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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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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 gave 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. The very fact that the benefits of prayer are so 'vague' points out how we have lost sight of it as the basis of our spiritual life, how we are so enslaved to this results-oriented mindset. Like a husband who calculates what are the possible 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 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.
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“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
We may not like to admit it, but this word perfectly summarizes the times in our spiritual life when we've fallen into a comfortable plateau. Sure, I'm not growing, but at least I'm still coming to church every Sunday, right? Isn't that the most important thing? As long as I have that I can't be too far off. I'll work on my prayer life and deal with those petty sins when I'm less busy, at a better time. When was the last time we caught ourselves thinking something along these lines?
Laodicea was a thriving, prosperous city. Much like Singapore today. Many things, many people, many concerns; so many things to do, to earn, to enjoy, to worry about.
They had a booming textile industry, especially in producing a valuable type of black wool. They were famous for their medicine schools and pharmaceuticals. And not surprisingly, for such a wealthy city, they were also a financial center for banking and money changing.
How did the church in Laodicea fall away from their first love into lukewarmness? When did the marriage between Christ and this church first start to crumble, so to speak? When did the church become just another social club where you can get by as long as you pay the basic dues expected of the members--turn up, contribute financially, and occasionally participate in the "extra" activities.
When did Christ fade out of the picture?
When we reduce Him to a religion of habit and convenience.
When believing in Him and serving Him becomes no more than another practice--activity--habit--which adds to out lifestyle.
Like brushing our teeth every morning, or exercising once a week, or watering our plants. Just another "good habit" which gives us a sense of satisfaction, which we're used to. Ask us to do more and we get uncomfortable. Hey, that's a bit much, you know? Of course, one day I'll try harder, but for now, this is good enough, I'm getting by...
When we're willing to fulfil the "basic obligations," (and maybe, afraid to do less) but only as far as it suits our habits or convenience. As long as it doesn't infringe on the rest of our lives--our time, our energy, our resources, our pleasures, our plans, or even our concerns. As long as it doesn't challenge our current lifestyle and desires. Unwilling to commit to more, because we see it as a sacrifice.
I call this the bare pass mentality, speaking from years of experience as a frustrated teacher. That student may not actually hate the subject; they may like you, they may even like your lessons, and have some sort of interest in it. But when it comes to the hard work of finishing assignments--struggling with quizzes or essays--practicing everything, everyday, without leaving out the hardest arpeggios or the sight-reading they hate--they shirk anything more than a token minimum. I just need to pass, right? they say with a shrug. I'm really busy with my other subjects in school now, you know.
And I've lost track of the number of times I've yelped (at wit's end,) "Just cut down on Youtube for ten minutes, play one less handphone game, or put in five minutes every day--you definitely can make the time to do a better job than this. Why settle for the bare minimum? You're going nowhere at this rate. If you're don't put in the effort it deserves, you'll never experience the fulfilment and satisfaction of being good at this skill."
Similarly--what are we settling for? A false god, like Greg Gilbert describes in What is the Gospel?: "...just a good-natured, low-maintenance friend who's really easy to talk to--especially since he almost never talks back, and when he does, it's usually to tell me through some slightly weird 'sign' that what I want to do regardless is alright by him...he's grateful for any time he can get...has wishes but no demands, can be safely ignored if you don't have time for him..."
And Christ becomes a mockery of what He truly is. That's why lukewarmness is such a serious sin. To Christ, lukewarmness is worse than coldness--contrary to the lie we like to tell ourselves. "I will spit you out of My mouth..."
He tells us, urgently, to wake up. We, who feel so comfortable and complacent, are in desperate need: "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."
The nakedness and blindness of the Laodiceans were problems that none of their famous black wool, their famous eye salves, their money, could solve.
We think we know what the answer is, that it lies in the things we busy ourselves with. Instead of recognizing that what we need is Christ, we draw further off from Him, thinking that He will distract us, take up more of our time. We are afraid to commit to Him, grudging the sacrifices we associate following Him with.
It's as if we have a cancerous growth on our face, but we refuse to get it removed, because we insist it's too much trouble to stay in hospital. Instead, we busy ourselves with the latest makeup skills to cover up the growth.
