Crowds on the National Mall just before Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017
My crowd is bigger than your crowd
Rev. John Zehring
November 13, 2019
It is hard to remember any politician or world leader more infatuated with the size of his crowd than Donald J. Trump. In a Washington Post article from November 19, 2018 titled “President Trump’s crowd-size estimates: Increasingly unbelievable,” the newspaper told how “The president boasts about the massive crowds that attend his rallies, but his estimates are often off.” The president, employing all caps to emphasize what is important to him, tweeted “The crowds at my Rallies are far bigger than they have ever been before, including the 2016 election. Never an empty seat in these large venues, many thousands of people watching screens outside. Enthusiasm & Spirit is through the roof. SOMETHING BIG IS HAPPENING – WATCH!”). The Washington Post article continued “Trump has been inflating the size of his crowds since his early days as a candidate. His presidency began with a surreal national debate over how many people attended his inauguration… his pumped-up numbers are so extravagant most of the time that they have little or no basis in fact.”
In contrast, I recently attended a presentation at a town library on the Maine coast on the topic of “Quakers and Quakerism,” presented by a local Quaker meeting to inform attendees about the Society of Friends. Members shared information about their theology, consensus governance, social justice testimonies like their peace testimony, and their Sunday worship, where each member comes with an expectation and anticipation of entering into the presence of the Divine. The Quakers are inclined not to proselytize, market, or promote themselves. There is a sense that if you feel led to discover them, you will search for them and find them. Bigger is not better to them. They are almost the opposite of Donald J. Trump: They do not need a large crowd to validate their authenticity, credibility or popularity. There is no boasting, bragging, or exaggerating.
The gospel writers told how Jesus attracted big crowds. In Mark 3:7, the author tells that “Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him.” Focus on the word multitudes. This is at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and already “a great multitude from Galilee followed him.” The Bible frequently speaks about multitudes, crowds or mobs. When Jesus and his disciples rowed across the Sea of Galilee to find some rest away from all the hordes pressing upon them, they discovered 5,000 hungry people. A great number of people were coming out to see Jesus. When the men carrying the paralytic sought Jesus’ touch, they could not get near because of the crowds, so they had to dig a hole in the roof. When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to town, he could not get near because of the crowds, so he had to climb a tree. When the woman with twelve years of hemorrhages desired to touch even a part of Jesus’ robe, she could not get near because of the crowds, so she had to dive under their legs to reach out to touch him. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Bible says a great crowd went out to meet him.
Jesus attracted multitudes. What does all this appear to say to us? It seems to broadcast the message that if it draws that much attention and response, there must be something to it. We have the tendency to gauge success by how much attention and following it attracts. If the seats are full to overflowing, it is a sign. A sign of what? It is a sign, we think, that because many people buy into it, it must be right and true.
Therein lies a message and a warning for us. If it appears that everybody is jumping off a cliff, that does not mean jumping off a cliff is a good thing to do. If the masses and crowds follow a charismatic leader, it is not an affirmation that his or her way is right and good. Masses followed Adolf Hitler and brutal dictators throughout history. If everybody is doing it, it must be right, goes the logic. Wrong.
Masses were attracted to Jesus, but few committed to become his followers. In Acts 1:15, which describes Jesus’ ascension, a specific number is quantified: “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons)…” That parenthetical phrase tells that after three years of preaching, teaching, healing, feeding, and telling about God, Jesus’ net yield at his ascension was 120 people. What happened to the 5,000? What happened to the crowds, mobs, masses, groups, hearers, assemblies, flocks, multitudes, gatherings, and all those people who came to hear him? He had a chance to reach thousands and thousands and ended up with a mere 120 at his ascension.
People may hear the truth, and some may even become attracted to it, but that does not mean they commit to it. That is one of the great sidebar messages from the story of Jesus attracting multitudes. It is not the crowd but the critical mass that turns the world upside down. It is the small group with the audacity, chutzpah and boldness to believe they can do something great that has the power to create change.
There are two important takeaways from the idea that my crowd is bigger than your crowd.
First, bigger does not mean better. More followers do not mean the way is good or right. Sometimes the worst or most extreme causes attract large numbers. Bigger numbers do not mean something is more true, right, or correct. That is the way of the world, which places a high value on large followings like multitudes. The way of God is the good, the right, and the true. That way may be embraced by only a few.
Bigger does not mean better. More followers do not mean the way is good or right. Sometimes the worst or most extreme causes attract large numbers. Bigger numbers do not mean something is more true, right, or correct. That is the way of the world, which places a high value on large followings like multitudes. The way of God is the good, the right, and the true. That way may be embraced by only a few.
Second, believe in the power of a small critical mass of devoted and dedicated disciples: the small group, department, committee, board, task force, group of friends, family, or the local church with a “can do” attitude. In the book of Acts, the church started with 120. Seventeen chapters later, Acts 17:6 says, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.” This is a message of encouragement for us and for the church today: it is not about numbers. Never underestimate the power of a small critical mass who believe. A small critical mass of people striving to be faithful has the power to create change, improve lives, and to leave the world a little better than it was when they found it.
For those committed to that which is good rather than to that which attracts big crowds, be encouraged. Continue to pursue the good, the true and the God-like. That is the narrow path, but this way leads into the presence of the Divine.
The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”