Beckett: Difficulties of A Large Congregation

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the Word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to faith.

Acts 6:1-7

There were two kinds of ethnic Jews here: those born in Judea who had grown up with Jewish customs (the Hebrews) and the Hellenists, or Grecian Jews, who were Jews of foreign birth and Greek education. It was the custom of the Church to equally distribute money to the widows of the Church since they were poor. Yet the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked somehow. We mustn’t be hasty to think this was purposeful, however. With the rapid increase in disciples and the fact that Greek Jews were a minority, it is far more likely this was an accidental oversight. Remember, this is post-Pentecost; the congregation was in the thousands. Today, we might call this congregation a mega church.

So, the Apostles led a meeting to resolve the conflict. Preaching the Word takes precedence. Proper attention to these people requires more bodies and time, but they cannot forsake the preaching of the Word for this important ministry to widows. So, they came up with a good practical solution to have seven disciples full of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, and integrity to manage the distribution of money.

A large congregation can be a blessing, but it also provides more challenges. It is too easy to overlook the minority group(s) (among other disadvantages). It would be best if large congregations split and planted another congregation nearby. The people never want to do this, of course, because they feel too connected to the building or the cult of personality of their pastor; but the whole purpose of the congregation is not the pastor who ministers to you or the building (though they are important), but that you receive the gifts of Christ in the Word and Sacraments. So long as these gifts are faithfully distributed to you, it does not matter who your pastor is, or how nice or nostalgic your building is, or how large your congregation is. These things are secondary to the distribution of the Means of Grace. Numbers don’t matter; people matter.

Whenever I preach at a funeral, I am always extremely grateful for the men and women (mostly the latter) who cook the luncheon for the bereaved (if they choose to have one). The preaching of the Word takes precedence at the funeral; I cannot forsake this sacred duty given to me to worry about feeding the bereaved. Therefore, I have a blessed group of men and women, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom and integrity, to distribute food to the bereaved. Consider how you might assist your pastor as he fulfils his primary duty of administering the Word and Sacraments (e.g., ushering, serving on the board of elders, acolyting, playing the organ, etc.). If you’re already doing something to help him, thank you for your selfless service.


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