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 Belle Hunt from Unsplash
Matthew 21:12-1412 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[a] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[b]”
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
I remember my first introduction to this particular event in the Bible, helpfully illustrated in a children's Bible, one of those big glossy luxe editions where all the folds of the tunics, the feathers of the doves, the shininess of the flying coins, were painstakingly drawn for children like me to pour over for hours. It was with a sense of shock and secret admiration that I realized here was a lesser known, and more conventionally badass, side of Jesus, that challenged the largely passive idea I'd formed of Him. Jesus looked anything but passive flinging those tables over, releasing clouds of fluttering doves, in a reckless whirlwind of action that evoked childhood memories of jumping on sofas, rolling on the ground, screaming at the top of your lungs in wild abandon. Chaos in the midst of manmade order, control, polish, of institutionalized formality.
I have grown up all my life in a small church. We've always struggled with the same challenges--not enough manpower; struggling to maintain the basic logistical work of every Sunday's worship, let alone mission work and outreach work and additional activities. Looking for a pastor. For more Sunday School and Bible Study teachers. For people to help with setting up the worship room every Sunday, with bringing refreshments, with hosting prayer meetings. Dealing with the discouragement of having a scant handful of people turn up for the weekly prayer meetings, watching the numbers dwindle. And the list goes on; many of you can doubtless add to it...
It's easy to wallow in self-pity and discouragement. It's also easy to become overly focused on the tasks that need to be done--just as it would perhaps in a big church. To come up with the most efficient, productive strategy for growth, to race from one activity to another, to outline more SOPs for better organization...
...none of which are wrong, of course, but when they become the main thing we're doing? When we're more preoccupied with running this church (/business/company/startup...) more successfully, more efficiently, more impressively, more productively?
Jesus entered the Temple, a huge impressive tangible symbol of religion as an institution, with all its rites and man-made glamour, with the smooth efficient methods and structure of every successful organization. Read: church services without AV problems or crying babies or embarrassing ringtones; worship where the congregation comes on time, where the preacher is a great speaker with just the right amount of emotional appeal, flawless rhetoric, academic theological references, and anecdotes for that personal touch. Where smiling ushers that look like they were born and bred in aircon and fed on ice cream all their life come swooping effortlessly towards you to escort you to your seat (don't get me wrong, I've nothing against smiling ushers, but I speak from memories of waiting outside the church doors, feeling the sweat gathering on you like a moist second skin, and yourself visibly wilting in the heat even as you clutch a sticky hymnbook and try to look welcoming while melting) Where the venue is beautiful, impressive; modern enough for all the conveniences, yet classic enough to enhance the atmosphere for worship...
So ideal, isn't it? Wouldn't you feel impressed if you attended a church with a service like that? That's the kind of response we'd want our churches to produce on visitors!
My church doesn't even have our own premise; we rent classrooms, like many other small churches in land-scarce Singapore who don't have the funds to purchase and build a venue. Every Sunday we have to drag all our barang (baggage) up from a rickety cupboard and go about the process of converting a messy secondary school classroom with graffiti on chairs, socks and Shakespeare huddled together under desks, and wads of folded paper tucked under uneven table legs, into a place of worship. If I was a preacher I'd probably draw a parallel how, like modern day Abrahams, we are reminded in this way every week how temporary our current state is--aliens in a foreign land; journeying towards a final destination, relying on our faith and purpose rather than a settled place/concrete location for our identity. But I'll spare you the sermon seedling.
From this background, I can easily imagine how, staring up in awe at that beautiful building, you would feel a very man-centric sense of pride and identity--based not so much on God Himself but more on what we have done for Him and how our worship of Him, like culture and language and race and achievements, contributes to our overarching sense of identity and purpose. Not as a faith, in the proper sense of the word, but rather as an accessory. One of many slices in the pie graph of how we define ourselves. Part of community life.
And Jesus resisted this. He resisted the smooth, efficient clock-work structure and system, the successful organization, the institutionalized man-centric idea of God and worship. Deliberately channeling all that was most oppositional to everything the Temple had become--its specific list of what you had to do, to give, to be in the name of worshiping God, converting deeds into spiritual bonus points the way the money changers and dove sellers carried out their business--He became an agent of disruption, as aptly symbolized in how He overturned tables and set the doves free. Can you imagine a more visually effective image than that?
Instead, the blind and the lame entered the Temple, and Jesus healed them. The Temple became a place where real, personal needs were met in a life-changing way, for healing, for joy; "and the children shout[ed] in the Temple courts, Hosanna..."
And after that, the next morning, Jesus comes across the fig tree.
18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
I've always seen these two events in isolation, and it was the first time I realized they took place one after the other. Search the Scriptures pointed this out, identifying how Jesus's actions addressed the church and what it should be aspiring towards.
