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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 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)
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What do you do when God doesn't answer your prayers?
This has been the hardest question for me to answer as a Sunday School teacher to my students, as a Christian to myself. So many times I've looked up from folded hands feeling despair settle on me, after praying earnestly, urgently, desperately for that one thing yet again. Fear tightening your muscles as you hesitantly consider what would happen if God doesn't grant you your prayer. I can't imagine what I would do. I don't know how things could possibly work out. If He doesn't--how can I be happy, how can I be useful or successful? And ultimately--how can God be good?
The fear is crippling. In panic, you thrust the thought away, too terrified to imagine what an alternative would be, to face a future that didn't work out the way we wanted it to. You feel like you can't live, you don't know how to live, without it. Anguish. Terror. Despair. Desperation. How can God not give it to you? Isn't He good? Doesn't He love me?
I've been gripped by this fear several times in my life, over things which seemed like the end of the world, which I prayed fervently for, which I clung to desperately. Please, save my loved one who has rejected You. Heal the cancer. Rescue the broken relationship. Let me go to my dream university; give me like-minded friends to encourage and nurture and inspire me. Let me get the grades I worked so hard for. Make this project or event a success. Like Rachel's "Give me children or I die," we feel like we can't live without it.
And most recently--though not on such an extreme level--help me recover quickly!
I remember sitting on the sofa trying not to burst into tears, feeling anxiety sitting physically on my chest like a bag of rice, quashing the breath and courage out of me. The past few months had been exceptionally stressful, feeling like I was barely managing to stay abreast of everything, and this was one of those moments when it came to a head. Taking one look at my schedule only made it worse, and I mentally wailed, Lord, You HAVE to let me recover by tomorrow, if not today! I've got a wedding this weekend to play at, I'm travelling overseas, church camp is coming up next week and I've got to see to the things I'm in charge of. I've already had to cancel so many of last week's lessons, do I have to cancel this week's as well? How am I going to make it?
Unlike my sis, for example, to whom getting sick can mean a well-earned break, seeing the doctor and getting an MC isn't the magic solution for freelancers. At a period when I'd been praying ceaselessly for better time management, to be more efficient, to have more peace of heart, to improve so I could handle everything without feeling so stretched, the last thing I needed was to get sick, to fall even shorter of my goal. I simply couldn't imagine how I would make it if God didn't answer my prayer, exactly as I had in mind. I couldn't imagine, I didn't want to imagine.
Looking back, I recognize the same desperate, even imperious urgency that I struggled with at past significant points in my life. I felt like my life was over if I didn't get into a university I liked. I felt like I wouldn't be able to cope losing both my sisters at the same time when they went to study overseas. And so on. I stood in front of that one closed door, crying, too terrified to look at any others, convinced that nothing good could possibly be behind them, that the only happy ending lay behind the one in front of me.
And in every of those cases, what happened was that God allowed exactly what I had not dared, could not bring myself to imagine. The alternative that I shrank from in terror came to pass. And in each case, though it was terribly difficult at first, painful even, especially when it came to losing dreams, loved ones--I was forced to realize that the alternative was not quite the end of the world it had seemed.
To accept that the alternative was not the end. To see that His goodness was more creative than I could imagine, even understand. To learn that this is faith, trusting His definition of what is good, even when it doesn't appear anything like your own definition.
I was sharing about this with a sister in church, and being someone who suffers from chronic back pain--the debilitating sort which makes you unable to get up from bed--she knew all about it. In the beginning you're resentful and frustrated and impatient; you can only think about recovering; you chafe restlessly and wonder if you'll recover tomorrow. And the only thing you can pray about is recovery--ASAP! When you think about God, that's the One Big Thing that emerges. Heal me!
But as the pain remains, you slowly learn to focus on the now, to trust and rely on God for helping you through the situation you're currently in, the pain you're currently enduring, to face each challenge as it comes, rather than clamouring desperately for it to end.
Your focus changes. And your trust is shifted, so that it isn't based on whether or not God lets your life turn out the way you think it ought to, but rather based on your knowledge of His person. His wisdom and His love, even if they don't manifest themselves the way you would expect them to.
And His glory. Even in suffering. Even in your pain.
Consider Jesus's prayer that last night in Gethsemane. He was facing the same anguish of soul, the same desperate desire to avoid pain and suffering, the same "answer me or I die!" sort of situation. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death."
Yet in His prayers what emerges just as clearly is His supreme obedience to God's will, His submission and His one-minded devotion to glorifying and serving His Father. His willingness to accept His Father's will, even if His flesh cringed from it.
"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me...Yet not as I will, but as You will."
