The title of my sermon today is “Small”…
We live in a society that emphasizes bigness. We build big houses, drive big vehicles, and eat Big Macs.
Being small seems like a problem in a world that values big. And this is especially true of the local church.
Close your eyes and imagine what a successful, vibrant church looks like……
Whether you realize it or not, most of you just imagined a worshipping community of over 150 people. When we think of “strong” churches, we think of “large” churches.
Without realizing it, even the Christian publishing world has contributed to this misconception. If you open a catalog for Cokesbury or Family Christian Stores or even our own Judson Press, you will find gobs of Bible Study literature for every demographic:
Preschoolers; Grades 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-9, 10-12; and college students;
Some studies focus on decades: those in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seniors;
There are Bible Studies for singles and for married couples; for those with children and for those without.
There are studies for African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans, as well as studies aimed at immigrants.
There are studies in English, Spanish, Polish, French, German, and other languages by special order.
But none of this literature can be used in the average “small church,” because small churches do not have the people to warrant such specialized literature. A few publishing houses have begun to wise up in the past years, providing “intergenerational” literature to encompass those from cradle to grave.
But it’s hard to look through these resources without thinking that your church is not a success until the day your church can check all the demographic boxes, the day it needs this variety.
In the book The Little Church That Could, authors and church consultants Steven Burt & Hazel Ann Roper address the self esteem problem created by the word “small” when used to describe churches. The book opens with an illustration from a doctoral seminar they conducted. They engaged in a word association (you know—like I say “water” and you say things that come to mind, like “wet” or “rain”).
Their word association exercise was for the word “small.” What kinds of things do you think they said? What kinds of things come to your mind? Let’s do our own exercise right now… I say “small”; you say………
[Take a few minutes to do the exercise]
Like our own exercise, Burt & Roper’s class produced a large number of negative combinations. So they turned to Roget’s Thesaurus for guidance. Guess what they found?
Roget’s offered: scarcity, insignificance, minimum, trifle, scrap, shred, tag, rag, handful, drop in the bucket, stunted, sawed off, tiny, puny, wee, runty, miniature, scanty, limited, lesser, meager, few, sparse, slight, inappreciative, inconsiderable, mere, unimportant, trivial, and inconsequential. (The Little Church That Could, v.)
Now I’m someone who has lived his entire life in “small churches”; I’m a minister committed to the “small church” context. And I found that depressing.
When “small” is combined with “church,” it is no wonder we believe we have a huge strike against us. And maybe through a series of self-fulfilling prophecies, we associate “small church” with things like:
limited human resources, faithful remnant, handful, too few doing too much, dependence on denomination, petty bickering, lack of privacy, money worries, inexperienced and entry-level clergy, limited programs, physical plant millstones, building upkeep difficulties, clergy turnover, and [so] many more. (Little Church, v.)
These aren’t my associations, these are those compiled by Burt & Roper over many years of research, consultant, and pastoral work.
But Burt & Roper also point out that “small church” has many positive connotations as well. Things like:
close-knit, community, family, friendly, caring, intimacy, fulfilling, participatory, skill developing, trusting, cooperative, mutual support, and valuing.
The book by Burt & Roper seeks to be a corrective to the maligned image of “small” in our society. They work to provide valuable tools to pastors and congregation leaders of small churches, guiding them in the task of rediscovering a healthy self-image and recovering small church self esteem. It has been an eye-opening and transformative read for me.
But throughout my education (and even still) I’m a primary source guy. That means I don’t want to read what someone else has to say about something; I want the data, the hard numbers—I want to read the original source, the primary source.
The Bible is a primary source that many of us are afraid to approach. I believe thousands of committed Christians open a Bible every week (some every day), but never dare to do so without some sort of Bible study book to do the interpreting for them.
Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten confused and began to think that inspiration is something that happened thousands of years ago. Well I beg to differ. Inspiration happens every time someone reads the Bible, as the Holy Spirit prompts and prods, queries and questions, convinces and convicts.
