Martin Thornton was an Anglican theologian of the mid-twentieth century whose Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation (SPCK 1958; Wipf and Stock 2014?) is both refreshing and liberating.
He taught a pastoral theology “of the remnant,” which he opposed to “multitudinism.” The latter, he wrote, is the theology of the church that is always seeking numbers, more and more people to lasso into the fold. When church leaders are hell-bent on getting more and more warm bodies into the pews, they are wont to relax and hide or even do away with whatever they think might be offputting to the multitudes.
So is the weekly sacrament too foreign for newcomers? Make it bi-weekly or monthly. Is liturgy too difficult? Get rid of it. Are sermons that teach the cross and discipleship too hard for babes in Christ? Lighten up.
Instead, he wrote, the pastoral theology of the remnant realizes that God’s people have always been divided into the multitudes who barely get it, and the remnant who always wants more, to go deeper. It is the 80-20 split in most churches.
It was that way in the ancient world. God chose only one tiny nation through which to work, and to invest that little people with Himself. And in Israel itself God focused on the remnant. We see the same pattern in Jesus’ ministry. Why didn’t he spend much time with the crowds? Why didn’t he go after them when they wandered after getting fed, or when they turned away in repulsion because of his hard sayings?
Instead he spent the vast majority of his time with the remnant, the twelve. He went deep with them, and trusted that their inner life, which he cultivated for three years, would radiate. Their lives would attract others.
Here is an extended quote from Thornton, which he takes from Gore’s Church and Ministry:
The more we study the Gospels the more clearly we shall recognize that Christ did not cast His Gospel loose upon the world–the world which was so incapable of appreciating it; that would have been indeed to cast his pearls before swine; but He directed all his efforts to making a home for it, and that by organizing a band of men called “out of the world” and consecrated into a holy unity, who were destined to draw others in time after them out of all ages and nations (John 17). On this “little flock” He fixed all His hopes. He prayed not for the world, but for those whom God had given Him out of the world.
Thornton compares the priest/minister to the men who took their paralytic friend up on top of the roof to lower him to Jesus.
The trouble with the multitudinist congregation is that it consists of one fairly strong man struggling with hundreds of paralytics. The strongest priest can do nothing without the Remnant. You cannot carry a stretcher by yourself.
The trick, he advises, is to focus on the training and unity of the remnant. They are the ones who come regularly and to special events anyway. Stop wearying yourself to get the crowds.
One more thing that I think is so helpful from Thornton. He says the purpose of life is adoration in the vision of God. We are created to adore the Holy Trinity. This is what we should lead the Remnant toward. And not worry about the host of other things that want to consume us.