image by Ihor Malytsky from Unsplash
Having grown up, come to faith, and become a member in the same church, I've only known what it's been like to be in a small church, all my life. Even after so many years, we're nowhere nearer to outgrowing the "small" category. I like to watch the expressions of Christian friends when they tell me their church "isn't very big, couple of hundred only," and then ask me "how about yours?"
There are many challenges to being a small church. I would be the first to say that. For those of my readers who come from large churches, please don't misunderstand. This article is not a weird flex, an awkward attempt to feel better or appear superior or holier. Not by any means. I just want to challenge the unquestioned sense of pity that we (myself included) associate with small, struggling churches. To challenge the mentality that being small and struggling means that God hasn't blessed us. The temptations to feel envious of more "successful" churches, to wallow in self-pity, or fall into discouragement and despair stem from this mindset.
We all struggle. Struggling is not an indication that God has forsaken us, or cares less about us. When we focus too exclusively on the (inevitable) struggle we can end up blind to the gifts that He just as surely gives.
1. being in a small church = desperate lack of manpower = opportunities for us to realize--constantly!--that we need God's help and cannot rely on ourselves.
I'm aware that this is a problem that all churches face--on different levels. We always need more people to serve, we always fear that all the work is being thrown on the shoulders of a faithful few, the "core group." However, in a small church, this problem takes on whole new proportions. It's a looming problem constantly in your face, the first consideration of every decision. We're talking about every Sunday's worship service; managing to survive week by week, not having any backups, having to cancel or modify plans simply because there isn't enough manpower, or that one key person isn't available.
This is far from ideal by any human standards, of course. It leaves you in a state of constant instability and uncertainty, that can easily spiral into anxiety and discouragement. But instability and uncertainty are God's fertile grounds to grow faith, truly strong, tested faith. When you can't rely on your own planning, on people, on backup plans and strategies, you're forced to realize from the sheer bleakness of your resources that yes, you're not doing this with your own strength and ability. You're constantly aware that every Sunday, every prayer meeting, every event and every sermon, is enabled by God's sovereign will and power.
Too often we reduce the church to an institution, especially when we get lost in the multitude of admin/logistical needs and worries. And institutions are built on human effort and human ability--they look to human effort and ability for maintenance and progress. For any institution to improve, the humans running it try harder. Plan better. Purposefully expand. It's the recipe for success which we unthinkingly apply to so much of life.
But churches are so much more. They are the living fruit of God's Spirit working in God's people; each church in its unique context, with its unique abilities and needs. It is an organic, ongoing growth of the individuals within a community, and the relationships they have with God, both on their own and as a body. (yes, this is heavily influenced by the concepts of fellowship, or koinoinia, as developed in True Community by Jerry Bridges)
The kind of growth that cannot be defined in numbers, in graphs, or KPI.
A church that lost its pastor, or had a major split, or by all human standards seems to be struggling, may be spiritually thriving more than at any other "successful" point in their history.
This is not to say that we can only experience blessing/spiritual growth in the midst of trials, of course. But God delights to subvert the human ideals and standards for success, often to challenge them directly with how He works out His.
After all, He is the One Who reminded us that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
2. pressing needs/urgent limitations = motivation to pray more
When you're face to face with your limitations and needs, you don't forget to pray. It's as simple as that. We are proud creatures; we don't like asking for help, or acknowledging that we need help, unless we absolutely have to. Often it completely slips our mind that we need help, in fact. We just get so used to managing, to getting by, that we let ourselves get entrenched in self-reliance. We take it for granted that we can manage, and that we can.
However, when the odds seem impossible, when you're faced with your own insufficiency, when you have nothing to find reassurance in--you don't forget to pray.
Prayer meetings became a much more personal, intense affair for me when I started seeing how urgent the needs of the church were. It truly became God's people meeting to pray together, to confess our neediness and unworthiness, to plead with Him for His help, to seek to grow in faith as we try to obey Him and serve Him amid many reminders of our inadequacy.
In our worst times, we come closest to Him. In our neediest situations, we glimpse His abundance and power, far more clearly than we could when we are contented and flushed with success or prosperity.
3. less excuses, and less barriers, to form friendships and relationships; to practice Biblical fellowship.
I've heard from so many friends on the challenge of being in a big church, where you don't even know where to start, where you feel lost, and where--in too many cases--you end up settling for coming jusssst in time for the sermon and sneaking away the moment it ends, in order to avoid the mass of people and inevitable initial awkwardness. (I can relate to this, almost every time I visit a--comparatively--large church. Guilty as charged.)
Sadly, this means we miss out on the huge blessing and privilege that Christian fellowship is meant to be. And even if we try, we often end up settling for smalltalk over coffee and snacks as "fellowship."
One blessing about being in a small church is that you have a much better chance of knowing everyone's names, and of seeing the same people each Sunday. There are more opportunities, so to speak, to build deeper relationships, simply due to the lesser number of people.
But just to be clear, nothing--not the most conducive environment in the world--can replace the genuine desire to reach out, and purposefully acting on that desire. If our hearts aren't in it, there will always be reasons (perhaps excuses would be a better word) to keep us from reaching out.
