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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 by Nani Williams from Unsplash
continued from part 1
In his book True Community, Jerry Bridges points out the special privilege that our friendships with other Christians (especially those in the same church) should be. We should treasure what we have in common, what our union with them is based on: our common status as redeemed sinners, seeking to serve and be more like Christ. We should be eager to talk with them about Christ, the joys and struggles of following Him, our daily experiences of being in a relationship with Him; what we cannot talk about with our other friends.
The irony, as Bridges adds, is that all too often we talk about everything except that. During refreshments, we chatter determinedly on about exams, trips, the best coffee, work life balance, sports news, and what a spectacular disappointment the new MacDonalds’ salted egg yolk fries were. We reduce ourselves—unknowingly, from sheer habit, or because we’re not comfortable to go further—to another club, another social interaction in the broadest sense of the word. Trying to find something in common that we can relate to, from hobbies to celebrity crushes to music genres and whether or not we’re fellow Starbucks/Star Wars fans, so we can “bond.”
When we never really needed to. Since all along we already have something—Someone—in common.
Bridges challenges us to rethink the purpose and content of our conversations in church every Sunday. The whole perspective, in fact, with which we see our church friends and family.
Even as older Christians, we tend to have the wrong mindset towards our relationships in church. We need to “touch base” with so-and-so. Catch up. Hear about your week. Make friends with the new visitor. Not wrong, granted, but very much secular social interaction behaviour. All about maintaining that very superficial, uncertain first level of friendliness.
Granted, this probably isn’t a new concept to you. If you’re like me, you’re uncomfortably aware that yeah, we’re supposed to have more spiritual conversations—but it’s terribly awkward and feels so contrived…but it’s really hard if you’re not close enough, and don’t you need to develop the friendship more first--
Yes, there is a point to that. Most of us would squirm if someone you didn’t know very well did the *awkward cough, even more awkward attempt at eye contact:* “So, how’s your spiritual life?”
I remember when a sermon was once preached on the need for "more spiritual conversations" in church. For about two weeks, we all tried manfully, if horribly awkwardly--after which everyone unanimously gave it up with a sigh of relief.
I think the key here is the perspective. Instead of seeing “spiritual conversation” as a dreaded duty, we need to start learning to see it as a privilege. As something we probably don’t get to talk about much during the rest of the week. As something we’re interested in, and which we know they are too. As something we can mutually relate over.
A bit like the fun of meeting up with any specific friend group—old classmates, cousins, colleagues etc. You can relive stupid private jokes and rehash ancient memories without coming across as that hopelessly nostalgic person trying to convince others how fun and happening they used to be. Or how you can look over old family photos with your mom without becoming that annoying person who forces guests to look through albums of ancient baby photos, expecting them to be interested when they can’t see any difference between all the yellowed and expressionless babies.
Perhaps the best example is how, in any field of specialization, you can "talk shop"--whether with old classmates, colleagues, or someone you've just met who's in the same line (regardless of whether that means bone density and the twelve functions of the liver, or Freud and psychoanalysis in Edgar Allan Poe.)
Whereas in contrast, if you tried this with someone who didn’t share the same experiences/knowledge, you would probably end up alienating them and creating an awkward awareness of how they can’t relate (and probably also look like an unbearable snob showing off a lack of EQ.)
In this case, you don't come across as contrived, awkward, or dutiful in dwelling on your shared common experiences/interests. In fact, it becomes a natural opportunity to seize, a natural means to bond over, to affirm old relationships and build up new ones.
This makes all the difference between that short-lived and woefully unnatural attempt, and what Jerry Bridges pictures here. Rather than dutifully asking each other “How has your spiritual life been this week” (ugh) it becomes a natural sharing/outpouring of our common experience (“did you see the match last night?”/ “you know how Bible memory seems like such an impossible challenge?” In the same way we gravitate to the standard topics we relate over.
“Oh I watched that movie last week and thought it was really good, did you like it?”/“I didn’t get the last point from the sermon just now, did you?”/
“I’ve been trying to exercise more haha, any tips?”/“recently I’ve been struggling to focus when I pray, my mind just keeps running off to the things which need to be done, and I dunno…do you have that too? or any ideas how to help with that?”
(okay, yeah that’s rather corny, but I don’t want to be uselessly abstract, so I made myself include some examples, just to get the ideas rolling)
We need to be more intentional with--not just our conversations, but ultimately our relationships in church. We need to start by seeing them as the support group--fanbase--whatever flawed analogy from millenial culture which helps to start changing your perspective of the otherwise inane coffee breaks and superficial weekly hi-byes.
We don't appreciate them, cultivate them, or utilize them as we ought.
And until we do, we miss out on a significant means for spiritual growth and support, one that God uses to bless us with the comfort, guidance, encouragement, love, and joy which godly relationships--even between sinners--have the capacity to offer.
image by Chang Duong from Unsplash
How many close friends of yours are from church?
