Just Two Is Just Fine

The following post comes from my book, Church: An Insider’s Look at How We Do It. Strangely enough, this book has sold the fewest copies of any of my books, even though its bite-sized chapters, reading much like a topically-organized weblog, ought to make it particularly popular. So you know what to do, right? (There’s no need to be too direct with the sophisticated readers of this blog…)

I’m posting this today in part to respond to some concerns raised by readers after my recent “Effectiveness” post. I trust that this post will help to redress the apparent (but of course not actual) imbalance in what I wrote before. 🙂

I once accepted an invitation to teach a summer school course in a Canadian theological seminary. It was July 1990, and I offered a course on “Canadian Evangelicalism” in the evenings for two weeks. Given this seminary’s location in a major Canadian city and the pertinence of this course to its constituency, I looked forward to a large audience.

Precisely three students enrolled. And one of them dropped the course half-way through. Each evening for a fortnight, then, I faithfully showed up and taught the students, both of whom attended class and completed their assignments. Yet often, I confess, it was hard for me to stay motivated to teach just two students.

In an autobiographical sketch (in the fine collection of Kelly Clark’s, Philosophers Who Believe), Yale University philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff recalls his student days at Calvin College in Michigan. Once, he writes, he signed up for a course on Immanuel Kant’s difficult Critique of Pure Reason. Taught by a senior professor, Harry Jellema, the course enrolled just two students. Nicholas Wolterstorff was one. Alvin Plantinga, who became a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University, was the other.

Wolterstorff delightedly notes that every student in that class has since been invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, defending the Christian faith. Wolterstorff and Plantinga unquestionably today are two of the leading Christian philosophers in the world. And they look back on Jellema’s class as a seminal experience in their development as philosophers.

Harry Jellema, though, could not have foreseen any of that when he faithfully entered his classroom each time to teach just these two students. He simply wanted to teach anyone who wanted to learn.

At the University of Chicago they still enjoy telling the story of astrophysics professor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. In the 1950s, Chandrasekhar was living in Wisconsin, conducting research at the university’s observatory. The university scheduled him to teach one advanced seminar that winter, however, so Chandrasekhar drove eighty miles each way to teach the course on the main campus to—you guessed it—just two students. He could have cancelled it, but he did not.

In the subsequent decades, both of those students, and Professor Chandrasekhar himself, won the Nobel Prize. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, however, could not have foreseen any of that when he faithfully entered that classroom every time to teach just two students. He simply wanted to teach anyone who wanted to learn.

How can we escape the constant temptation to equate magnitude with importance? Length of resumé, size of congregation, cost of house, number of friends, list of commitments: Too small? Too bad.

Yes, statistics of the right sort can help us see if we are being as effective as we might be in God’s mission. But we mustn’t assume that what we can count is all that counts.

So maybe two is enough, if the task is God’s will done in God’s way. Who knows what our investment in one, or two, or six, or ten people will yield—in a friendship, in a Sunday School class, in job training, in coaching? Who knows what will happen when two or three are gathered together, or when just twelve are selected for a particular task?

I thought about all of this one August as I prepared to teach my own classes at the University of Manitoba. The introductory courses were always well-enrolled, so I could count on large audiences in those. But I could see on the Dean’s printout that my advanced seminar in religion and philosophy registered just two students.

I could hardly wait.

17 Responses to “Just Two Is Just Fine”

  1. Stacey Gleddiesmith

    Thank you John. This was timely for me. Having just attended “Breakforth” in Edmonton – watching “big name” worship leaders lead thousands people humbly and faithfully (although without the use of scripture or overt prayer), I was beginning to feel the size of our small congregation as a disadvantage. Imagine what I could do with a congregation of thousands! Of course – as you remind us here – our most important task is to be faithful with what we are given. I have been given this congregation of thirty five adults and fifteen to twenty kids – they are thirsty and responsive – a blessing. And just the right size.

