Recently, I was having a conversation with a family about joining our church. The husband began to express some of his reservations. He put it squarely to me: “Chad, why is this church so…small?” Realizing he might have come off a bit strong, he clarified that the church had superb preaching and teaching; it didn’t make any sense why our membership hadn’t grown.
It’s a sentiment I often hear. I’m coming up on five years at our little church in smalltown, SC. Industry standards among “professional” pastors would say I should be pulling a LeBron right about now and take my talents elsewhere. I’ve achieved the necessary experience to climb the ladder to a bigger ministry. But I won’t. Instead, I’m wasting vital years in a congregation that is 45 minutes from the nearest urban center.
Last year I attended a “First Five Years” conference put on by 9 Marks of which the driving theme was this: Stay. Stick it out. The first five years are not a waste. They are only the beginning of what God can do in your little church.
Stay. By God’s grace and if he wills, that’s what I plan to do. Here is why you, whoever you are, should too.
There’s no pew-sitting.
What’s the old adage-—”20% of the members do 80% of the work”? In a church with less than 60 members, that’s just not sustainable. Pew-sitting in our church is not an option. At a recent meeting, our Sunday School director was asking members to consider volunteering in children’s discipleship classes. She said, “Look around. If not you, then who?” Her point was well taken. For a church our size to succeed, each member must be working properly, making the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16).
A teamwork mentality is absolutely vital. As a pastor, it’s exciting to watch the members of the body doing the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). I used to complain about our lack of leaders in the church. Then I realized I was expecting readymade leaders to come knocking at our church door. In a small town, if you want leaders, you have to go into the pews, grab hold of members, and pour into them. This takes time and intentionality, and it has forced me to grow as a leader.
There’s no small victories.
Larger churches may receive dozens of believers into membership on a monthly basis. A month ago, I found myself wiping away tears when one family joined. As a church, we had been praying for this particular family to join since before we even knew their names. In a small church, no victory is small potatoes.
Hitting the budgeted offering need for the week? Big victory. A member getting a new job? Big victory. Getting the church flowerbeds weeded? Big victory. Hosting an FCA Bible study with three college students? Big victory. Growing your small groups ministry from one group to two? HUGE victory. Partnering with a church planter? ASTOUNDING victory! In a small church, you learn not to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10).
I have come to appreciate the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32) In a small church, you learn to strive for and treasure the mustard seed victories, trusting that given enough time the Lord will help them grow into huge trees.
There’s no way.
Whenever pastors get together, we talk about our churches. One of the questions that I always get asked is the size of our congregation. When I tell them, the response is almost comical. The other guy’s eyes bulge as he retorts, “How on earth do they support your family full-time??” I’ll get back to you when I figure that out. The ministry God is doing at College Street Baptist Church is impossible. And yet it continues.
Staying at College Street these past five years has felt a bit like playing a game of chicken with God. Either I’m going to give up, or God will. Every year, in the face of impossible odds I am determined not to flinch. And a year later, somehow we’re still here! Finances seem impossible—until a $5,000 check shows up in the mailbox. Personalities seem impossible–until those people voluntarily move on to greener pastures. Ministries seem impossible—until God sends just the right family at just the right time to fill the void.
At large churches, it’s at least plausible to get ministry done. Children’s ministry? We can do it. New building? We can raise support. Host a block party? No problem. In our small church, sometimes my wife and I pray over finding a single volunteer to fill the nursery schedule! There’s just no way College Street should be able to reach a college of 1,000 students or sustain a full-time pastor or build the next generation of missionaries or develop elders or reach families with the gospel or bring reconciliation to our community. No matter. We continue to endeavor the impossible because we know God is guaranteed to get all the glory.
Call me crazy, but I can’t imagine a better place to be than in a church doomed to failure and public embarrassment if not for the sustaining, impossible grace of God.
What about you?