Church friends can be just another opportunity for (more) small talk and superficial banter, kept alive by private jokes and the occasional fun outing and of course, being friends on social media. ("#youthgroup #smallgroup #fellowship")
Or they can breed stifling expectations and external pressure to conform to a certain image. Do I feel uncomfortable if my church friends see my social media feed? do I dread bumping into someone from church during the week, because of the friends I'm with, or the shade of lipstick I'm wearing?
However, they can also be an incredible platform for building friendships which have the potential to be more honest, reliable, personal (and sustainable!) than what we can expect elsewhere.
Because here--regardless of how badly we have warped this into the exact opposite of what it should be--we have the most conducive foundation for strong friendships: honesty, vulnerability, a common love and purpose which binds us, and forgiveness.
G.K. Chesterton said that the church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. As such, we should be free to relate to each other without constantly labouring to keep up our Nice Person facade, having to hide every crack as it appears. Free to share struggles and needs. Free to forgive, and ask forgiveness, because we already admit that we need to (though ironically, we've somehow managed to give the church a reputation for hypocrisy, superficiality, and judgment despite all this.)
I'm always amazed how Kpop fans from vastly different cultures, languages, and personalities can instantly and effortlessly click once they discover they love the same bands. As Christians, with a common overarching passion that shapes our life and identity, we should experience the same magic.
We see our church friends regularly, every Sunday. Whether we spend this time with them chatting over coffee break about their upcoming exam or trip, the best places for authentic bak kut teh in Singapore, and the latest meme trending on Instagram; or whether we hardly see each other, busy making drinks, talking to the visitors, tidying up the worship room or preparing for Sunday School/Bible Study. Maybe we even see them at prayer meeting or small group during the week. But I want to argue--from my own years of experience and after reading several books on Christian friendship by a variety of pretty different authors--that this may not be enough.
We all want solid, strong, and sustainable friendships; and as Christians especially we want friends who pray for us, encourage us, help us to grow spiritually. Friends who can lovingly hold you accountable. Friends who support you as you try to grow in godliness. Friends who give us Biblical guidance and insight when we need it. Friends who share our heart for Christ and His work, and His people. Friends who will listen, when you confess, with love and gentleness and respect.
And the list goes on.
For the longest time in my teen years I used to pray that God would give me the "good Christian friend" every Christian parent and teen hopes fervently will appear miraculously in their church. Someone fun and lovable and godly all at the same time! Wouldn't that be nice? Then I would definitely be growing spiritually, instead of stagnating or drifting like I am now.
The problem is that ideal friendships like this very rarely--if ever--appear miraculously in your local church as a nice finished product all ready for you to enjoy, as obvious and fuss-free as if Gabriel himself decided to come and be your "good Christian friend." Gets on really well with you from the start, no bad habits, similar family culture, likes soccer/Marvel movies/fill-in-the-blank too; nice personality, good manners, fun to be around, helps out in church, can't wait to start a youth Bible study, is halfway through memorizing the Shorter Catechism...
Or to be more accurate, perhaps the real problem is that we expect them to come about this way.
We don't passively drift into strong Christian friendships in the same way we don't passively, accidentally drift into glorifying God. You can organize camps together, lead worship, pray together, and see each other every Sunday for year after year; but it doesn't mean that you automatically fall into the powerful, life-changing, God-centered friendship David and Jonathan had.
We need to see the relationship we have with our church friends as potential for this kind of friendship. We may not be near that level now, but without active and intentional investment, we will never be *newsflash of the century.* And this doesn't just mean aimlessly but happily hanging out every night/weekend (the approach we ordinarily would use to build closer friendships.)
We need to see that Christian friendships are about growing together--closer to Christ, and in the process closer to each other.
Jerry Bridges' book True Community address this in the first chapter, by discussing the concept of union and communion. Every relationship can be seen in two aspects: union, or the objective aspect, the basis of your relationship; and communion, or the experiential aspect, the quality of your relationship. Just like how an estranged parent and child would still have the objective aspect of their relationship (they are still inevitably related to each other) though they may lack the experiential aspect (the emotional and personal quality of the relationship.)
These two aspects apply to both our relationship with God, and our relationship with other Christians.
And these two aspects, Bridges argues, are intrinsically related to each other.
How well we understand our union with Christ affects the quality of our communion with Him.
How well we relate with Christ affects how well we relate to other Christians, since our relationship with Christ is the objective basis for our relationship with them.
~to be continued in part 2
Photo by Jake Thacker on Unsplash
The little old lady perpetually wrapped up in a shawl, who smiles at you when you walk by. The old man with the wheezing voice, you can't really understand his mumbling but you're too embarrassed to admit it so you slink away with a strained, awkward smile. The silent one sitting in the corner that is a bit deaf and smells of herbal candies; you tell yourself she's probably dozing off anyway.
