Drawing a Crowd

Submitted by Bob Wilson on Wed, 02/03/2021 - 17:12

A couple years ago, David Fitch shared a post on Facebook that stirred up some things I’ve been thinking about off and on for the past 8 years. Fitch, of course, is writing this with North America in mind, but I think it applies at least as much to church planting in Europe. He writes:


When we were first church planting in Ithaca 20 years ago, all the coaching we received listed step one as “Draw a Crowd.” Whatever you need to do, get as many people into your doors on a Sunday or whenever you happen to meet. Once they are in, then you can sort out who your leaders are…and who have the potential for becoming disciples and who were simply scaffolding. The goal was to be a fully supported church within the first 2 years of existence.

In fact, the head of church planting in our denomination encouraged church planters to not spend time during that period preparing messages. His advice was to find someone whose voice resonates with you and ‘steal’ their sermons.

Early on in our Ithaca plant, we decided to avoid the “draw a crowd” model. Our leadership felt strongly about building a certain type of culture in our church and took steps to avoid church transfer and other quick growth methods. 

However, about 7 years into our plant, I saw a crowd (fleeing another church in our area) at our door and invited them in. It forever changed the culture of our faith community. 

It was a couple of years after that experience when it seemed that day after day I was coming across passages in scripture dealing with crowds. Our leadership team was addressing issues that had surfaced over the previous few years…in large part, because of the crowd. It was an encouraging and healing process to be part of. But it was difficult as well.

Maybe, it was like that phenomenon where you buy a certain car and all of a sudden you see that same car everywhere. We were dealing with the impact of a crowd and the word was popping off the pages of scripture.

Just a few examples:

  • The crowd usually contained Pharisees and others actively opposed to Jesus' message and mission (Luke 19:39)
  • The crowd made it difficult for those seeking Jesus to get near him (Luke 5:19 & Matthew 20:31)
  • The crowd made it difficult to take care of basic necessities (Mark 3:20)
  • It was the crowd that attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff, (Luke 4:29) and eventually yells “crucify!” (Luke 23:21)

You get the idea. 

When Jesus encountered the crowds he would teach them (in parables), he would feed them, heal them, have compassion on them. But he would also sneak away from them, or chase them away. He never tried to get them to join. He understood who they were. Despite the nature of crowds, Jesus demonstrated compassion towards them. 

Crowds are drawn by spectacle and entertainment, and all kinds of bells and whistles. In churches, at some point, the bait is switched. Sure, we said come and be entertained, but now we need you to chip in and help pay for all of this. And you should start going to a bible study. And, let’s talk about how you can serve on a Sunday because if we want to keep drawing crowds, we need more people becoming part of keeping this machine running.

I’m not saying all the stuff churches try and get people to do is bad. A lot of it is positive…In fact, I think for many churches, there is a desire to help the crowd become disciples. 

The problem is that discipleship is not what you got them in the door with….they were drawn in by something other than following Jesus, and are likely still seeking whatever that might be. 

An important and related question is, “if Jesus never tried to disciple the crowd, why would we choose that as a model?” And enough has been written elsewhere to document that this model has a poor track record of making disciples…so I won’t go into that any more here.

So, back to the quote from Dave Fitch. I often wonder what would have happened in Ithaca if we had had people speaking like that into our lives. Things may have gone slower. I likely would have been a less stressed person to be around. And more importantly, I think it would have changed the impact of our church in Ithaca as well.

What do you think of Fitch’s question about patience?

This is an edited version of an article originally posted on bobwilson.ie December 18, 2018.