Jesus and Crowds – An Unhappy Marriage

Jesus FacepalmJesus didn’t value crowds. He didn’t even trust them. But he valued the people in them. And no, that’s not the same thing.

Yes, pastors need to keep accurate records of church attendance, offering, salvations, baptisms, small groups and anything else that has a numerical component. Those numbers are an essential ingredient in having a clear understanding of what we’re doing and how to do it better.

And yes, church growth is a good thing. For the body of Christ as a whole and for individual churches and ministries.

But we need to be wary about chasing the crowd.

Numbers cannot measure ministry success.

When you’re in business to make widgets, you live and die by the numbers. But we’re pastors. We’re not in business. And we’re not making widgets. As John Piper reminds us, “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals”.

So yes, we need to count people. But people aren’t numbers. And numbers aren’t people.

People matter more than numbers. And people, unlike crowds, can’t be measured. 

When we overemphasize the size of the crowd that came to church, we run the risk of devaluing the unique gifts and needs of the individuals who made up the crowd.

Jesus never did that.


The Feeding of the 5,000 – I Do Not Thinks It Means What You Think It Means

The biggest recorded crowd in Jesus’ ministry was when he fed the 5,000. Church growth proponents like to remind us that someone must have counted the crowd. This has been used to bolster the idea that crowd numbers mattered to Jesus and should matter to us.

But has anyone examined that claim seriously? Because there are issues with it and the implications we’re drawing from it.

First, Jesus wasn’t trying to draw a crowd. As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth, “Jesus actually spent more time trying to avoid crowds than trying to draw them. …The reason Jesus had to perform a miracle to feed the 5,000 was because they were in a ‘remote place‘ where Jesus had gone to escape the crowds.” (Chapter 11 – A New Way to Define Success)

Second, whoever did the counting, only counted adult men, marginalizing the women and children.

How would that method of counting have happened? Did the disciples of Jesus walk through a crowd of men, women and children marking them off, “2111, 2112, child, woman, child, child, 2113, 2114…”? And if they did, is there any possible way that Jesus would not have come down on that kind of exclusionary record-keeping with spectacularly righteous indignation ?

Third, 5,000 was an approximation, which means no one really counted the crowd. Here’s the verse. “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.” (Matthew 14:21). 5,000 is an accurate estimate (it’s in the bible, after all), but an estimate, nonetheless. And it still doesn’t excuse whoever made the estimate from leaving the women and children out.

Fourth, crowd numbers were never mentioned by Jesus. Not in this instance. Not ever. (Editoral Note: Well, he did once. See the update below).

Can anyone even imagine Jesus addressing his disciples after this miracle in the following all-too-familiar, church-staff-meeting manner?

“Great work today, guys. We’ve crunched the numbers and there were 5,000 men, making it our biggest weekday crowd ever! 2,235 made decisions to follow me, 870 were healed and 3 had demons exorcised. Plus, a whole bunch of women and kids were saved and healed too. And how about that miraculous feeding! That went really well, for a last-minute audible. And we’ve got 3, 6, 9… 12 baskets left over. Let’s use that food as a seed for the next meeting. If we fed 5,000 with one basket of food, let’s enlarge our vision and feed 60,000 next time!”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the thought.

UPDATE: A helpful, alert reader named James pointed out that Jesus did reference this incident and the feeding of the 4,000 at a later time. Click here for James’ comment and my reply.


The Risk of Valuing Crowds

No, Jesus didn’t abandon the crowds who needed him. Even though the disciples encouraged him to do so. But he didn’t go chasing them, either.

There’s nothing wrong with big crowds or big churches. In fact, there’s a lot that’s right when massive numbers of people want to gather to worship Jesus. And I’ve learned a lot from megachurches and their leaders.

But, as I’ve mentioned previously, there’s no evidence that thousands of people meeting in one healthy big church is any better (or worse) than the same number of people meeting in hundreds of healthy Small Churches.

The value of what God is doing in people’s lives cannot be accurately measured by how many sat in a weekend church service, in a discipleship class, or on a hillside in Galilee.

When we try to calculate the value of spiritual things primarily or exclusively through numerical means, we often end up with too low a view of the people, too high a view of the crowd and a great deal of pride about ourselves and our programs. And we can deceive ourselves that we have more control than we actually do.

Jesus never told us to gather a crowd. He told us to make disciples. Whether in large groups, small groups or one-on-one. That’s what Jesus did and that’s what we’re supposed to do.

So keep counting people, because people count.

But never forget that what’s most important about people is beyond measure.


So what do you think? Do pastors pay too much attention to the size of the crowd?

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(Jesus Facepalm photo from Tim Green • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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7 thoughts on “Jesus and Crowds – An Unhappy Marriage”

  1. Fifth, that crowd became a problem, as we see in John 6. They wanted to push Jesus to be their king too soon. (6.15) They wanted to follow him for the free food, not the truth. (6.26) They couldn’t accept anything he had to teach them thereafter. (6.60, 66) The Twelve stuck around, (6.67-68) because it’s not about the numbers, but the sort of people in that group.

  2. I enjoyed the article. You’re right there were times when Jesus avoided crowds, but it seems like more often than not crowds just gathered and Jesus made it an opportunity to teach the crowd and his disciples. I am amazed that in spite of the tens of thousands of people that Jesus ministered to in some way there were only 120 believers in Acts 1. If Jesus is only able to gain a following of 120 people after all he did and said, what makes us think we can do better? Just a thought.

    You said, “crowd numbers were never mentioned by Jesus. Not in this instance. Not ever.” Mark 8:19-20 Jesus does make reference to crowd numbers when he asked, “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” Just thought I’d throw that out there.

  3. Oh yeah, that’s right! Jesus did make that reference to the crowds. Good catch, James.

    But I think we’re still on safe ground here. Jesus didn’t mention those incidents to promote the size of the crowds, but because the disciples were thinking “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) was because they were out of bread (silly disciples).

    Thanks for that catch, though. I always want to be accurate. I’ll edit that part of the post by tagging it to your comment.

    1. Karl–I would add that it seems that the reason Jesus mentioned the numbers was to help his disciples see that the crowds were dwindling, that the “yeast of the Pharisees” was spreading. In the first feeding it took less to feed more. In the second feeding it took more to feed less. Again, his main work was not done with the crowds even though he did attend to them and love them.

      (Also, from Mark’s account, it can be surmised that the reason the crowd was there in the first place is that the disciples had been out gathering an army. Not what Jesus wanted at all!)

  4. Let’s not forget what Jesus (trying to escape them) said to the crowd who followed him around after getting a full stomach….

    “You’re just following me because I fed you… not because of the signs I did, but because you ate the loaves.”

    Then Jesus runs them off by calling Himself the real bread and telling them to eat his flesh. Only a few remained, and He asked them if they were leaving too. Sometimes to grow your church, you have to run the crowd away.

  5. Pingback: Grow Group Notes: 17th – 23rd April – Ivy Grow Group Blog

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