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 of feeling envious, wallowing in self-pity, or falling into discouragement and despair stems from this mindset.
We all struggle. Struggling is not an indication that God has forsaken us, or cares less about us, or is punishing 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; a primal problem at the bottom of the Maslow chart. 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 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 overseas)
You miss out on the huge blessing and privilege that Christian fellowship is meant to be. And often, due to the sheer number of people, we end up settling for smalltalk over coffee and snacks as "fellowship."
The blessing about being in a small church is that you have a much better chance of knowing everyone's names. The environment can be more conducive to building relationships--though certainly that doesn't replace purposefully reaching out. However conducive the environment may be, 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? 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)
image by Nahuel Hawkes from Unsplash
"I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, 2 with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love..."
A thought-provoking sermon was preached on this verse, which challenged me to examine the qualities listed here.
Lowliness and meekness. These two words have almost vanished from our vocabulary today, yet they describe different aspects of humility which would do us good to think more on. The preacher emphasized that meekness does not equate with weakness, an important point given the popularizing nowadays of what I call an aggressive-defensive attitude. We're told to stand up for ourselves and not to take sh*t from anyone, that haters are going to hate, not to let anyone put us down... Which has more than a grain of truth in it, yet is imbalanced and incomplete as a mindset in itself, from a Christian perspective.
Biblical meekness as modelled by Moses--whom the Bible called the meekest man on the face on the earth--and of course, the Lord Jesus Christ, requires spiritual and moral strength.
Remember Moses' life work. Resisting Pharaoh and bringing the Israelites out of slavery to freedom. Leading and judging them through wars, food/water shortages, plagues, rebellions, etc. It takes a lot of moral and spiritual strength to stand up to a king, and confidently perform supernatural miracles--just as much as the less glamourous, but just as difficult job of dealing with the endless complaints, criticisms, and fears of the Israelites during their 40 year journey.
Far from being a weakness, Moses' meekness was what enabled him to stay stable (and sane, because I would have lost my wits) because he did not treat his role and his work (and the inevitable criticisms and challenges) as the basis for his identity and self-worth. His meekness and lowliness kept him grounded, kept him from self-pity, from entitlement, from greed and abuse of power, from many of the temptations that leaders face.
Likewise, Jesus demonstrated the same stability and strength in how He ministered, healed, taught thousands of people; dealt with threats and hostility from the established community leaders; patiently mentored His disciples; and endured the suffering and humiliation of the cross. This lowliness and meekness enabled Him--the Son of God--to love and relate to the social outcasts, the weak, the sinful:
"...for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls." Why we can come to Him without hesitation or fears.
Both Jesus and Moses were the Bible's standards of God-honouring meekness and lowliness--men who did not seek their own honour and power, did not covet people's admiration and approval, who simply did what pleased God and served others, without wanting credit for it or seeing it as a way of establishing their identity.
And neither of them were anything close to pushovers, or doormats--what we tend to think of as the inevitable consequence of meekness and lowliness.
That's food for thought for us!
Lowliness and meekness as demonstrated by Moses and Jesus reflect how one's priorities, above all, are not on secular things. I've been studying Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew, and I find myself understanding the "treasure in heaven" theme in terms of priorities. God's will, or ours? God's commands to live a holy life, or the desire to live out a sinful idea of pleasure? Spiritual values of righteousness, mercy, humility, or earthly values of wealth, possessions, power, affirmation, comfort?
Lowliness and meekness are only possible when our actions and mindset are directed by a different set of priorities.
to be continued in part 2
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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