4. similarly--less excuses to get involved in serving. After my (already small) church went through a major split a few years back, we were even smaller than we were initially. Without the deacons who had been faithfully serving all those years, we suddenly faced manpower issues on a whole new scale. For the first time, the youths and young adults made the decision to step up and serve, despite our lack of experience. For many of us, who still felt that we were relatively young in the faith, we would otherwise continue assuming we weren't up to the responsibility, and settle comfortably for assisting in smaller, less "important" ways. Teaching Sunday School? Sharing at prayer meeting? Leading worship? Organizing camp? But I feel like I'm not up to such a big task! When are we, though? (in fact--feeling like we are may not actually be a good sign.) Again, it's a reminder that we don't serve because we're good at it, or because we're holy enough to qualify; we serve with the strength that God supplies. (1 Peter 4:11)
We get discouraged so easily. We think the answer lies in getting a church venue of our own--or a bigger, better one--in having more people--in having more funds--in having better pastors, teachers, leaders, structures, programs. We worry, sigh, feel sorry for ourselves, and lonely--when in reality He is among us.
I remember being struck by how the Christians under persecution seemed to be in touch with a strong, vibrant joy and sensitivity to Christ. Despite their very real struggles and trials, this joy and consciousness of God's presence only became clearer and more important. They were truly enabled to find out how much He loved them, and how precious He was--an overwhelming knowledge greater even than the fear and uncertainty of their circumstances.
How much more so us?
Whatever the size of your church is--there will always be anxieties. There will always be struggles. But that's not the main thing. How we respond to those struggles, how we learn to draw closer to God and see His presence in every situation... If I've learnt anything, it is that.
We worship a good God.
image from Unsplash
Those of us who serve in our churches--no matter what kind of ministry we're involved in--will know that challenges come thick and fast with serving.
Always, whether in teaching or arranging chairs, the temptation is to treat it as any other task--manual housework; finishing an assignment; organizing an event; giving a presentation. We take the same business-like approach to serving in church that we take to our offices, our classrooms, our kitchens. Get the task done. Plan for the next time. Do it faster, better.
The problem is it's not the same. Success, efficiency, productivity, self-worth, approval, rewards--these things, foundational to the mindset we take to any other forms of work, should not be our motivation and goal here, at least not to the same extent. We treat them as standards and methods through which we achieve success and make progress, through which we evaluate ourselves and our serving, the same way we assess our work in school or in the office.
This misguided application is often the reason behind us falling into discouragement and despair. Bitterness. Self-pity. Guilt. Resentment. Burn-out.
We need instead to consciously cultivate and focus on the true essentials for serving.
1. prayerfulness. This is so often repeated that it's become trite; but really, is it just because we can't draw a clear line between prayer and its benefits? If someone made an argument that for every hour of prayer, we would experience n amount of blessing on our ministry, I think prayer would actually appear on our schedules as something we took seriously. Too often we rush through prayer, itching to get to "the real work," massively confusing our priorities.
If we feel that the benefits of prayer are vague, that very fact indicates how we've lost sight of it as the basis of our spiritual life, and how enslaved we've become to a results-oriented mindset. Like a husband who calculates the benefits of talking to his wife.
2. a Biblical attitude towards serving, and understanding God's role in enabling us. This is so much more important than we realize. It enables us to deal with burn-out, disillusionment, ungrateful or difficult people, feeling lonely, unappreciated, or being taken for granted. Why do we serve, and how are we able to in the first place? (Fyi, Jerry Bridges discusses this concept of enablement and serving in his excellent book, True Community. But more on that another day.)
3. a right perspective and focus on people instead of goals, individuals instead of numbers, hearts instead of conformist external behaviour. It is so easy to look to these temptingly concrete things for assurance and certainty. Whether congregation size or skirt lengths. But God's ways are different from man's ways, and we need to let go of the standards we use to measure success, the need to constantly measure (and reassure ourselves of) success.
4. humility so you are able to receive and benefit from constructive criticism--and not be devastated when it's...not constructive. Also, to keep you from seeing this role or ministry as "yours," becoming possessive--seeing it as an extension of your self-image and worth, the way we tend to with our jobs and academics etc. I've realized this can be a real challenge, after working in the same ministry for many years. It is a very real and natural temptation to make it an extension of myself; seeing any praise or encouragement of it as a reflection of my skills/worth, any criticism as a personal attack that threatens my self-image.
5. heart of peace that stems from trust in God, and relying on Him. It helps us to cope with stress, anxiety, and to rest intentionally. Purposefully planning rest--and being able to truly rest, not just physically but mentally and emotionally--is something that many of us need to learn.
It helps us also not to blow things out of proportion, to micromanage/stress over not getting exactly the outcome we want.
6. actively growing in our relationship with God, and keeping a clear conscience before the Spirit. If we are clinging to idols, finding excuses for pet sins, neglecting our time with God, harbouring bitterness, or refusing to forgive someone, how can we expect to serve in ministry? How can we expect God to enable us?
Many of these are interrelated--cultivating one helps you in developing another--because they are all aspects of spiritual growth.
Which in turn shows us that one of God's means of helping us grow spiritually is through serving.
Dear friend, as you stifle a sigh and try not to be anxious, struggle with burn-out and discouragement--
--try to see beyond merely the task at hand. It is so easy to simply focus on what needs to be done, and forget that God could have chosen any way, in His infinite power, to accomplish this work or meet this need.
Instead, He chose you. He chose you, knowing full well there would be challenges, limitations, imperfections, mistakes.
He knows, and He chose, for a reason, and it is so much more than just getting this task done.
This task is nothing compared to His passion for your growth; it is only His tool.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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