In Search of Significant Insignificance

It’s a battle we fight almost every day.  It’s deeply ingrained in our American souls.  It is so ubiquitous that we rarely even notice it.  It seduces us.  It drives us.  It can even enslave us if we are not careful.  If you dare challenge it, you run the risk of being run out of town (or church, or business) on a rail for daring to impugn what we all know is axiomatic.  What is it?  It is the notion that, “Bigger is Always Better!”…from bank accounts, to business, to biceps and breast size, to budgets, and burgers.  We all know the mantra and have been culturally conditioned to declare, “Super-size me!”

This cultural marinade is everywhere and it has permeated the church as well.  If we are not big and getting bigger, somehow we feel we are falling short of what God has for us.  In all my years as a pastor, I have never heard a speaker at a pastors conference who came from a small church.  They are always the most “successful” pastors from churches with rapid numeric growth.

Lest I be misunderstood, the purpose of this article is not to bash the big.  If God, in his sovereign providence, brings largeness into your life rejoice in it and use it for his glory.  Whether that bigness is talent, beauty, financial resources, or a powerful position of authority we should not and need not feel guilty for God’s blessing.  I have worked on staff at a large church of over 2500 and my wife and I attended and grew spiritually in a church of over 15,000.  There is a vital place for bigness in God’s Kingdom.  Yet, what I hope to dislodge and dismiss from our collective thinking is the notion that small is to be automatically associated with insignificance, ineptness, and failing to be and achieve all that God has for us.

Unrealistic expectations of the nature of how God’s kingdom operates in the here and now in our lives and in the church can cripple us spiritually and lead to massive amounts of discouragement…I know, I almost became road-kill on the highway to spiritual “success”!  There was a time in ministry when I was so discouraged by a lack of numeric success that flipping burgers at McD’s seemed like not only a viable but a preferable vocational choice.  It was at that time that the Lord forced me to take a close look at my expectations and definition of success in light of his truth not in light of my upbringing and culture.

I found that God often delights to use what we view as insignificant to make a significant impact.  The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven in the dough (Matt. 13:31-33) reminded me of this fact recently. I believe God delights to use the small and seemingly insignificant because then it is clear that He is the one responsible for the results. (II Cor. 12:9)  Gideon, had he gone into battle with 40,000 troops, could have easily attributed the victory to his superior manpower.  Yet, when you go into battle with only 300 and those warriors are “armed” with torches in pots, it is next to impossible not to ascribe the victory to God!  We need only read the gospels and look at the disciples to realize how unlikely it would have been, without God’s empowering, for these men to “turn the world upside down”.  Jesus appears to be unimpressed with crowds and big numbers and even seems to act in ways that will reduce the size of his following (John 6:41-66).  God can work effectively with large but he seems to really enjoy working through the weak and the small!

The most significant thing we can do is to be faithful to do what God has called us to do relying on his power and leaving the results in his hands and refusing to compare ourselves to others (I Cor. 3:5-7; 4:1&2; John 21:22)  Some will object that if numbers are not important then why does the Bible so often mention numbers?  “The church grew… in numbers” is a common refrain in Acts (2:41; 9:31; 16:5). Yet, what we often fail to realize is that the “church” Dr. Luke was referring to in Acts was the universal church…not a specific body of believers.  We should all long for the growth of the church and for lives to be impacted by the gospel.  However, that does not necessarily mean that it is God’s desire for every small church to grow into a big church.  In the US, only one half of one percent of churches have over 2000 attendees, only five percent have attendance over 500, and over 60 percent have attendance under 100.   We can either conclude that 99.5% of churches are failing to measure up or that God may have good reasons for grouping the majority of his children in smaller churches…that good and significant things can indeed come in small church packages!

Again, I am not here to lambast the large and I am not naïve enough to think that small is always good.  There are certain small churches that are unfaithful, inept and ineffective in carrying out their ministries and there are large churches that are tremendously gospel centered and effective in growing believers.  Yet, since God in his providence has chosen a small church environment for the majority of his children throughout history, maybe, just maybe, there are some significant advantages to “insignificance”.

Let me mention a few:

Authentic relationships – a healthy small church environment enables people really to get to know one another.  It’s extremely difficult to be anonymous in a body of 50 people!  In our increasingly isolating internet culture, it is easy to disconnect from any contact with real people.  To love people in theory is wonderful…to love people in reality is wonderfully hard work that requires the strength of the Holy Spirit.  I am not meant to live the Christian life on my own.  I need people to challenge me when I am off base (Gal. 6:1ff), to encourage me when I’m down (Heb. 3:13), and to spur me on to love more effectively (Heb. 10:24&25).  New leaders can be more readily identified and encouraged when you know one another more intimately. A smaller church enables authentic relationships that force me to “deal with my stuff” and force you to “deal with your stuff”.  That can get uncomfortable at times…but growing usually does involve some pain but the long term benefits truly outweigh the costs when the process takes place in a loving and grace based environment…and that is significant!

Engagement in Ministry – a healthy small church requires and relies on the participation of a greater percentage of the body in ministry.  GCC would fall apart at the seams in a matter of moments if volunteers in the body decided to call it quits.  Every member of the body is gifted and called to use their gifts to build up and benefit others in the church ( I Cor 12).  A smaller church is more effective and efficient in allowing God’s people to use their gifts.  We may not be as “polished” on Sunday mornings as a church of 20,000 but I can guarantee we are a lot more participatory.   You don’t have to be able to preach like John McArthur or John Piper to teach here.  You don’t have to be able to play like Phil Keaggy or sing like Chris Tomlin to help with worship.   The pastors of a church are called to “equip the saints for works of ministry” (Eph 4:11&12) not to do all the ministry themselves.  In a media culture that is increasingly passive instead of participatory, the requirements of a small church can foster greater involvement of the entire body in the work of ministry…and that is significant!

Rapid response –  a healthy small church is able to quickly respond to needs and ministry opportunities.  A large organization requires a lot of overhead and usually a long lead time before decisions are made and implemented.  In a small church that process is streamlined.  I can’t tell you how many times I hear of a need of someone in our body and which gets met by someone else in our body the very same day.  We have a “lean” organization and are therefore able to make changes and channel resources quickly as the Holy Spirit guides.  A healthy small church recognizes it can’t do everything, but as the Lord presents opportunities for ministry we can quickly encourage the body to get involved…and that is significant.

Intergenerational ministry – in a smaller church there will be more intergenerational interaction.  We will not be able to have SS classes for 20-24 year olds, 25-30 year olds, 31-35 year olds etc.  We will not be able to have a “hipster” service, a “traditional” service and a “contemporary” service all on Sunday morning.  While there are benefits to peer ministry, if we isolate ourselves in generational ghettos we will lose out on real opportunities to love and grow.  In a smaller church, I will need to love my elders enough to sing hymns.  I will need to love the younger generation enough to sing contemporary praises.  I will be challenged to think freshly, act decisively, and get out of my rut by those younger than I.  I will be challenged to think wisely, act prudently, and value tradition by those more mature than I.  The various generations are called to interact with one another (Titus 2:1-8) and a smaller church environment facilitates this intergenerational involvement…and that is significant!

It is so easy for me to focus on what I don’t have instead of rejoicing and relishing what I have been given.  My prayer for our church is that we recognize the great significance of insignificance and take advantage of the large blessings that come with being small!