Remember when we had 27 people in church last Sunday, and we went home feeling like it was a pretty good day? Perspective is a funny thing. A terrible day for many churches is an above average day for us. Just a few extra people make a huge difference to a church as small as we are.
It’s hard being a small church these days. We have the dubious honor of being the face of America’s declining Christianity. Everyone points at churches like ours and asks what is wrong with us. It’s enough to give a church an inferiority complex, and I think we have probably begun asking that same question about ourselves. What IS wrong with us?
It’s not that we aren’t trying. I know how hard you guys work, how much you volunteer, how often you’ve been burned by plans that just didn’t pan out. And after enough years of seeing other churches grow while our church gains no traction, discouragement sets in. It’s only natural. Hope turns to weariness. Expectation turns to acceptance. We’ve been down this road before, and we know how it ends. And yet, we keep trying.
I’ve been told a lot of things about how to be a small church pastor. Experts, leaders, pastors at big churches, the world in general—they tell me things about who we should be, what we should do, how we should look, and why we aren’t good enough as we are. I’ve been told what success looks like. I’ve been told it looks like them.
Sadly, most of the things I have been told are based on worldly ideas of success. Most of the things I’ve been told are largely influenced by American ideals that say ‘Bigger is better’ and ‘Go big or go home.’ Most of the things I’ve been told totally overlook that we do all of this for a God who doesn’t give a hoot about size, a God who said, “Let the little children come to me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
They tell me I’m supposed to grow you. They imply that simply by being small in stature, we are wrong, inadequate, less than. To me, that sounds like an oak tree telling a rose bush that it doesn’t measure up. Don’t both produce fruit in their own kind? And doesn’t a rose bush grow in many places an oak tree would wither and die? We were planted here, in a small town, in a small flower bed. We are not an oak tree; we are a rose bush. I bet we look something like those scraggly rose bushes in front of our church.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t do better. I’m not against growth. I just think that we should grow into what we are. If we grow, let’s grow into a healthy rose bush, because if we try to grow into anything else, we will be discouraged. We will feel wrong, inadequate, less than.
Another thing they tell me is that I’m not supposed to be content here, that a small church in a small town is only a waypoint on my way to bigger and better things. They say I should trade in the rose bush with all its vines and thorns as soon as I can for the shade and stability of the oak tree. But I don’t believe that, and I hope you don’t either.
To view you as a waypoint would be to view you as a means to an end. You are not a means to an end. You are the children of God, the Body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Each and every one of you is just as beloved by God and just as important to his Kingdom as anyone attending a big church in a big city.
I am privileged to be one of you. For now, for however long God calls me to be here, I am yours and you are mine. There will be days when I get angry and discouraged. There will be days when you won’t live up to my expectations. But that’s ok, because there will be days when I won’t live up to your expectations either. There will be days when my sermons will be boring and my immaturity evident. (I know you are already familiar with both.)
Anyway, those are the things they’ve told me. Those are the things I’ve stopped believing. But now I want to tell you something, and I want you to believe this: God loves you, little church that you are. He knows you aren’t perfect. He knows that sometimes you have failed at being that city on a hill that shines his light into our little corner of the world, but he loves you anyway, and he delights to call you his hands and his feet. He delights to be here with you when even just two or three or twenty-seven of you gather together in his name. (He also knows that mega-churches aren’t perfect, and he loves them anyway too.)
Of course, loving us as we are doesn’t mean that God is content just to leave us as we are. In his love for us, God wants us to grow into maturity. He is a good gardener. He knows what he planted here. He knows what will grow in the soil of our community, and he wants us to grow into what he planted. Do we dare tell him we’d rather be another sort of plant? Is the rose bush jealous of the oak tree?
We can’t escape the fact that growth is at the heart of this analogy. All living things grow, and we are alive, because Christ lives in us. Luckily for us, the lesson Jesus leaves his disciples with in John 15 is that we don’t grow by our own efforts. We grow because we abide in the love of Christ. Yet we abide in the love of Christ, not to grow, but to simply be alive. We abide in the love of Christ because that is the only way for us to bear the fruit of his love. And even though we are small, we can bear much of this fruit!
We abide, and we love. That is all God asks of us. He asks us to abide in him—not in our size, not in our talents, and not in our efforts—in him. He asks us to love because he first loved us. This is the fruit that we bear. If a bush could bear the consuming presence of God long enough to get a message across to Moses, then surely even a small rose bush like us can bear the fruit of God’s love.
In fact, I believe it’s already happening.
Remember how the 27 of us stayed after church last Sunday and ate a potluck lunch together? Remember how we all sat around one table (ok, yeah, technically three tables shoved together), and we ate, and we talked? Remember how we were a community, a family, made up of young and old, black and white, male and female? Remember how we served each other? Some of us prepared the food, some of us cleared the table, some of us washed the dishes, some of us dried them, and some of us put away tables and chairs until next month. The kids played in the children’s room, we divided the left over brownies amongst ourselves, and we all searched for the purse that one of our eldest saints had misplaced. It was beautiful.
I went home and realized that I love you guys. I love you guys so much.
See you Sunday