Don’t overfocus on the vocal minority

I have been reading through John James’ book Renewal: church revitalisation along the way of the cross. I have long been an advocate for church revitalisation. Whilst planting into unchurched areas is vitally important, failing to revitalise ailing churches simply means the need to plant new churches in due time in their place without any of the benefits of revitalisation. I would heartily commend the book to anybody.

What struck me as I read Renewal (whether this was intended by the author or not I don’t know) was that there are lots of churches that are not deemed revitalisation works that, to all intents and purposes, really are. Someone may move to an established church with seemingly healthy numbers in membership but the work undertaken may look remarkably similar to a revitalisation work. A church plant begins with a core team, many revitalisations begin with an existing congregation receiving an additional core team, other revitalisations may simply require change within the existing congregation without the addition of a core team. This last setup may not be called a revitalisation but it would appear to be just that.

I was particularly struck by one comment in the chapter Getting in Gear:

It is not an act of faithfulness to pander to every whim, or try to keep everyone happy. In fact, faithfulness requires that we resist what is sometimes called the ‘tyranny of the minority’. One of the reasons decay sets in is because there is effectively a hostage situation, a vocal few who are somehow able to dictate all decisions.

This is a feature common to many churches. A small, but vocal, minority insist on the way things should be and no minister or eldership team are ever going to dissuade them.

This idea was recently picked up in an article for the FIEC by Ray Evans. He commented:

Early in my ministry I was presented with the negative comment, “Lots of others feel like this” from a certain individual. Keeping my head involved realising that even if he had worked hard he could only have been in touch with a fraction of the membership, and I certainly had more access to people and their comments than he had. He tried to counter with a, “Well they will say things to me that they won’t to you.” But of course that works two ways and I said so. I kept calm, and we moved forward.

This is something we have found only too often in our church. A small, but vocal, minority insisting on the way things should be and usually hidden behind a mirage of ‘lots of other people are saying…’ As John James notes in his book:

I remember a conversation in which we were seeking to make a decision and someone responded, ‘there are some who will not like this’. I asked who those people might be; especially given most of the active church family were present in the room. The suggested protestors were two people who were housebound and would therefore be unaffected by the change, and a third who had actually passed away six months earlier. It is not kind or loving to allow a congregation to be held hostage in that way.

All too often, people attempt to heighten their own criticism by co-opting others to their cause. We used to have a lady who prefixed her own persistent and peculiar ministry of encouragement with the phrase, ‘lots of people are saying’ or ‘most of the church think’. If we ever asked who exactly she meant, she responded with ‘I can’t tell you’ or ‘they won’t tell you and I can’t break confidence’. We typically met such criticism with a simple response that we were not prepared to courier messages back and forth through a mediator. Unless people were prepared to own their criticisms, we could not – and would not – address it. Normally, the issue went no further. On the occasions we found out how many ‘lots of people’ were, it never required more than two or three fingers to count them. It was a manipulative attempt to imply that a personal view was more widespread than it really was.

We often believe that the worst thing that can happen is that people get upset and – in the worst cases – up sticks and leave. This has certainly been the operative principle in several churches I have attended. But when we operate this way, the vocal opposition of those who have a tendency to get upset will always win out. This means two particularly problematic things.

First, we make decisions based less on Biblical principles and more out of a pragmatic desire to keep people sweet (see here). This often leads to decidedly unfaithful behaviour as we sideline God’s Word in favour of the goodwill of our vocal critics. Second, we over-focus on the minority kicking-off at the expense of the quieter majority. When I was a teacher, there was broad agreement that one miscreant should not disrupt the learning of thirty other children; it was better to remove one disruptive influence for the good of the whole class. Likewise, we need to remember that there are 30/50/70 or more other members whose good we have also been charged to seek. By doing what we deem less than God’s best because two or three people with sharp elbows like to voice their criticism vociferously and with regularity, we do a disservice to the larger group of members who will suffer as a result.

Far worse than upsetting a few vocal critics, or losing a couple of people, is to abandon the gospel altogether. Worse than not bowing to the whim of a few is to see the church in decline, for the rot to set in and the wider church to suffer because a handful of people insisted on their way.

On the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, we are reminded of one of the central battlegrounds – the authority of scripture alone. Authority in the church is not drawn from those with the loudest voices but those whose voices are aligned to scripture. No pastor, elder or member has any authority except that which comes through right teaching and application of the gospel. Stamping our feet and insisting on our own way, or ‘the way we’ve always done it’, is to deny the very victory won by the reformers. That approach is to argue that authority is derived from tradition or to make ourselves little popes, which was precisely the error of the Catholic Church. Instead, we ought to be making decisions based on a clear sense of the gospel, a scriptural understanding of what the church is and who it is for, and a desire to see the old message made fresh and contextually appropriate for those round about us.

2 comments

  1. Yes, but truth can lie in dissent. Strong leaders can push through their objectives without reflective thought. Any form of dissent can be silenced or overwhelmed by the powerful and thus we can run the risk of losing diamonds of insight about worship, about other interpretations of scripture, or historical doctrine. Weigh what I say alongside your comments.

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    1. As I said in the piece, authority is not based on loudest voices or largest majorities. It is determined by the Word of God. Of course, criticism can be true. There is, however, a tendency for small cabals to be persistently vocal and to voice their criticism in ungodly ways despite what most of the church want. Such are the people in view here.

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