As a church, are we busy creating our own idea of what worship should be like? Our own definition of God, which fits nicely into, and in fact relies on the systems and structures we are preoccupied with maintaining? Which, in turn, enable us to present this polished, impressive, seemingly flawless idea of religion--where everyone is nice and polite and agrees with each other, where everything runs smoothly and everyone knows what to do, how to behave, what to say--one that seems like a very convincing way of glorifying God, at first glance, but really does a better job at reflecting well on us, the organizers.
I tell myself this every time something "goes wrong," every time something is less than ideal and we're reminded that we are messy, that things don't turn out as ideally as we might like. Every time I'm tempted to cringe or feel embarrassed or even discouraged.
What is my focus? Why am I feeling like this? Why am I more concerned about the front we're presenting, about how we "come across" to others, about how well or how smoothly or how impressively we manage to do something?
Instead, remember the second event, which took place the day after, and consider--
like the barren fig tree--
how much fruit--the real fruit which matters--are we producing as a church?
Or are we doing a good job at looking like we're thriving, flourishing--plenty of leaves, pretty flowers, nice straight trunks, the kind of tree that would have been picked for a stock image--
but fruitless, under all that.
Like the barren fig tree that disappointed Jesus, and earned His curse.
Christ's example reminds us to remember what we were meant for.
Remember: this is the "season for fruit."
image by Marcelo Vaz from Unsplash
This past period, I find myself struggling with discouragement. Learning on the job. Adapting to a new, busier schedule. Working with new people and new challenges. Unfamiliarity, insecurity, a lack of confidence. Not that there's anything earth-shaking about this. It's the standard experience of starting a new job, a new phase in life, in managing new responsibilities while maintaining existing ones. Basically what every young adult faces as they try to be financially independent and navigate the workplace and this whole thing about being grown up, am I right?
I wondered why I was feeling so burnt out and discouraged. I knew I already had it much better than so many of my peers, and knowing that made me feel like a wimp--I couldn't even indulge in a wallow in self-pity, to put it wryly.
Every morning as I went through my devotions I would open my Bible and hope vaguely that my eye would fall on something encouraging, something comforting, something to remind me that I wasn't alone. And most of the time as I flipped through it looking for the book I was currently studying with Search the Scriptures, somehow Psalm 18 would be what I found myself looking at. A specific part of psalm 18, at that--the middle section (...mostly because I happened to have some post-its that covered the beginning and end, anticlimactic as that sounds)
If you too have been struggling with similar feelings of discouragement, inadequacy, and insecurity, do take the time to turn to this psalm.
With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful;
With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
26 With the pure You will show Yourself pure;
And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
27 For You will save the humble people,
But will bring down haughty looks.
28 For You will light my lamp;
The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.
At a time like this, pride and humility become even more relatable. Often we feel anything but proud--we feel painfully, cringingly humbled, forced to face our limitations and inabilities.
Or maybe our stress comes from the unthinking pressure to do it all and do it well. From our reluctance to accept that we can't. From our pressure to impress others, to do as well or better than others. And the pride that underlies all those concerns.
Maybe we need a reminder that this humbling experience is not so much proof that we failed, but windows for God's grace and our growth.
Maybe we need to realize that the root of our stress is pride.
Maybe we need to consider that instead of pursuing efficiency, success, multi-tasking, praise, competency, and a nice steadily growing bank account--there are other things, quieter, subtler things. Mercy. Blamelessness. Purity.
29 For by You I can run against a troop,
By my God I can leap over a wall.
30 As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the Lord is proven;
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.
31 For who is God, except the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?
I remember the first time I saw these lines during this dry season of discouragement. The reckless scale of David's lavish, military-esque imagery took my breath away.
Running face on towards a troop of armed hostile soldiers, alone except for God?
Vaulting over a wall in one of those breathtakingly effortless gravity (and current body state) defying leaps that you see in Chinese wuxia movies? (I'm afraid I honestly came away with the rosy delusion that as long as you trained hard enough, you really could pull those off. I came back to earth when I saw BTS footage revealing the wires and ropes involved, and felt vaguely--no, not betrayed; just more discontented that I wasn't living in the JiangHu*)
*the world as structured by different sects and martial arts communities; the background of most wuxia and xianxia epics
By my God...
Not by trying harder!
Not by being more disciplined with my time!
Not by persevering and gritting my teeth!
Not by sleeping less or doing my best to adapt--
...which are legitimate but often overrated and overused means we resort to in order to try and get more control over our lives.
And it is at this point in life, facing these specific challenges, that I really relate to David's emphasis on courage throughout the Psalms. Courage was a very real and necessary quality for someone with his adrenaline-pumped, political and military high-profile background and context. Fighting for your life, never quite sure when someone might try to poison you or stab you in the back (literally) or which battle would be your last.
Situations most of us can't relate to today. But we need, among many other more obvious things, courage for living. Courage to face uncertain futures. To bear the consequences of our decisions and mistakes. Courage to try and fail, to pursue dreams, to develop and maintain relationships...