I’m a primary source guy, so I appreciate a book like Burt & Roper, but I also can’t help but turn to the Bible too.
And you know what I find?
While our children may sing “My God is so big! So strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do!”; the Kingdom of God is described in surprisingly small terms.
In the Ezekiel reading, God transforms a “tender, young sprig” into a “noble cedar” on a high place, providing a spot for birds of every sort to nest and raise their young.
In the Matthew reading, Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed, which grows many feet tall and provides somewhere for birds of all sorts to nest.
Small beginnings…big endings… It’s the way of God; it’s the way of Christ; it’s the way of the Kingdom.
Remember, it is the Kingdom of God that is described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
It is a place where the poor in spirit have much,
Where mourners are comforted,
Where the meek inherit the earth,
Where those who hunger & thirst will be satisfied,
Where those who show mercy receive it,
Where peacemakers are not orphans, but children of God,
Where those who are persecuted and reviled will be glad and rejoice. (Matt 5:3-12)
It is a place where the small are big, where the weak are strong, where the broken are healed, and where the poor are rich.
It is a place, looking back at Ezekiel again, where the big tree is made small, and the small tree is made big; where the well-watered tree is dried up, and where the withered tree becomes vibrant again.
It sounds like a remarkable place, this Kingdom of God, if not a bit fearful. These glimpses of the Kingdom of God are a bit like falling through the rabbit hole with Alice, or being carried over the rainbow with Dorothy, or even entering the chocolate factory with Charlie.
Things are so different—and that can be dangerous. Not knowing how things work could cost us our head with the Queen of Hearts, or cause the Wicked Witch of the West to send flying monkeys after us, or it could cause us to swell up and turn purple like a blueberry.
But our God loves us, and certainly does not want to see us chased by flying monkeys. So God has disclosed some of the most important rules of life in the Kingdom of God. We encounter these glimpses in many passages of the OT, like our Ezekiel reading, where we cannot but recognize that the values of the Kingdom are different than our own world. We encounter these glimpses in the life, teachings, and parables of Jesus. One set of these teachings, known as the Sermon on the Mount, has even been called the “instruction book” or “manual” for living in the Kingdom of God.
All this “small talk” is good news to us. Because in the Kingdom of God, small is good; and God shows us how to be small.
Being small involves capitalizing on those strengths that Burt & Roper identified, not just because playing to our fortes makes good strategic sense, but because the Kingdom of God values the same strengths—things like love, community, compassion, trust, and cooperation.
There’s some mercy for us in Jesus’ parables in Mark as well. As small churches living in the world of “big,” we can get pretty focused on the idea of growth. There is nothing wrong with growth, of course; and the Christian journey is one of constant growth as we are transformed into God’s likeness. But “growth” is also the way we see ourselves becoming “big”—and hence “successful”—so I do feel some caution with the term.
But here, in these parables of smallness recorded in Mark 4, growth is addressed as well. Theologian Jay Wilcoxen comments,
These parables present the process of growth, from small insignificant things to full harvests and large imposing trees. Both the grain and the mustard seed are fast growing plants. Things move right along, whether the humans around pay attention or not.
And they move toward an end, toward a climax. The grain gets ripe—and after that it will rot in the field if not harvested. The mustard bush gets very large, supporting many bird homes. Their growth is INEVITABLE, and when it is complete, something must happen. The kingdom of God is at hand; it is at a climax. There is no putting it off to a more desirable time. That, undoubtedly, is the punch line of these two parables, in Jesus’ time and since. (http://www.thecommongood.org/blogs/detail/829/)
You see, in the Kingdom of God, small is a pretty big thing. And growth?—Growth is something that God is doing all around us, in us, and through us; whether or not we are paying attention or investing in it.
But where are we at harvest time?
The answer to that question has nothing to do with the size of our roll and everything to do with the size of our hearts.