It was startling. The distinct sound of my iPhone began to chime, rumbling on the table, breaking the silence. I was in prayer. At the time, I was bewildered, a little depressed, and saw the numbers of people that had once congregated in my home dissipate. And I saw who was calling…
“Hey, Matt, do you have time to get some coffee this morning?”
I knew what was coming—he was leaving the church.
At the same time, a small church in somewhere America was once the picture of health in community, but now is struggling to keep its doors open.
As a pastor who has been involved in church planting and church revitalization, I’ve witnessed the Gideon effect: “And the LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many…’”(Judges 7:4a ESV). There are times when you will not understand why the people are hitting the door, but the reason may be more than you can fathom. One truth about church revitalization: it’s easier with twenty than with one hundred twenty. Gideon’s forces were reduced from 22,000 to 300! Why? So that Israel would understand that it was God’s salvific work within them. God was the One in control and the One who would redeem them. The glory always goes to God.
Unfortunately, too many pastors desire, almost covet, huge numbers. As if numbers denote health. I get it; it’s one of the first questions asked at any conference, right? It goes something like this:
You greet another pastor. He says, “So, where is your church?” You tell him where and his next question is… “How many are in your church”?
As if this somehow establishes your calling and your church’s well-being. Health is not measured in the amount of attendees; instead is should be measured with the amount of people being sent and the amount of people reaching the community—but with the right ratio. For instance, if a church of 10,000 is sending out 1 to 2 church planters then the ratio of discipleship reproduction is extremely low—that’s an unhealthy church, in my opinion. There’s a massive church in my area with thousands of members, and yet, they have never planted another church, anywhere! And yet also, they never seem to face the Gideon effect and I know why.
The Gideon effect is one way that God brings together those who are about to engage in re-taking or taking over enemy territory; namely, property in this dark world. It’s spiritual warfare at its best—and ugliest. But let’s be clear, not every church reduction is the Gideon effect, and unfortunately, it can be somewhat hazy and hard to see in a current situation, and for this reason I write from my experience.
The church’s mission is not only to spread the gospel of the kingdom, but also to be representations of the kingdom—to be salt and light. The writer of Ecclesiastes gives me great comfort in revealing that there are times and seasons in life (Eccl 3). Likewise, with the church. When coupled together, we realize that there may be a time when God is specifically calling our church or church plants to gear up for something awesome.
So please, don’t focus on numbers; focus on hearing the voice of God and being obedient. The call of God for each uniquely created church is to serve the King in whatever capacity, as He deems necessary. Too many empire builders would rather see a one-sided 22,000 man comfort battle then know what the spoils of war feels like, with 300. The reference to Gideon’s initial 22,000, shows that God knew the people would declare victory as their own, instead of giving God the credit and seeing how He can do amazing things. Isn’t that life—dealing with the addicted and strung out, the divorced, the homeless, and the outcasts, and then watching as God pulls them up from the depths of despair, dusts them off, and places a robe of righteousness upon them? Isn’t this our desire anymore? To give out one small cup of water to the thirsty? To take the pipe from the crack-head and watch God make a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17)? To do serious battle in the heavenliest of heavens? There is no comparison to an authentic move of the Holy Spirit with a dedicated congregation of people, of any size. This does not negate the growing church of one thousand, so long as, the discipleship reproduction ratio is right. If you have a thousand, you should be sending out hundreds.
The church that I pastor is a 112 years old church; it was once healthy and vibrant in the 80’s and 90’s, but it dwindled down to almost twenty. When I arrived the Gideon effect was in full force and that was how I viewed it; God had removed the ones, which needed to be removed for our new calling—to plant multiple churches within the Richmond, Virginia area. With only over a hundred people in two years, that’s enough to begin church planting. We’re going for it!
So, let’s talk about what you should do if you think you’re in the midst of the Gideon effect? The first thing is obvious; seek God’s ear, heart, and voice—get as close to God as you can. Start asking Him about the vision and mission of the church. Next, focus more on discipleship, fine-tuning, and gospel permeation. God may have you in a season when it’s imperative to sit quietly and listen, while you’re being fortified for a new commission. It’s like Paul and Barnabas being called to Antioch, from Jerusalem: the Scriptures say, “when they had completed their service” in Jerusalem, they went on to Antioch and the “Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 12:25; 13:2 ESV). Upon fasting, prayer, and the laying on of hands for mission, they were sent out to church plant again. The idea is they were called after their service was complete. You may have completed the first part of your mission? But are you waiting on orders for a new call, or worried about the amount of troops?
Sometimes our intentions are right, but our focus is wrong. We’re so busy “doing” ministry that we’re not listening. God may be intentionally working in the hearts and minds of certain people and connecting them (transferring) to other parts of the body, while He is fortifying the one you’re in. Time to lay low in the bunker. If there is a difficult task, God may not want people who are going to cause division or become doubtful. As Gideon found out, God directed him, “Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained” (Judges 7:3 ESV).
We should also note, the reduction of Gideon’s army did not happen in one fell swoop, it was a staged reduction—to make sure that the right people stayed. God was sifting out the people that He desired, to proclaim victory. So, if you find your church in the midst of a reduction, you may be experiencing the Gideon effect—and that’s an awesome thing!
Matthew Fretwell is married, has three daughters, loves Jesus, being a dad, people, and coffee. Besides being an author (Denied Desires; Identity Theft, Sanctificagious, 30:1 Manhood), he’s pastor of a 112 year old revitalized church planting church (Oak Hall Baptist) in Sandston, Virginia, and is the founder of Job 31 Ministries. Matt’s an advocate board member of Living Bread Ministries, a global comprehensive Church Planting organization. He also writes for Church Planter Magazine.