I remember, from Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, Amanda telling her chronically shy daughter: "I've got to put courage in you, honey, for living." That phrase sometimes echoes in my head whenever I feel that crippling sense of dread--fear--self-doubt. Courage for living.
32 It is God who arms me with strength,
And makes my way perfect.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of deer,
And sets me on my high places.
34 He teaches my hands to make war,
So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
And there you have it!
How much more clearly could David have phrased it?
I particularly love the imagery here. Every word choice reflects David, the shepherd boy cum warrior cum king, used to the rough, merciless, unpredictable surroundings of nature, the battlefield, the court. And yet every word choice likewise speaks to me. Strength to arm me for what I don't want to face. To make my way, with the grace and sure-footed agility of a deer, through a rocky and uncertain path at a dizzying height. To be gifted the skill and talent my hands lack so conspicuously now, to be enabled to do the impossible--
Elizabeth George Spear wrote a moving book set in Jesus's time about a young blacksmith struggling with faith, bitterness, hatred, and loss. She uses this specific verse and points out how impossible it is to bend a bow of bronze. Remember how much trouble it was to bend Odysseus's bow? That would have been a bow of wood. Basically, David's reckless metaphor of a bronze bow is declaring that God can enable us to do anything. Anything.
35 You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great.
36 You enlarged my path under me,
So my feet did not slip.
Help that is both very personal and very applicable. And gentle. Oh, so gentle. I clung to this verse especially. Yes, I need to grow--I need to learn--but deal with me gently, please, Lord. My heart feels like I can't take very much right now.
Again, the imagery of finding your way--not stumbling in the dark, frightened and slipping and bruising yourself; unsure if you're lost or not. A "perfect way," as in verse 32. And I appreciate how it is specified this time: God does not just give us the ability to travel our paths, (as in the previous verses) but also "enlarges" it for us, making it easier for us, so that our feet do not slip.
He enables but He also accommodates. The God behind 1 Corinthians 10:13; the God Who knows us in a deeply personal way, and Who understands our limitations and weaknesses to an extent that is soul-searchingly humbling, and liberating.
I remember flopping back and staring up at the impassive blankness of the ceiling, baffled.
Why is this so hard?
It had been a long while since I fell back into this particular habitual sin--so long, in fact, that I'd congratulated myself, felt that I'd successfully conquered it. And then, just when I was least expecting it, I fell.
Let he who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
1 Corinthians 10:12.
Clenching my fists, an instinctive response, made me realize that I had done this too many times. This feeling--guilt, shame, self-reproach, and most of all a sense of confusion at my own foolishness--was too familiar. Every time I would knuckle my fingers under and tell myself, I'll try harder next time. I will be strong. I will be more prepared. I will--I will--
What completely baffled me was waking up to the realization that willpower was not the answer.
And that left me lost because, for so many things in life--so many challenges that I've faced, and overcome, in more or less messy ways--willpower and reason were the weapons I clung to.
We are so used to clenching our fists. Facing the chinup bar, cringing at the premonition of burning muscles, but willing myself to do it this time, I clench my fists. The moment before I walk into an exam, or on stage, I breathe deeper and knot my fingers over sweaty palms. Facing uncertainty in the future, hoping desperately for success, my fingers dig into my palms once again as I reason with myself.
I try. I try, hard.
In so many things in life, we push ourselves forward clutching reason and willpower tightly, propelling ourselves forward on our faith in our ability to try, try. And that is not a bad thing.
But when it comes to dealing with habitual sin we need something more than just reason and willpower.
We have to realize first of all that habitual sin is more than just one isolated act. It is a lifestyle. A state of being.
Which is why the Bible uses the metaphor of slavery to talk about our ongoing struggle with sin, the gory process of sanctification. You are born a slave, and identify yourself/are identified as a slave--not because of one or several acts of obedience, but because that is how you live your whole life, how you see yourself.
Sin is an enslaving power rather than an isolated action,
And that's why when dealing with habitual sin it's not enough to simply think I'll have more will-power next time, I'll try harder next time, the way that works with dieting or acing an exam. It is not enough.
Our lapses into sin, which are really our lapses in love, stem from our existing relationship with God, our current ongoing spiritual state. Each fall is more than one incident--it is another link in the existing chain of our slavery to sin. And when we look back, all those one-off decisions (oh, I lapsed this once; this will be the last time; I wasn't trying as hard as I could have) form a definite and damning pattern of repeated sin.
To confront habitual sin in our lives we have to re-examine our relationship with God. See the link between the state of our current spiritual life and our inability to keep away from that one besetting sin.
We need to relearn what grace means. To accept the harsh truth of our limitations, our inability to handle ourselves even with the help of reason and willpower--the two tools that enable us to accomplish so much elsewhere.
We need to pray for the Holy Spirit's help. Acknowledge our weakness, not just after we sin, but before--and ask for a strength that we can barely imagine right now, in our state of frailty.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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