I was reading this morning from the chapter in The Desire of Ages on the “road to Emmaus.” There was nothing explicitly that mentioned it, but something suddenly occurred to me: Jesus’s ministry was so effective to those two disciples because of just that – there was only two of them.
This realization was sort of the continuation of a series of realizations I’ve been having lately as it relates to the church, the gospel, and ministry. I’m not at all the first to arrive at this conclusion. In fact, I’m kind of a slow learner. But the truth is when it comes to ministry, when it comes to spreading the gospel, if we want to become big we need to become small.
Another poignant manifestation of this idea was brought home to me last week as I attended Exponential – the largest gathering of church planters in the world (where some six thousand people attend). Everything there is big: a big auditorium, a big crowd, big names. Dozens of pastors from megachurches get paraded onto the stage as they share their stories of how they grew their church from 15 to 15,000. And we all applaud and marvel at God’s power.
I have nothing against growth. We are, indeed, seeking to grow and advance God’s kingdom. But this type of sentiment was juxtaposed against some of the seminars I attended where the presenters were talking about more modest pursuits: things like discipleship and missional living.
It was there that I realized: it’s not about growing megachurches, it’s about growing microchurches. I don’t want to make my church bigger, I want to make it smaller.
This sounds counterintuitive to some, I know, and it goes against everything we’ve believed in the past. We are trying to make our churches bigger, trying to get more people to show up to our worship services. In some ways, being a part of a big crowd validates our commitment to the cause it’s propounding. It thus almost undermines our insecurities, we suppose, because if there’s a lot of people attending a program or event, it must be worthwhile – or so we think.
But I’m not sure that’s the way Christ operated: He looked for quality over quantity. He realized the power of small. He recognized that it was in the smaller circles, the one-on-one relationships, that real change occurred. He realized that His public preaching could only go so far. In fact, Ellen White shares this mind-blowing thought about Christ’s method of ministry. Don’t miss it: “His work was largely made up,” she writes, “of personal interviews. He had a faithful regard for the one-soul audience” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 229).
The “one-soul audience”? Isn’t that powerful?
To a large extent, we have glorified – perhaps even idolized – the large, public gathering, thinking it is the height of church life. But this allows for 99% of the church to sit passively while the other 1% – the pastor – gets to do ministry. Meanwhile, the pastor has no idea as to whether what he’s saying is making much of a difference, and it is not realistic for him to ever ascertain whether it is since he cannot do “personal interviews” with everyone after every sermon.
Perhaps we need to shift our thinking when it comes to church life, though. Perhaps we need to think less of the large worship gathering and think more of “little companies” (a term from Ellen White that my good friend Jarod Thomas reminded me of) that can serve as the real engine for Christian growth. These “little companies” are a lot more suited for true Christian development to occur. They are a lot more nimble, a lot more customizable and accessible, a lot more able to address the needs of real people in real places.
And, wonderfully, they require the active involvement of the 99% rather than just the 1%.
We have a lot to unlearn, though: we rely almost exclusively on the preaching of the Word at church, or at weekend conferences, and then we wonder why people aren’t growing.
It’s simple: we have bought into the allure of big rather than the power of small.
But check this: I would dare say that 25 people who are discipling 50 others can effect more change than one person who is preaching to 1000. In fact, Ellen White seems to say this very thing. Notice:
My ministering brethren, do not think that the only work you can do, the only way you can labor for souls, is to give discourses. The best work you can do is to teach, to educate. Whenever you can find an opportunity to do so, sit down with some family, and let them ask questions. Then answer them patiently, humbly. Continue this work in connection with your more public efforts. Preach less, and educate more, by holding Bible-readings, and by praying with families and little companies.
“To all who are working with Christ I would say, Wherever you can gain access to the people by the fireside, improve your opportunity. Take your Bible, and open before them its great truths. Your success will not depend so much upon your knowledge and accomplishments, as upon your ability to find your way to the heart. By being social and coming close to the people, you may turn the current of their thoughts more readily than by the most able discourse. The presentation of Christ in the family, by the fireside, and in small gatherings in private houses, is often more successful in winning souls to Jesus than are sermons delivered in the open air, to the moving throng, or even in halls or churches” (Gospel Workers, p. 193).
“Preach less and educate more,” she says. Listen to people’s questions. Have fireside chats with them. Interact with humility. Instead of having monologues, have dialogues. Through these conversations you can find avenues to the heart, and they will “often” result in more success “in winning souls to Jesus than [through] sermons delivered.”
Such an approach has the power to really effect change precisely because it involves more people in ministry. When we rely on big, however, it limits ministry to a specific program at a specific time and a specific place led by a specific person. But when we embrace small, it allows God’s kingdom to invade our communities – precisely because a whole army of Christians already lives, breathes, works, and plays in those communities.
So are we going to embrace the power of small?
Are we going to get small so God’s kingdom can get big?