God of small things

Once there were two pastors – one from the city and one in a small town. On Thursday, August 10 they both woke up early. They ate breakfast, checked the news on their phones and spent a few minutes reading Scripture and in prayer. Then the first pastor, Bill, drove to his church. It’s 30 minutes down the highway. He entered the huge building through a back door to avoid the crowds of people streaming in the front. Bill met briefly with his team to go over final details, then walked onto stage where he welcomed an audience of 7,000. It didn’t take long for Bill’s warmth and charisma to connect with the crowd. He encouraged them, inspired them.

Many people took notes. His talk was telecast to more than 600 other cities. It will end up being seen by people in 128 countries and translated into over 60 languages.

The second pastor walked to his church. It’s not far. He stopped briefly at the small white stone church to pick up some mail, then continued down the road to a brick bungalow. He knocked on the door. Mrs. Harman invited him in to the living room, where a daybed had been set up for her husband. He had just gotten home from the hospital the day before. Surgery went well. It didn’t take long for the pastor’s warmth and charisma to connect with the couple. He encouraged them, inspired them. He read a Psalm and prayed before he left. Mr. Harman dozed a bit; Mrs. Harman is having trouble with her memory. By afternoon, his visit will be forgotten.

First rate pastors
Have you met either of these men of God? They’re both excellent ministers. You’ve probably heard of the first one – Bill Hybels, senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. He’s also the founder of the Global Leadership Summit, a two-day event to develop and mentor leaders worldwide. An estimated two million people have participated in Hybel’s Summit since it began in 1994. Seven thousand people were in the audience on August 10, 2017, and another 200,000 will listen during the mid-October local programming, coming up soon.

You might know the second pastor too, or someone just like him. He represents the men and women serving small congregations of the faithful in rural communities across Canada. Only a handful of pews are full each Sunday in these churches. Many members are elderly. Voices rich with experience and emotion lift high to the rafters when the choir sings.

Second nature?
I was at the Global Leadership Summit last year. It’s a valuable experience, a useful tool to help strengthen the skills of Christian leaders. God has blessed Hybels with vision and passion, and he’s making a difference in the Kingdom.

In God’s Kingdom, I mean. But we are all dual citizens, often pledging allegiance to the value systems of our earthly kingdoms while working for God. Numbers flood the Summit screens: grew the organization from 6,000 to 75,000; preaches to 25,000 weekly; best-selling author of over 20 books. . . .

Maybe it’s just human nature – to rank ourselves by size. To assume that bigger is always better. Maybe it’s normal to equate growth with success. I’m pretty sure it’s not Scriptural, though. The Lord says that his thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8); his ways are not our ways. Surely God’s math is not our math, either.

God thought that 300 men were enough for Gideon to defeat 135,000 Midianites. God thought that marching around the impenetrable walls of Jericho seven days in a row would be enough to win the city. God tells David not to count his army; we don’t know why, but it could be to avoid the sin of pride or to ensure that David, like Gideon and Joshua, leans on God instead of human might. We can’t stop measuring things but numbers don’t matter to God in the same way. What does God value? What will he risk everything to recover? One lost coin. A single missing sheep. A beloved, wayward son.

A third person
Let me introduce one more pastor. Her name is Tish Harrison Warren. I really enjoyed speaking with her in July (look for our full conversation in an upcoming issue of CC). At one point, we were chatting about megachurches.

“How does a culture of achievement affect our churches?” I asked.

“I’m really skeptical of the megachurch model,” she said. “That doesn’t mean there’s never been anything good that comes from the megachurch. But as a model, there are a lot of weaknesses. One of them is that with many people and many resources [in one church], it is easy to hold up the big, the grand and the spectacle as where God’s work really is. You make worship emotionally and aesthetically overwhelming – lights, fog, really loud music – and it can train us to think about the work of God as fireworks. As big and evident and spectacular. There are some times when God works like that; clearly in Scripture we see miraculous, unexplainable things. We should always leave room in our faith for that. But lots of time the work of God is small and slow and overlooked. Jesus revealed himself in all his glory at the Transfiguration, but that was only to a few. To the whole world, he came as a baby in a backwater town to poor parents!

“But this [mindset] can happen in small churches too. In the West in general we tend to have a whole culture built around the idea that success looks really overt, really big; we have a hard time valuing small and ordinary things. We don’t like boring life. We like sensational life. The church can buy into that just as easily as the culture can.

“In the Kingdom,” Warren concludes, “it’s possible that the person whose life is largely overlooked is making more of an impact than a pastor with 50,000 Twitter followers. I don’t know what’s a big deal to God. I can’t know what God counts as big and small. Ultimately big and small have to be seen from an eternal perspective, which none of us have.”

Our earthly viewpoints are so limited. Let’s toss the yardsticks and focus on what God provides in abundance. There is water for everyone who thirsts, and food even for those without money. Those who seek the Lord will find him, Isaiah says, and on that day the very hills and mountains will begin to sing. God’s love for us is beyond measure.

I’m counting on it.  

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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