• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Just Two Is Just Fine [Re-post]

The following lightly edited re-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 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. (And each has served as president of a division of the American Philosophical Association.) 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 (the dean invited him to do so) but he did not.

In the subsequent decades, both of those students went on to distinguished careers. In fact, both students, as well as 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 résumé, 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.

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For more on this theme, see here and here.