be fair, big events can make just as much of an impact for Christ as little ones. I don’t want to set up the fiction that big is bad and small is good. The thing is, though, we rarely wonder if big events are “worth it.”” The implicit understanding we have is that they’re definitely worth it simply because so many people attend! So it would be helpful, I think, if we could broaden our idea of what “successful outreach” and “worth it” looks like from a Christian perspective.
What I’d encourage you to do, then, is not to roll your eyes at the “big” events or automatically dismiss them, but rather to uplift and support the little ones alongside them. Even if a study or a program or an event or a ministry only brings in a handful of people, don’t assume it’s a failure. Don’t fall into the corporate attitude of cost-benefit analysis where you automatically dismiss or cut programs that don’t maximize attendance or value.
It’s okay if “only” five people show up to that Bible study. It’s okay if you don’t have 500 kids banging down the doors for VBS. It’s okay if your singles ministry is about six people who hang out and like each other. It’s okay if your giant community outreach event only brings in one curious, questioning soul.
It’s true, sometimes, that big is awesome.
It’s true, sometimes, that little can be fixed with some tweaking: time for things to grow, a little more publicity, a little more effort or care.
But sometimes it’s also true that a “struggling” event or ministry or group is exactly as big as it needs to be. Giving up all to serve one isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s the kind of math the Bible tells us we’re supposed to be best at.