And even then, Christ loves us. In all our foolishness and misguided ways, He loves us and longs for our repentance:
"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me..."
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I used to complain that of all my siblings, my parents gave me the most difficult name. The Chinese character for慈 (ci) has exactly 13 strokes--just for that character alone--and is a rather unusual one that is not easy to pronounce, even for some Chinese people. Over the years I have learnt to endure it being butchered in a mind-baffling multitude of ways, some of which almost come close to ingenious, without any facial muscles flinching. Chi. Chee. Zee. Zhi. Zzz. Jrrr. Qi. Si. See. And the list goes on. I even got called "Silk" by a class of kids I taught once, because the teacher I was assisting couldn't get it right and I was too embarrassed to correct her.
What gets lost is the meaning behind that difficult character; love--to be more specific, mercy/compassion; love from a higher being to a lower one. Just like how the Greek words agape, philos, eros differentiate between different types of love. God's precious and enduring love, if you want to take the complete meaning of my full name. Not easy to pronounce, maybe, but not easy to comprehend either!
I remember many years ago thinking about this, and feeling how apt it was that my parents chose this name for me, as my personality could be pretty well described by that Audrey Hepburn quote: "I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible desire to give it." People categorized me (and I accepted it) as kind/loving/tender-hearted; I hated violence or conflict, I loved animals and children, I was easily moved when I saw suffering of any kind--I remember crying inconsolably once because an old man on a bicycle pulled up along the bus I was on, and as I watched him cycling precariously with his skinny legs among the big cars and flashing lights of Orchard Road I was suddenly, terribly aware how vulnerable he was, how easily he could be knocked over by one of the cars, how his bicycle didn't have any lights and it was late at night...
Which all sounds very sentimental and sweet, perhaps, (or maybe just a morbid and hyperactive imagination haha) but doesn't actually come under love. Let's be honest. English, though my favourite language and the strength of my being, has some deceptive limitations. We use the word "love" way too easily and too carelessly. When we talk about learning to live out a Christ-like love, we sometimes end up reducing it to a warm fuzzy inborn capacity to be tenderhearted; that sensitivity, that empathy, which is just innate in some people's personalities, right? Well, that's not enough. In fact, it's painfully inadequate.
Peter broke down the process in a way which reminds us how real love--far from being a natural, spontaneous, simple thing--is rather the product of spiritual discipline and maturity, of godliness, the fruit of the Spirit, the labour of studying the Word, of knowing God. It ought to be all those things, granted, but in our fallen world, it just isn't. Our hearts are still in the process, and painfully so, of being transformed.
2 Peter 1: 5-7:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
Love, from the very overuse of the term and concept, may have been reduced to a deceptively simple concept--or at least a seemingly straightforward one. But in this list we see the progression through other different virtues, finally only culminating with love.
Being able to truly love someone isn't just something that has to do with how nice a personality you were born with, or how nice a person you usually are. It's something we work at. Something incredibly hard to achieve as it's not only a progression but also a culmination of the other aspects of our spiritual life.
Think about why Peter chose each word in the verses above, and why they came in that specific order. We need hope to love, or cynicism and despair and human limitations would kill us. We need to know what perseverance and hard work and self control are, to love. We need to be wanting to obey God, desiring to obey God, actively seeking to obey God. And--I love how mutual affection comes right here, a perfect balance--we need to love the other person as an individual, to understand and embrace who they are, to affirm their strengths even as we recognize their weaknesses.
Here Peter is not describing a condescending generic love for the masses, for the "unworthy lost," for humanity in general but divorced from the actual gritty reality of loving individual, imperfect people.
Remember how Jesus, in all of the hundreds of people He ministered to, never once lost sight of them as individuals, never treated them as just another needy person, just another applicant. He stopped to heal those who would have been passed by and ignored, like the lepers. He affirmed the potential in those who were labeled unworthy, like Zacchaeus. He comforted the outcasts, aware of all their sins, all their struggles.
Are you struggling to forgive someone? Are you trying to love someone, to love wisely and well and selflessly as Christ did? Don't sit there expecting God to magically take away your irritation, and fill you with a warm fuzzy desire to "be nice to them." We can only truly love when the Spirit is working hard within us, when we are dealing with our own sin, when we are seeking God in our everyday life.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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