Why join a small church?
Part 5: Encouragement for small churches
We live in an age which tells us that only what is big is significant, only what attracts mass audiences is influential, only those who can deploy vast resources of cash or people are truly powerful. It is easy for us to fall into accepting this secular propaganda. What appears pint-sized and weak is written off. We can end up hoping that whatever happens, and whatever he asks of us, God doesn’t call us to a small church.
But, of course, the Bible teaches us a very different set of guidelines from that of the secular world. It teaches us that the unseen God is actually sovereign over all we see. It teaches us that ‘nothing is impossible with God’ (Luke 1.37). If we are part of a small church we will need encouragement to grasp these truths and live by them. This can be a struggle.
If we take on helping a small church we will certainly face doubts and worries. We will be tempted, at least sometime or another, to think that we are wasting our time.
Here then, can I suggest seven encouragements which might help us to persevere and to believe that God can achieve great things through a small church.
1. The potential of the church is far greater than we realise
The Lord Jesus is the temple of God, the place where heaven meets earth and man meets God. And being in him, Paul is able to speak of the local church as the house or temple of God (1 Corinthians 3.16). As God’s people struggled to rebuild the OT temple, the Lord gave Zechariah the prophet an extraordinary vision to encourage the temple builders (Zechariah 1.18-22). He saw four great horns, symbols of strength and power. God explained that these represented the empires which had previously destroyed Jerusalem, scattering its people and taking them into exile. But then, the prophet was shown four craftsmen. ‘What are these coming to do?’ asked Zechariah. Listen to God’s remarkable answer. ‘The craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land.’ In the context of rebuilding the temple, the craftsmen are those who are working on the house of God. God’s temple (because it is the house where God dwells) is able to overthrow the nations! Translating this into NT terms, just so, we must believe that God’s church (because Christ himself dwells among us) has the potential to overthrow all worldly opposition and be victorious for the kingdom of God.
2. The Lord is able to use small groups of Christians to transform communities
This should not surprise us. Often Paul’s missionary band consisted of just a few people. But such was the impact of their Christian witness in towns and cities across the Roman empire that they were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’.
3. The Lord is able to use the most unlikely people to do remarkable things
Some years ago now, in an old book titled The Romance of Primitive Methodism, I found that I had a namesake, John Benton, who was used by God during the times of revival in and around the Potteries area of Staffordshire. His story took me aback when I read it.
This John Benton was an uneducated man who was not at all naturally gifted as a speaker. He had little or no sense of grammar or good English. Converted to Christ and full of zeal for the Lord he often tried to share the gospel with others. But such was his roughness of speech and lack of education that he was forbidden to speak by the local vicar. However, one day John Benton found himself preaching to a group of miners beside the road. The Spirit of God came down and the men were under conviction of sin, possibly with tears flowing. Just at that moment, the vicar who had forbidden him to preach came around the corner and saw the sight. John Benton turned to him, pointed him to these men on whom God was evidently at work, and said to the vicar, ‘Look, there’s my grammar!’ The lesson is obvious. If God can use a man like John Benton he can use any of us!
4. The Lord Jesus said he will build his church
The Lord Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth, said: ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prove stronger than it’ (Matthew 16.18). (Interestingly in the Septuagint OT, the Greek for carpenter is the same word used for the craftsmen of Zechariah 1.)
We are here told that the building of Jesus’s church takes place against the background of fierce opposition. We are warned in advance, therefore, that there will be difficulties. The fact that the churches are up against it in our day is normal. But Christ has promised that all the opposition which the devil himself can throw at the church will not prevail. Therefore we are to have great faith as we seek to help a small church. The fact of Christ’s power for his church has been marvellously demonstrated for us in recent years. During most of the 20th century Christians under Communism faced ferocious persecution. Sometimes during those dreadful years we must have wondered how the church in those countries could survive. But in 1989 Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed. After all that persecution it was not the church which folded, but Communism itself. The gates of hell shall not prevail. Christ is stronger. Have faith!
5. The Lord’s power is not dependent on great human resources
The governor of the Jews during the time that they were seeking to rebuild the temple was Zerubbabel. Returning from the exile he was the civic leader, responsible to the Persian emperor.
In Judah it was a day of small things. The Jews came back to a devastated land, much diminished in size. The harvests had not been good and everyone felt poor and had decided that now was obviously not the right time to rebuild God’s temple. But God’s encouraging word came through Zechariah to Zerubbabel. ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD Almighty’ (Zechariah 4.6). The word ‘might’ here is used in the OT of armies of soldiers or armies of workers such as Solomon had to build the original temple. It refers to collective strength, to what can be done with big numbers of people. But God specifically says that he does not need large numbers. That is an encouragement for a small church. The word ‘power’ is about individual ability. Surely the key to making God’s work successful is an individual of great brilliance, or of commanding character and enormous energy. ‘That’s what we need — someone who is an international athlete, or from a celebrity family, with a few degrees and letters after his name.’ But God says he does not need this either. That is a great encouragement to a church of ordinary people. God is able to do all he desires through the power of his Spirit.
6. The power of God’s Spirit is available to all Christians
The Lord, as we know, has been doing astonishing things in China in the last 20 to 30 years with millions of people being saved. Not long ago one of the British broadsheet newspapers reported that there are now more Christians in China than card-carrying Communists!
It is interesting to read the agreed statement of faith put out by the Chinese house churches in 1998 recorded in Tony Lambert’s book China’s Christian Millions. ‘In Christ, God grants a diversity of gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church so as to manifest the glory of Christ. Through faith and thirsting, Christians can experience the outpouring and filling of the Holy Spirit.’ It was that word ‘thirsting’ which struck me. Do we thirst for the Spirit and the glory of God? Surely there is a case for saying that people in small churches are less likely to be happy with the status quo and therefore more open to thirst for the Spirit of God’s work. Jesus said, ‘If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink’ (John 7.38). That includes us.
7. The breakdown of secular society is a sign of how much each community needs a church
The beginning of the 21st century in Britain has been sadly notable for a marked decline in the quality of life and civilised conduct. Not only has family breakdown become common, but the culture of drugs and its attendant crime, together with binge drinking and thuggish behaviour, have become prevalent. A recent article published in Time magazine described many UK teenagers as ‘Unhappy, unloved and out of control’.
We should not be surprised at this. The Bible tells us that where a nation rejects God, all kinds of hurts and wicked behaviour result. But however we view this breakdown of society which we are experiencing, it is a clear sign to us that the gospel and, therefore, our churches, big or small, are needed.
Therefore, we are not to believe the doubts and fears that the little church is irrelevant or that we are wasting our time in giving our energies to its life and outreach. Rather, we are, in faith, to look beyond our circumstances to the sure promises of God, and work hard for him. And in the light of eternity we shall find that we have spent our lives in the best possible way.
Why join a small church? by John Benton, published by Christian Focus Publications, is available from http://www.christianfocus.com (£4.99, 64 pages, ISBN 978-1-84550-407-6). Also available from http://www.10ofthose.com (£40.00 for 40).
The book has been specially written to get those who are attracted to large churches to think again. It would be the ideal book to give away to new people looking around the area when they visit your church. It emphasises the strategic position in the community of many small churches and the positive benefits, as well as challenges, which come from being involved in a small church. The book encourages the ‘adventure of faith’ which we take on when we become involved in a little congregation.