Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Does God, Perhaps, Delight in the Small?

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

--Matthew 7:13-14

I think that God delights in the small.

Mark Dever, June 2008

Ministry in New England is notoriously difficult. I was recently talking with my father about this. In a place where faithful Christians often see very little fruit produced from their evangelistic and ecclesial efforts, discouragement can come easily. I've been challenged to pray hard for the pastors and churches of New England, knowing that they face a hard road of ministry.

Most churches in New England are very small. Many see very few people come to Christ, even over the span of decades. There's little triumphalism in this region, little sense that if things shift just a little bit, the culture wars will be won. The church is not about to win the culture wars in New England. It is a city on a hill, but it is a city that few choose to visit, and most choose to ignore. It is not that the majority of pastors and churches of the area are strategically challenged, or lacking in passion, or outdated in methodology. Many Christians pour themselves into their churches and give sacrificially of their time and energy to advance the kingdom and preach the gospel. Many Christians pray ardently for their towns and cities and yearn for their families and friends to come to Christ. Most of these Christians see little visible fruit from their efforts, few desired answers to their prayers. To be a Christian in New England is, in short and in general, to live a life of frustration. One must continually go back to the promises of God for encouragement. Otherwise, one will grow discouraged and lose faith and confidence in the power and goodness of God. In New England Christianity, discouragement comes easily.

Some of this discouragement is natural. Some of it, though, comes from a culture within American Christianity in which it is assumed that large congregational size is an unquestionably sure sign of God's blessing. In the same way that many Americans seek grandiose riches and oversized homes as a symbol of fundamental life achievement, many Christian Americans seek massive churches and oversized congregations as a symbol of fundamental providential achievement. Put more simply, we don't want to be small. No one in America wants to be small. We want to be large. Large equals blessing, achievement, status, respect, validation that cannot be taken away. Once our business--or church, or college, or denomination, or home, or wallet, or car, or whatever--gets large, then we'll never have to look stupid and insignificant. We'll never be a nobody again. We'll be someone, and no one will be able to take that away from us. We will win our significance, and we will never lose it.

There's a fundamental biblical problem with such thinking: it's not what God tells us will be the case with Christianity in its cultural forms. There is certainly room for exceptions in passages like Matthew 7:13-14, but the general rule is that Christianity will be marked throughout history as a religion of the few. Now, someone out there is saying that Christianity has had the most adherents of any religion throughout history. That's likely true. But with a few exceptions, the number of truly converted, biblically concerned and faithful Christians in any given culture has been small. Yes, Europe existed in a state of Christendom for hundreds of years, and yes, America was founded in part by Christians, and sure, some countries today have large populations of evangelical Christians, but by and large, Christians are and have been the decided minority in the countries and civilizations of the world. The remnant, not the reigning, has been the rule.

Christ's words in Matthew seven, then, ring very, very true. Though we should believe passionately and actionably in God's desire to save many, yet the fundamental reality of Christianity is that few will believe in it. Few, in the end, will be saved. This idea rubs harshly against our success-obsessed American culture in which size is legitimacy, no, size is existence. So many evangelicals want so desperately to see people saved, a desire that is genuine, but they also want to be culturally significant. We don't want to be weird and small and cultish, like the kid on the playground nobody wants to talk to. We want to see people saved--we earnestly and passionately do--but we also want to be a cool kid. For too many of us, it's not enough that we are accepted by God. We want also to be accepted by man. Our thinking, our methodology, even our understanding of the Bible itself is regularly driven by such a concern.

When a Christian lives in a largely pagan culture, though, such notions--which all of us fall prey to in some form, myself included--are easily scrubbed away. The focus becomes not getting people saved and glorifying God through the life of the church and attaining impressive size and cultural legitimacy, but getting people saved and glorifying God through the life of the church. This is not to idealize the church in New England or any other paganized region. Christians in these places certainly have their struggles and weaknesses, lack of vision and passion sometimes among them. It is to say, though, that in such places the temptation to work hard for cultural legitimacy is strongly diminished. It does not disappear, but it is by necessity diminished. When you labor faithfully in gospel ministry for 25 years and see five people come to Christ, you acquire a different economy of scale in your faith. Of course, it is no bad thing at all to pray for growth and work for growth and think strategically and act with great faith and vision. These are the right things to do. But they must not become ends in themselves. If they do, they will fail in places where God's Spirit is not granting new life to the lost.

