Justifying the “Small”

fall path

This week was the last Sunday of a six-week discipleship course on the Holy Spirit. After starting in week one with an eight-member class (huge!), tonight only my wife and one deacon showed up. Now, the weather has been terrible all week and we were under a tornado watch (despite just partly cloudy skies), but it was still a bit deflating. You try not to be discouraged, but it’s inescapable when you’re staring out the window as the start time comes and goes with no one there. When one or two finally make it, it’s a only a small consolation.

I don’t know if there is anything more difficult in ministry than the bear of disappointment and discouragement that wrestles you down and makes you wonder, “What’s the point?” And when you are working as a pastor of a very small church, when visible results are hard to come by, the weight of the question of relevance becomes even heavier.

There’s an internal voice that tells you that you are wasting your time. Why waste your efforts for such a small audience? You’ve got the talent and education for bigger things. Get out of this dying town to a place where there will be at least the potential for success!

Before you accept a call to a small church, particularly in a small town, it’s vital to have at least some answers to these questions. If you don’t want to find yourself quitting on your church and moving on prematurely, you are going to have to come to grips in your heart with the justification for “small” ministry: small town, small crowds, small results.

I’ve wrestled with smallness for about a decade now, through an unsuccessful church plant and now here at my small church pastorate for more than five years, and I have gotten a few words from the Lord to help me to realize the significance of my calling, even when the numbers seem insignificant.

My calling is to faithfulness, not certain results.

We know in our theology that God brings results, not our own human skill and effort, but we still feel accountable for the rises and falls of the ministry God has given us. In fact, I have heard people call this “faithfulness, not numbers” statement a cop-out. Those who are truly faithful, it is said, will see the numbers as well. I do appreciate the admonition that is behind this argument, and we should always evaluate our methods and whether we are really keeping in step with the Spirit when the results we hope to see aren’t there.

But as I have struggled in this area, God has graciously revealed something to me in a way that goes past the theology in my head and deep into my heart: He is working in me to teach me to be faithful, independent of results. He calls me to have hope and joy and peace in Him, whether the numbers are increasing, declining, or holding maddeningly steady.

The prophets of the Old Testament were called to a people who would not listen, and yet these men are heroes, not because of their results but because of their faithfulness. Jeremiah preached for decades, and it seems he had no converts at all. A study of Jeremiah’s complaints provided some of the most valuable insights I’ve ever gotten for the calling God has given me.

The temptation, of course, is toward comparison and envy. But I am reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter when Peter pointed to another disciple and said, “What about him?” Jesus replied, “What is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:21-22).

Remember the mustard seed.

God loves to start small. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is among the smallest of seeds, but from which can grow a bush large enough for birds to perch in its branches. Many of us are called to “mustard seed” ministries. We take care of the small before God turns it into something bigger down the road.

It’s actually a little more like the yeast illustration from the same passage (Matthew 13:31-33). The small amount of yeast works its way through the whole dough, and though you cannot see it, it is doing its work and expanding. The kingdom of God multiplies beyond our ability to see or control, starting with just a small beginning.

Think About Abraham.

There’s no single man (other than Jesus) that has had more impact on God’s kingdom than Abraham. His life marks the beginning of God’s redemptive plan among the nations, from which all of God’s work in the world would spring forth. But most of his life, Abraham had only a promise and growing wealth that seemed would die with him. His lament about having no heir (Genesis 15:2-3) seems to be reflected in pastors, who have a wealth of education and revelation we desperately want to pass on to others.

Of course, God gave Abraham his son Isaac to be an heir, but it’s important to realize Isaac is all Abraham saw of the promise fulfilled. This promise to make him a great nation, to bless all the world through him, was only carried out in Abraham’s lifetime to one person, but Isaac was the beginning of everything.

If a pastor only wins one person in a lifetime of faithful ministry, and that person is an Isaac, the kingdom impact could be far greater than the pastor God uses to win a thousand converts.

We as pastors need to constantly remind ourselves that our Lord Jesus does not see crowds; He sees people, and He loves every one of us. And every one of us could be the “small” beginning of something larger than what we could possibly imagine.

The enemy of our souls loves to attack God’s servants with the accusation that our lives and ministries are small, futile, and without significance, and pastors of small churches are easy targets. But has long as a church has people, it has potential to change lives, to alter the course of family histories, and, in God’s hands, to expand its impact into eternity, if we will only be faithful not to abandon our post.

Sundays can be hard, and Sundays when only a couple of people show up for your class are especially hard, but I am encouraged in the truth that God’s plan is good and His grace is sufficient. The best is yet to come.

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