Picture a church that had 32,000 members – and lost 22,000 of them in just one day. Even worse, it soon was down to only 300 people. Although this sounds like a rough experience, the story had a happy ending, as I will explain in a moment.
During this year of pandemic, many churches have had a huge drop in attendance. Some still aren’t open, and others are likely to be closed forever.
Yes, this is sad in many ways. But today I read Judges 7:1-22 and concluded that there could be a silver lining to this situation.
As the passage begins, Gideon is about to lead the Israelites into a battle against the Midianites. It’s likely he was confident in a successful outcome, because he was fielding a massive army of 32,000 men.
Yet right as the battle was about to begin, God told Gideon something strange: “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel claim glory for itself against Me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’” (v. 2).
Wow. If Gideon had been a pastor, it’s as if the Lord was telling him, “You have too many people in your church, Gideon! You’ve become more confident in your numbers than in Me.”
At this point, God gave him some practical instructions on who should go home from the battlefield: “Whoever is fearful and afraid, let him turn and depart at once” (v. 3).
Perhaps Gideon assumed this was no big deal. If a few of the soldiers were fearful, they surely wouldn’t be missed.
But, shockingly, 22,000 men admitted their fear and left the battlefield. Only about a third of Gideon’s army remained!
This must have been disconcerting – just as it would be to a pastor who suddenly lost two-thirds of the flock. But the Lord wasn’t finished with this pruning. “The people are still too many!” He informed Gideon (v. 4).
By the time this bewildering process was over, the Lord had reduced Gideon’s army from 32,000 to just 300. How could such a small group defeat the Midianites?
Yet God assured Gideon that 300 would be the ideal number to achieve victory. And even that small number was divided further into three groups – in order to “surround” the enemy! By the end of the story, they won an overwhelming victory by following the Lord’s instructions.
Lessons for Us Today
This short story contains numerous applications for our circumstances today:
- Whether we always realize it or not, we’re in a spiritual battle – individually, as the church, and in our nation.
- It’s time to repent of our overemphasis on numbers and overconfidence in human strength and ingenuity.
- Many people in the body of Christ are full of fear and unbelief, ill-equipped for hard times and spiritual warfare.
- God is able to save “by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6), and He is looking for people who are fully committed to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9a).
- Painful as it often is, God’s pruning process if often the key to greater fruitfulness (John 15:1-5).
The Wisdom of Wesley
Lately I’ve been reflecting on the words of John Wesley:
“Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.”
You see, it doesn’t take 100 million or 100 thousand people to change the world. Instead of being impressed by numbers, Wesley recognized the importance of having committed believers, people on fire with a passion for God and for the gospel.
But although numbers weren’t the main thing on Wesley’s mind, here’s the incredible result of his approach to ministry: Today more than 12 million people are a part of the movement John Wesley launched!
Let that fact sink in for a moment. The man who was only looking for 100 zealous followers of Christ ended up creating a worldwide ripple effect that touched millions.
Today not all of Wesley’s followers have the passion he described. However, that same holy fire is still available to us if we’re spiritually thirsty.
Too often, we assume that our success will come through increased numbers, additional knowledge, or financial windfalls. Instead, it turns out that victory and fruitfulness often come as the result of pruning. As we willingly decrease, the presence and power of Christ remarkably increase (John 3:30).
So, if you’ve been experiencing a painful pruning during this strange season in the world, take heart. Your greatest season of fruitfulness may be just ahead!