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"...and forgive me for what I did wrong...and help me with today...erm...and also I pray for ____, for _____ to get well, and for the missionaries I know serving in other countries...also help with me with today....wait, I prayed that already. Also that you will help me to get my devotions done every day. In Jesus' name, amen."
Let's be honest. There are days when praying feels like talking to yourself. When you go through your list dutifully, try hard to really feel gratitude overflow our hearts when it comes to thanksgiving, repeating the same prayer request for what seems like the hundredth time, and end feeling pretty much the same as you did when you started.
Those are the days we forget why we pray.
When the main reason why we drag ourselves through the motion is because this nagging sense of duty propels us to.
It's like exercise, that is for most of us who don't actually enjoy the process of exercising but rather do it for the sake of the feeling after--that sense of satisfaction because you did something that was good for you, you can feel good about yourself.
We do it because we know it's good for us....because we ought to...we know we could enjoy it more, but well, right now we're just focusing on getting it done in the first place. Me on jogging, pretty much.
In his book Desiring God John Piper argues that prayer is both the pursuit of God's glory and our joy--citing John 14:16 and 16:24: "Whatever You ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son;" and "Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full."
For us as human beings, communication is the means by which we develop relationships. And to communicate with God, we pray. Our joy therefore comes from developing our relationship with God, through prayer; understanding Him, trusting Him, and loving Him better. Seeing how He works in our lives and responds to our prayers. When we experience the union with God that we were meant for, we get a foretaste of the state we were meant to be living in, a glimpse of pre-fall Eden, a foreshadowing of heaven.
And this in itself is what glorifies God. Consider that this is the Creator Who made us for this purpose--to have fellowship with Him; Who made us so that we can "glorify Him and enjoy Him" (from our old friend the Westminster Shorter Catechism.) To glorify Him BY enjoying Him. Our joy in Him is His glory.
So the next time you sit down to pray, remember that you're not ticking a box, doing a duty. You are pursuing joy in God, and actively glorifying Him through it. And if like me, you think daily prayer time consists running briefly through a list of names and prayer requests, you're missing out on the main purpose of prayer, and its main benefit for us.
When we pray, we glorify God by experiencing joy in His presence. How much of that do you already have in your prayer time? It's a challenging and sobering question to ask, as it shows us just how much we've missed the mark, just how much we've misunderstood what prayer was meant for, how the "sweet hour of prayer" isn't the unattainable far-off illusion we can't relate to.
But it also shows us how much more it could be for us. How much we were meant to have.
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"Therefore we also pray always for you that...the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ..."
2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
While doing Search the Scriptures for 2 Thessalonians, I took some extra time to reflect on Paul's prayers for himself and for the Thessalonians, especially when they were under difficult circumstances. Trials. Persecution, as in this case.
Of course, there were the things we'd usually expect--justice (v.6,) peace (v.7,)...
But interestingly, also for God's glory.
Paul's long prayer closes with his exhortation to them of their primary goal, regardlesss of what they were going through--to glorify the name of Christ, and to seek their own glory only in Him.
Compared to what I usually pray for myself or others when going through a tough time, this was a new thought:
"Take it away!"
"If I have to go through this, give me more strength/wisdom etc to accept it"
"Where are you, God?"
"Please do something about this, please help!"
Which are not necessarily the wrong responses; but when I compare these with Paul's, I see how much greater his perspective was, in seeing God's overarching purpose and plan for allowing such things to happen. In not losing sight of the ultimate priorities working through our present concerns.
Paul's absolute conviction of the worthiness and greatness of God's glorification allowed him to see beyond, to see everything towards that end. To be so heaven-minded. To have such a love and faith in God that we truly desire our lives to glorify Him; even when it doesn't come easily, even at times when we are most tempted to be self-centred, even through the painful experience of injustice and suffering.
Perhaps this sounds even sadistic (if that's not too strong a word) at first. But I have seen people who lived this out, who showed me, in the raw, gory valley of real pain and real suffering, what it means to let the name of Jesus Christ be glorified in our suffering, and us in Him. I have seen their strength and peace and unfailing love and trust, when everything seems to be falling apart. I have watched, and wondered. And I caught a glimpse of Christ's love in a staggering and poignant form, in them. When I I silently marveled, at them.
"...the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ..."
In contrast, so much of self still taints the way I see things that happen to me. I assess experiences and events by how they make me feel, how they benefit or disadvantage me--forgetting that even my standards and basis for these judgments are constantly changing, on their own. I focus on what I can do to solve the problem, to get rid of what I don't like, so that I can continue pursuing an earth-bound definition of happiness.
Learning to see the end of the story, even as we are in the middle of discovering how it gets there...
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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