“If you can’t be faithful with a few, don’t ask the Lord to give you many.” I’ll never forget those words spoken to my husband and me by a friend and missionary almost two decades ago. In fact, they’ve run through my mind almost weekly since.
At the time, we were newly married and preparing to go overseas as missionaries ourselves. We were hosting small groups at our church and in our home, trying to spread the word about our upcoming endeavor. We needed prayer and financial support to get us where we believed God had called us to go, so we were eager for an audience.
Our friend, who was almost a decade ahead of us, pointed out a truth that every person in ministry must eventually confront: God may only give you a small audience. He may only grant you a few supporters. He may only bless you with a small team, a short reach, a limited influence.
The question for us back then was how would we respond?
How Do You Respond to the Few?
Would we be grateful for a small team or begrudge it? Would we thank and honor the Lord with the few or demand that he give us many? Would it feel worth it if only a handful of people responded?
And the questions persist. Almost twenty years of ministry later, we still need to routinely ask ourselves this question.
How will you respond to the few? Every Christian must confront these questions because every Christian has a ministry, from the senior pastor to the children’s minister to the lay mentor who disciples young adults over coffee.
When Only a Handful Show Up
Our friend who was just ahead of us in life and ministry was already a seasoned missionary when he said those powerful words. They were actually first uttered to him by yet another man further down the line back when he was new to ministry. Our friend confessed that he had to repeat those words to himself every time he and his wife hosted a ministry event.
Wanting validation from a large crowd, he had to ask: Would he be faithful with the few when they prepared a Bible study for thirty and only three showed up? What about when they invited fifty neighbors for an outreach event and only five came? Or when he personally asked five guys to join a small group and only one responded? Or when he shared the gospel with ten different men and only two showed minor interest?
He said he rehearsed those words every single time he put himself out there. He said the older man’s words straightened his path whenever he wandered. They were a compass, a magnet towards what really matters.
The temptation he faced was the same one he knew we would face and it’s still one we face today.
We all face the temptation to equate effectiveness with influence, worth with reach, or greatness with numbers.
Perhaps you wrestle with this tendency too. Perhaps you're a pastor who measures your worth by attendance numbers, or a small group leader who measures your effectiveness with how many people show up each week. Maybe you’re a missionary who thinks your success is equal to the number of baptisms you perform, or a Christian writer who measures the value of your words with the number of clicks you get.
Do you believe your greatness is proportionate to the number of people you draw?
The Numbers Game
Even the disciples who walked closely with Jesus “argued with one another about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). Perhaps they fell into the comparison game after the Lord sent them out two by two (Mark 6:7-13).
Maybe they challenged one another: How many people did you heal in Jesus’ name? How many demons did you cast out? Oh yeah? Well, how many repented when you proclaimed Christ?
They must have felt guilty for arguing because when Jesus asked them what they were discussing, “they kept silent” (Mark 9:33). They knew the way they were measuring themselves against one another was somehow wrong. We all know the numbers game is wrong, but it’s so attractive.
It’s thought-provoking that Jesus didn’t rebuke them for seeking greatness. Rather, he defined greatness for them.
A Better Definition of Success
Jesus said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). He even went further and took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
Greatness is not found in power or influence or numerous followers. To be great, Jesus says, we must be last, we must serve, and we must receive children.
Not long after he said those words, Jesus would go on to do just that. Though he was first, he would make himself last. Though blameless, he would serve us beyond measure as he died in our place, taking the punishment we deserve. Though worthy of the grandest audience, he would generously receive us children who could do nothing for ourselves. And for emptying himself out, God exalted him to the highest place (Phil. 2:9).
Jesus turns our intuition on its head. Greatness is in being last. Greatness is in serving. Greatness is in pursuing those who are lowly, those who are marginalized, those who aren’t going to help your platform advance.
Where Are You Called to be Great?
The wisdom in our friend’s words was God’s grace to my husband and me. Through him, the Holy Spirit convicted and led us. Rather than looking at others as tools to get us to the mission field, we rightly saw them as friends to love and to serve. Rather than imagining how we might build our support, we imagined how we might build others up. Rather than worrying about numbers reached and dollars raised, we fixed our eyes on Jesus and his children and his call to lay ourselves down.
My husband and I have whispered our friend’s words to one another time and time again, like when he preached his first sermons and the sanctuary wasn’t very full; when I taught my first Bible studies and the living room was sparse; when only one non-believing neighbor responded to our invitation; when only a few readers read my words; when only a handful came to our first church plant service.
And we whispered our friend’s words to one another when the numbers were many, when the church plant grew, and when the Bible studies were full. We remind each other even now—two decades into ministry—that numbers aren’t indicative of success. In every circumstance, God calls us to care for the one, the few, the downcast.
In our fallen nature and drive for greatness, we’re drawn to the crowd like moths to a flame, thinking numbers point to success. But as Christ followers, we are called to hide our lives in his (Col. 3:3). As we walk in the footsteps of our Savior, we are to seek greatness by casting off our worldly vision and taking on his—namely, the service of others.
May We Be Found Faithful
Wherever God has placed us, he has called us to cherish the few, to be faithful with whoever is right before us. He has shown and empowered you and me to lay down our preferences, our goals, our visions of grandeur, and instead to care for others’ needs.
Greatness is not measured by numbers. It’s measured by faithfulness to God and to his people.
To the pastor seeking a bigger flock, may you be faithful to the few in the pews. To the writer seeking a greater platform, may you be faithful to the one or two who might read your words. To the missionary desperate to convert a whole nation, may you be faithful to love your neighbor.
Greatness is not a sin and seeking greatness is not wrong. But to go up in God’s economy, we must go down. Greatness is not manifest in numbers raised high but in acts of service that reach low.
May we—both professional and lay ministers alike—be found great. May we be found last. May we be found serving. May we be found welcoming the little children.
May we be found faithful with the few.
Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters and has served as a missionary for 17 years on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women to a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes at www.jenoshman.com.