  2. evedyahu

    Indeed. Great example…Here is something from Carson that reminded me of your post:
    “But there is a bigger issue. We must not equate courage with success, or even youth with success. We must avoid ever leaving the impression that these equations are valid. I have spent too much time in places like Japan, or in parts of the Muslim world, where courage is not measured on the world stage, where a single convert is reckoned a mighty trophy of grace. I am grateful beyond words for the multiplication of churches in Acts 29, but I am no less grateful for Baptist ministers like my Dad, men who labored very hard and saw very little fruit for decades in French Canada, many of whom went to prison (their sentences totaled eight years between 1950 and 1952). I find no ground for concluding that the missionaries in Japan in the 20th century were less godly, less courageous, less faithful, than the missionaries in (what became) South Korea, with its congregations of tens of thousands. At the final Great Assize, God will take into account not only all that was and is, but also what might have been under different circumstances (Matt 11:20ff). Just as the widow who gave her mite may be reckoned to have given more than many multi-millionaires, so, I suspect, some ministers in Japan, or Yorkshire, will receive greater praise on that last day than those who served faithfully in a corner of the world where there was more fruit. Moreover, the measure of faithful service is sometimes explicitly tied in Scripture not to the quantity of fruit, measured in numbers, but to such virtues as self-control, measured by the use of one’s tongue (James 3:1-6).”

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/01/29/reflections-on-the-church-in-great-britain/

  3. discokvn

    a. i tell myself this all the time, and in my head i believe it…
    b. my heart is a different story…
    c. hard to justify if i were standing before my church board answering the question, why are there only two students in the sr. high? (unspoken, what are you doing wrong?)

  4. dan fairholm

    I am one of a few who bought that book. And it is worthwhile to read as I’ve referenced it many times in my Seminary education and ministry. I smile at this blog because – 20 years ago – my youth pastor once led a Bible Study for just two kids – myself and my brother (and I was the only one who paid attention). Which became an important start for me because it prompted me to go into ministry. Sometimes 2 may be one more than needed.

  5. Edsall Mike

    This is the principle of concentration on a few, even if practiced unintentionally. We all know the story. Jesus trained 12, majored on 3, and sought only to please the Father. Fighter pilot instructors are assigned only two students a year. When survival is critical, the world has this figured out.

    These aren’t examples of secondary blessings, God graciously making something out of not much, it is part (but only part) of His core strategy.

    With permission I will pass this around to our staff.

  6. Richard

    Well done. Thank you for taking the time and effort to share this insight.

  7. Dan

    So you’re saying you think they should reduce class sizes at Regent? 😉

  8. peggy

    this is timely for me, and a boost to my heart and mind. i preach at a dying-out (sunday only) ethnic church (welsh) in downtown L.A. nobody lives near it anymore, and there are often 8 in attendance. they’re mostly 70s-80s, so getting there is an increasing problem.
    i knew my job was to just preach the word and love the people, and that’s been great. i’m no crowd gatherer, nor was i asked to be. nor do i have the control over when they stop entirely: they do, and are fine with that decision (coming in the next year, probably).
    that said, it’s undeniably discouraging to start a full-on service with four or five people there….before stragglers come in late. and i ask myself why i get discouraged when i’m not expected to bring in more people, nor can i, and i do get to do the important job: present the word. but it’s sort of unavoidable…..hence my appreciation for this marvelous article.
    peggy

  9. bethmalenaBeth

    This is really helpful, John, thanks. My question is… how do you reconcile your two blog posts (assuming it’s not an irreconcilable Regent-type paradox, like already/not yet)? If effectiveness is an important marker, but “maybe two is enough, if the task is done in God’s will and in God’s way,” then how do we measure effectiveness? Is it an intangible, uncountable kind of effectiveness? Do you prioritize faithfulness over effectiveness, or vice versa? Or is it all about discerning God’s will in any particular situation?

    • John Stackhouse

      I want to write about this some more and at some length, Beth. The implications for mission work, vocation, resource deployment, discernment of the will of God, and more are all tied in to this issue. Thanks for the nudge.

  10. shelley

    Choosing to leave Regent in order to raise our two children and support my husband’s ventures has been a humbling and at times discouraging decision. However, I’m certain that other engaged parents out there resonate with your images of effective quality vs. effective quantity. Thank you for your thoughts…. my prayers are with the other parents out there!

  11. David Burke

    Thanks for this post as the timing is extremely relevant. I am teaching a college History class and only 3 students registered, and one just dropped the course. Hence, I am teaching 2 students, so thanks for the humble reminder of what God can do, even this semester in Wilmington, Delaware…David Burke, Middletown, DE

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