This certainly sounds morose and sad. But here's the thing: what if God does not merely tolerate the small, or put up with it while other ecclesial investments flourish? What if God--in a way that is very difficult for our American senses to comprehend--actually delights in the small? What if the thirty-person church in New Hampshire (or South Carolina, or Oregon, or Zaire, or Siberia) actually brings Him great joy? What if, unlike so many of our American peers, God isn't ashamed by the little church, but is delighted by it? Maybe He doesn't look sternly at the pastor of the little church, wondering when he's going to get his act together and grow his church. Maybe He looks lovingly on Him, joyful that he is obeying His Word, evangelizing his area, building up his people in the faith week by week, year by year. I don't claim to speak for God, and I certainly cannot comprehend His mind. But as I search the Scripture, it seems to me that perhaps it is true that God delights in the small.

My mind was led to this track by a comment I heard pastor Mark Dever make a little while back. As I've reflected on Mark's offhand comment, I've considered it in light of my future pastoral ministry, if the Lord does indeed give it. Will I be happy if my church is small and my baptisms are low? Will I grow depressed and angry? Will I snap at my wife and ignore my children and work strenuously to drive up my church's numbers? I pray that I won't. But because I'm a sinner, and an American sinner, I see the potential for such behavior. At this juncture in my life, though, I want to avoid it.

I want to embrace the biblical reality that Christianity will often be small, often marginalized, often ignored, often hated. In spots, it will win huge acceptance. In most, it will not. Some churches will legitimately and by God's grace become very large in number and use this size for God's glory. Most will not. Most New England churches will not, I would guess (though I cannot know). Most New England pastors will labor for year upon year and see few people come to Christ. Most New England congregations will survive budgetarily but rarely flourish. If this is indeed true, is this a sign of failure? It could be, I suppose. But it also could be a reflection of biblical teaching. The hearts of men are hard, and in God's providence and mysterious plan, they are harder in some places than others. New England is such a place at this time.

Yet though our consciences and minds tell us otherwise, perhaps this situation is no stain on God's robe, no embarrassment to His reputation. Perhaps it is, in a way quite inscrutable to us, a joy to Him. Perhaps He loves the little and delights in the small. If so (and I think it is so), what an encouragement to the church of any region and country that is small and struggling. Christians in such places need to work hard and not lose faith. They need to pray for great things and attempt great works for God. But in the midst of difficult and even "unsuccessful" ministry, they need to remember the great love of God, and to find their identity not in their numbers, but in the delight of God which graces their ministries and stamps their lives.

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Anonymous Josh said...

I am a New England pastor, and I would wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. The pastors in my association are good men who devote a lot of time to their people. Most of us are bi-vocational, because our churches are too small to pay us full-time. Were any of us to go to other parts of the U.S., we would probably see more tangible results because of the myriad differences in culture. However, we are doing what we can up here to fulfill the commissions given to us. To say that results are the measure of success, instead of fidelity to the Gospel, is probably well-meant but really quite wrong. Results cannot be the be-all end-all for churchmen if our ministries are to be cruciform.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Paul Buckley said...

Owen - I pastor a Sovereign Grace Ministries Church in New England, King of Grace Church. Thanks for your encouraging post! Pastoring in New England has been a wonderful adventure of learning to glory in Christ and the precious folks he does give us and not in our relative church size. It is one thing to say I am pastoring for God's glory, it is another to be tested with small success yet still labor. There are many here as Josh said who have labored faithfully for years (far beyond mine). They are my heroes.

I trust their faithful prayers and labors will indeed be answered in time with new converts, new church plants and a region full of disciples who will surpass them in zeal, knowledge and faithfulness. We intend to labor for Christ and His glory regardless of outcome yet we continue to ask for a greater harvest.

Come join us!

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Mike Freeman said...

Having grown up in a Maine small church, I agree with Owen. Additionally, I have labored as a lay youth leader for the past six years at at a church in southwest Ohio. I can say with certainty that the folks in Maine, by and large, "get it." In Ohio, the bible belt, many people go to church because that's what you are supposed to do- even fundamental evangelical churches. In Maine, most people don't go to church; the ones that do come actually seem to want to be there.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Shawn Brace said...


Thanks for the post. As a New England pastor (and the son of a New England pastor), these issues resonate with me. I am reminded of the wonderful saying by Teresa: "God has not called us to success, but to faithfulness." Such must be our motto here in New England.

Incidentally, I recently shared some similar reflections on my blog, entitled, "Why Art Thou Secular, Ye Olde New England?" Please feel free to leave a comment!


10:06 AM  

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