Let the world have its ticker tape parades, its popularity contests, its straw poll politics and morals, it megastar and minor-soul ethic, and lets follow the heart of our God after the individual believer, and the path of our Saviour who drank the bitter cup that he might sup with individual believers gathered together in his kingdom.
Metrics really matter in our current moment in Western culture. By them we can measure the popularity of a movement, the legitimacy of a cause, the trajectory of social change, and the influence of an individual. Social media sites emblazon a person’s influence on the sidebar of each user, flagging up the weight an individual carries, and the currency of their name and/or brand. We can even work a ratio between ‘followers’ and ‘following’ to ascertain just how much power a person wields in relation to their dependence on, or esteem for, others. Corporate policies and marketing are counting clicks, and monitoring the zeitgeist, ready to brand and rebrand, to champion the cause that carries the popular vote, or carries emotional freight. We are no longer merely numbers in the system, but have coded our preferences and priorities, our allegiances and affections into a system which is constantly reading us, individually and collectively.
In such a world, the singular can seem worthless, the individual an impotent unit in a larger economy. This mindset pervades a world where the only singularities which count are celebrity figures, modern gods who can carelessly govern the weather systems in the hearts and minds of millions, with no concern for their individual welfare. Sadly the church has not been immune from this kind of thinking. Gather a group of pastors together at a fraternal or conference, and numbers will inevitably form part of the conversation in terms of the health of the congregation they serve in. Christians are encouraged to read where the numbers lie, picking bestselling texts which either make new waves, or ride the most prominent ones. Conferences can now count delegates in their thousands and tens of thousands in physical attendance, not to mention the millions who can connect via live-streaming. The weight of numbers presses hard against the momentum of the evangelical movement, and we have readily bought into the idea of influencers which has been so disruptive in our wider culture.
One of the tragic consequences of this kind of mathematics is the disposability of the single soul. Twitter-storms and social media spats pay little mind to the collateral damage of individual Christians who watch in horror, or are tempted to walk away when confronted by uncaring words, inaccurate caricatures, and utter disregard for people as people who matter all by themselves. The increasing secular tribalism in politics feeds this further—people can be lampooned, epithets can be forged, aspersions can be cast, men and women can be ‘owned’, and ‘schooled’, and ‘destroyed’ and a watching world applauds.
Into this eco-system the words of God about the individual sound distinctive to the point of absurdity. In Matthew 18, the Saviour devotes extended time to the theme of the ‘little ones’ who have come to trust in him. We have lost some of the force of what he teaches in this passage because we have come to assign these words to infants—imagining that Christ’s words are most aptly applied to some of the abuse scandals that have floated to the surface of our news in recent years. Jesus, however, is not speaking here about literal children, but the little children in the faith who follow him—the vulnerable and seemingly insignificant band of believers who find their identity and their eternity in him; this exposed and fragile crew of exposed citizens, who are mere expendables to the power and might of the bigger culture.