Comparing crowd sizes became a surprising focal point following President Trump’s inauguration.
By now, most of us have seen overhead shots from the Washington Monument of the crowds at the 2009 Obama inauguration next to images of the Trump inauguration.
Pictures of the crowds at Women’s March events held across the U.S. soon joined the conversation.
They are impressive and telling if they are accurate.
At this point, I am not sure I believe much that I hear or see, but let’s proceed with the belief that all the photographs are accurate. Given that, what do they mean?
I am not sure they mean much of anything other than the energy of various groups motivating them to show up.
I certainly don’t assume they mean that larger crowds equal moral validity, social sensitivity, intellectual aptitude or a path to national strength and health.
Of all people, Christians in the 21st century should know that the size of crowds mean little.
Drawing a crowd is as simple as giving people what they want or, in some cases, not giving people what they want to the extent that there is substantial pushback.
In either case, mere populism is a poor measure for much of anything except the energy and money that surround a personality, team, entertainer or other public figures or issues.
Many of us who are more centrist in our theological perspective with some leaning to the right and left are languishing in churches that are plateaued or in decline.
We may talk about how things have changed, grieve as the percentage of Americans regularly in church continues to ebb, and wonder what can be done about it.
Embarrassed to admit it, I find myself looking down the road or across town at the church that has to have multiple services to accommodate the crowds and that may be putting “satellite” congregations in my community. I tip my hat to them for whatever it is that they are doing right (if it is right).
I live in the shadow of Lynchburg, Virginia, and know that theological conservatism, authoritarian pastors, casual dress, small groups instead of Sunday school, contemporary worship style and so on often translates into church growth.
These and other characteristics and accompanying conflicts are evident across our area as most churches struggle numerically and a few grow explosively.
Interestingly, I know of no moderate pastor who becomes a conservative or a fundamentalist because the crowds proved to him or her that their theological or stylistic approaches were wrong.
As an aside, I also know that a handful of moderate and liberal churches thrive, but they are the rare exception.
It is a temptation to celebrate an event in my world if there is a large crowd. Yet, I am reluctant to admit that a small crowd is necessarily indicative of failure.
We moderates and liberals have had our theological, ecclesiastical and denominational backsides kicked over the last 40 years. I don’t hear many of us calling ourselves into question because our crowds were too small at the crucial conventions.
I don’t want to push the image too far, but Jesus drew great throngs in the early part of his ministry. As the crowds became more fully aware of his mission and his unwillingness to scratch their itches, they disappeared and even turned on him.
His ministry teaches us again that one will never go broke or lack fans if one simply gives the crowds what they want.
Political success today from either side of the aisle seems to be attained by giving (or at least promising) one’s constituency what they want and dismissing all others as unimportant, misguided, ignorant, left-wing, right-wing, unreachable, stupid, intentionally poor, unethically rich, racist, homophobic, men-haters, women-haters or deplorable.
For my part, I simply don’t have the liberty of thinking of any candidate, party or constituency as all “good” and the others as all “bad.”
As a nation teetering on the brink of anarchy, I pray most of us are still willing to listen and not just talk, to reach across the aisle rather than to draw the lines more clearly, to think rather than just feel, and to resist thinking that the bigger or smaller crowd necessarily equals the more or less righteous cause or candidate.
Of all people, those of us in the Lord’s business ought to know better.
Reggie Warren is pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal, Virginia, and a former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.