Pondering the “Smaller but Purer” Vision of the Church
In the early days of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI was quoted to say that he envisioned the immediate future of the Church to be a smaller but more pure Church. In the video below he reiterates something very similar:
In my view, a Church which seeks above all to be attractive, is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for herself, she does not work to increase her numbers and power. She works for Another. She serves not herself, not to become strong. She serves to make the announcement of Jesus Christ more accessible….. (On the Papal Plane headed to the U.K.).
I was talking with a friend recently who is troubled by such notions and stated that many declining Protestant denominations have said something similar. He further said that their experience is that denominations that claim the mantle of being “smaller but purer,” end up being just smaller.
Of course I would counter that many of the approaches that have shrunk the main-line Protestant denominations were far from pure. In fact many of the older Protestant denominations abandoned biblical principles and forged a strange alliance with the ”new morality” of an increasingly corrupt world. Evangelical Protestantism has risen in defiance of that trend. But I digress.
I will admit that the Pope’s remarks may cause us to wonder, and some even to worry. I want to defend the Pope’s remarks but perhaps we can begin by articulating some concerns that such remarks might cause:
As a Church with a mandate to evangelize the whole world, it seems natural that we would want to talk about growing as a general norm.
If we are shrinking in parts of the world it may be that we are being purer in a world gone mad. But it may also be due to the fact that we are arcane in how we communicate. Perhaps we have not adapted to the newer forms of media. Perhaps we have not considered articulating our views in the vocabulary of the average modern person. Perhaps we are simply ineffective communicators. Perhaps, due to scandal etc., we no longer seem credible to the world. Our doctrine must be pure but our delivery of the message may need legitimate adjustments. Simply pointing to the likelihood that we are going to be smaller and accepting this may not help us to look at and change what ought to be changed.
Accepting “small” as a norm does not encourage an urgency to evangelize.
So here are some concerns that weigh against the Pope’s remarks and vision of a smaller and more pure Church.
But we also ought to examine the value of such a vision. Here are some:
Popularity too often comes in this world at the cost of compromise. Jesus said, Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers treated the false prophets in just this way (Lk 6:26). Hence our first concern should not be numbers, but fidelity to the whole counsel of Christ.
The Lord promised us the world’s hatred (Jn 15:19) and this does not suggest that our numbers would routinely include vast majorities. That is , if we are proclaiming the unabridged, unvarnished truth announced by Jesus Christ and, thus, experiencing the hatred he promised.
Jesus indicated that while many are called, few are chosen (Matt 22:14). Hence we should evangelize all, but accept that many, perhaps even most, will reject the invitation to the Kingdom of God or be found unworthy of it.
The Gospel is to be preached in season and out of season. This more than suggests there would be fallow periods in the expected harvest and that numbers are not the main priority, faithfulness is.
Jesus did not seem to trust larger crowds and would often thin the ranks with a “hard saying” when he noticed gathering crowds. More on this concept here: Thinning the Ranks
Other denominations that have tried to accommodate to modern demands by abandoning gospel purity have been the most devastated in terms of dropping numbers.
Hence the denomination that seeks to be big by being less insistent on purity ends up being neither big nor pure. In other words it ends up being nothing.
Thus, it is purity that matters most and the numbers must be left to God.
In the end the “smaller but more pure” vision is a “dangerous doctrine” for it can lead to a kind of quietism. Only if we humbly leave the question of numbers to God, and continue to evangelize in the most effective and persistent manner we know, can we maintain the proper balance. Jesus said Go (unto all the nations) and so we go. He did not say count all your converts or boast of your numbers. He did not say be popular, or the most numerous. He did say be faithful and teach all he had commanded us.
I am interested in your thoughts on the “dangerous doctrine” of the smaller and more pure Church. Perhaps it is well to conclude with the words of St. Paul who counsels Timothy and all of us:
Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Tim 3:2-5)