If you feel like you "don't know how" to relate or talk to the elderly in your church, then you need to remember that it isn't much different from "knowing how" to relate to anyone else. As long as you have a sincere love and desire to reach out to them, and patience (patience! patience!), you'll start learning how to see things from their perspective, understand their needs, challenges, and what makes them "click"--nothing at all different from getting to know anyone else.
For starters, though, here are some things that might help you start, since we all know that first steps often take the most courage:
1. acknowledge their presence. Greet them when you see them. Okay, this should apply to anyone actually, regardless of age--but especially the elderly. A very traditional Asian practice, maybe--my parents always told me that when visiting, I should find and greet the oldest person in the house to show respect--if dying out nowadays. But respect ought to transcend cultures, whether racial or social.
Often, because they're quiet, or not at the center of things, they get left out. People don't even acknowledge their presence. Maybe they don't hear that well, so make sure your greeting is loud and cheerful--or at least accompany it with a physical gesture to make it more obvious. A wave, a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug. There was an elderly man who could be seen feeding the cats under my block every day. He always looked fearfully grumpy, yet there was a kind of pathetic loneliness in how he would spend hours, with his favourite cat on his lap, simply sitting there silently. I used to smile at him in passing, but he never responded, and I felt--rather hurt--that he was as grumpy as he looked. It was only later on that my mom, taking the time to actually stop and talk to him, found out that his eyesight was poor. Sure enough, the next time I saw him I tried waving to him. His whole face lit up and he waved back, eagerly, smiling so widely my heart ached and I felt a pang of self-reproach.
2. talk to them. This sounds simple, and it is. Several of the older people in my church revealed how much it means to them when a young person comes up to them and spends time talking with them--regardless of age, different interests, even language barriers. It may take a while, it may feel awkward at first, but as with any other friendship, perseverance, patience, and sincerity work wonders.
3. be interested to hear their stories and be open to learn from them. Ask them to teach you how to cook that curry chicken you love. Ask them about themselves when they were your age. Ask them how they learnt to knit so well, or how they came to believe in Christ.
4. affirm their role in the church, what they do for the church. whether it's praying, cooking, or simply faithfully attending despite the rain or the backaches or the sleepless night, elderly people often play a greater role in our churches than we--or they themselves--realize. They may struggle with feeling irrelevant, useless, or unnecessary, as the way some of them talk about themselves--jokingly or otherwise--indicates. It's important to affirm and encourage them, to remind them that age and physical limitations do not define the impact we can have on others.
5. encourage them in their spiritual walk. As we get older, we face the same challenge that we had when we were young, for different reasons. We may be tempted to sink into selfishness, to live lives bogged down by self-centeredness--
--for young people, because we have our whole life before us, and all the world to explore and conquer, every reason to enjoy life. So many distractions! So many desires! So many dreams!
--but also, as we get older, because our body becomes more and more of a concern everyday. Because everyone else is rushing on in their lives at the same time we slow down more and more. Maybe we can't hear--taste--see--walk so well, we can't enjoy the same things others do, and we feel increasingly isolated from them. So many small little things which affect the quality of our daily lives, which are so simple and mundane to others that they can't fathom, but which are frustratingly significant to us--bad teeth, hearing loss, failing eyesight, sleeplessness, multiple doctor's appointments...which all have a direct impact on our quality of life and interactions with others.
6. help them to be involved and interacting with the lives of others in the church. Introduce young people to them, bring children over to say hi, ask them to pray for you/someone else/someone you're praying for. Tell them about that young mom who's been struggling with a new baby and ask them what advice they would give. Help them be aware about the needs of other people in church; the missionaries you're praying for, ministries you're involved in.
True healthy friendships aren't limited to the two people in the friendship alone but continue to have a 'splash effect' in the way they bless others outside of it, build other positive friendships--thereby bringing even more blessings to the two main people in it.
7. be thoughtful and considerate of their needs. Maybe you need to walk slower, talk louder, or just be a more patient listener. Maybe they need a hand when it's dark and it's hard to see the road clearly. Someone to send them back, or help them carry their bags. Preempt their needs and challenges, whether the challenge of stairs, or finding them a seat. Or the temperature. If they have trouble with their teeth when eating. Once when my grandma had been unwell, a sweet young sister in church prepared a box of grapes, washed clean and painstakingly peeled, for her. My grandma was very touched that she had spent enough time and attention talking to her, sitting with her, in church to know that, and to remember it. Small gestures like that demonstrate that you are sensitive to their needs and challenges, that you are looking out for them, that you care for them, in concrete and tangible ways.
Perhaps it starts with something as small as smile, as making them laugh...
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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