Preaching to Small Crowds
Although I have spent my whole preaching career (20 years) except for some meetings and lectures, working in what is commonly called mission fields, and although a majority of my sermons have probably been preached to crowds so small that they could have been seated on the rostrum in most church buildings, I still do not consider myself an expert in this field. However, it is evident that many, and perhaps most, preachers do not have a realistic and practical attitude toward this work, and it is my sin cere hope that a few things may be written herein that will be helpful to those who have not learned these lessons bv long experience.
All preachers know that it is easy to preach to large crowds. There is something stimulating and challenging about a "full-house" (even if the house isn't so large) that brings out the best in most in all of us. The very fact that there are so many hearers present who need the truth so badly, plus the fact that there are so many that will endorse it so fully, plus the fact that there ire usually sonic prelient whom we know will challenge what we say, will motivate the sincere preacher to express himself fluently, vigorously and boldly.
However, the absence of a large crowd should not prevent us from doing our very best if we have trained ourselves for such work. just as a truly good salesman will work as earnestly with one prospective customer as he will with many, so the faithful proclaimer of the word will be as diligent in efforts to teach the few as he will when many are present. The doctor who is passive because only one is sick is not worthy of our confidence, and the preacher who is unconcerned about his work because his hearers are few in number has failed to train himself for greater service.
It seems hard for some of us to do our best preaching unless we see an objector in our crowd. However, we need to recognize that the sincere seeker for truth mav be present even if he sits alone, and even if he isn't prepared to "argue back," with us. The fact that one who is not a Christian attends the services of a small body, of people, indicates that he is truly interested, and his very presence, though lie may be the only unconverted one who will hear a particular sermon, should challenge the speaker to declare truth and expose error in the very best way possible. Let us always remember that though no one may hear us who will openly question our lesson, if that sermon is true to God's word and well delivered, it will stir up a real challenge in the mind of anyone whose heart can be, and needs to be pricked with the gospel.
It is easy to preach to people in error if we know that what we say is endorsed by many people present. Most of us can do our best quite easily if there are strong men (in faith) present who will stand faithfully in support of truth. One of the most gratifying experiences a preacher can have is to preach truth on a grave issue and have elders endorse such preaching publicly. However, to be effective in preaching to small groups, one must train himself to do his best even when he knows there is not a soul who will say "Amen," either vocally or silently.
There are two rather common views regarding preaching to small groups. One idea is that those who do so, can't preach or they would be speaking where crowds are large. This idea is probably promoted bv the common practice among brethren - the custom of a man serving out ]us "apprenticeship" in mission fields and then as soon as he is really qualified to move to work with a large church. On the other hand there are significant exceptions to this rule, and across the nation as well as in foreign fields there are plenty of men who have proved their ability and then have stayed to use it in the destitute fields. Many of them have declined tempting offers from established churches who would lure them away from the hard places where thev must work without proper buildings, with inadequate support, and with little encouragement, and would entice them to move to the places "where their talents will be more fully utilized" by larger crowds. This paragraph is not intended as a criticism of the man who preaches for larger churches, but is only suggestive of one of the reasons so many good preachers do not stay in harder fields. Most of all it is intended to affirm that the average preacher in the mission fields possesses comparable ability to that of the average preacher in the established areas.
The second common view regarding preaching to small groups is that even if the preacher has great ability, he need not use it if there are only a few to hear. Of course few would actually state such a belief, but that is the way it is usually practiced. It is not uncommon for a man who is used to preaching to several hundred people regularly, to go to a place where he must face a large hall with 100 chairs and 25 people, and he just doesn't put all he has into the effort, but seems to keep waiting for a crowd. Of course such occasions do become a test of a man's ability to be master of himself, and the one who will be successful in such places is the one who has trained himself to be thrilled and challenged by each and every opportunity to preach the word regardless of the size or composition of the crowd. Some men whose oratory will hold the multitudes spell-bound, when faced with a little group of hearers content themselves with a little "talk." Some seem to act like such a small crowd is unworthy of their efforts, and others simply fail miserably to meet the challenge of the occasion even though they much desire to do their very best.
The preacher who goes to the mission field, either for long range work or for a gospel meeting, should remember that his hearers may be desperately hungry for truth. Besides that, they may also be hungrv for old fashioned preaching (with regard to delivery of the sermon) that will stir them and prick them and stimulate them. A "let-down" on the part of the preacher at such a time may so discourage them that their interest in truth may be forever lost. On the other hand, a sermon that flows from a heart of love (manifestly a heart of love for God, for Christ, for truth and for men) and that comes from lips that are fluent in that which "is written" may touch a tender place in the mind of the sinner, or of the lonesome and discouraged saint.
This short article is intended is an exhortation to preachers, both young and old, and it is written with the hope that it may stimulate some, at least, to meet the challenge of the mission fields with more enthusiastic and effective preaching. If it does that it will contribute to a better work in such fields, and it will help to produce a more satisfactory experience for the preacher, for even the one who Passively "talks" when he should be preaching his heart out, is sure1v disgusted with himself when it is over, while the one whose heart and soul and mind is poured out in the language of the Bible as it flows from eager, expressive lips can lie down that night to rest his body which is exhausted from the strain of the fervent, enthusiastic effort of sowing the good seed, and can relax in the comfort and satisfaction of a job well done.
Truth Magazine II:5, pp. 22-23