Americans must count religion in order to see or show its value . . . To them big churches are successful churches . . . To win the greatest number of converts with the least expense is their constant endeavour . . . Numbers, numbers, oh, how they value numbers! . . . Mankind goes down to America to learn how to live the earthly life; but to live the heavenly life, they go to some other people.
-- Kanzo Uchimura, "Can Americans Teach Japanese in Religion?"
He's right. We are obsessed. We are obsessed with bigger, better, faster. We define success according to quantity and presentation. We reckon churches increasing in size as effective.
And so our heroes are the big church guys. They speak at the conferences, they publish the books, they exert the influence.
But the guys at the "little churches" have just as much, if not more, to teach us about how to shepherd and how to disciple.
Disclaimer: I do not believe that big = bad. Nor do I believe that small = good. I just don't believe that big = good and small = bad, which seems to be the prevailing and operating assumption of the vast majority of American evangelicals. In the same way, because I don't believe that big = bad, I don't believe that all megachurch pastors are idolaters of ambition. Little church guys can be just as idolatrous of ambition, perhaps more so if they are discontent with the relative smallness of their churches.
I'm not proposing an either/or here, but a perspective corrective, an invitation to open up one's view to encompass more than just what is most visible.
Here are some reasons we ought to seek out and listen well to the guys who pastor "small" churches, especially if they've been doing it for a while.
1. The little guy who's been little for a while can teach you about contentment. While the big guy is constantly looking to make that next quantum leap in ministry, the little guy has been learning to be content with what God has provided. The content little church guy is not motivated by the same preoccupations of the discontent big church guy, and while his ministry may not be bigger, his peace and his joy probably will be.
2. The little guy knows about pastoring. As in, actually pastoring. Shepherding. The big church guy probably knows a lot about managing people, organizing people, probably even inspiring people, but the little guy knows his people. He knows who's struggling with what, who's fearing what, and he's spent time in the trenches of pastoral ministry, actually "curing souls." The little guy sees his flock more often than a few hours on the weekend from the stage. He tends to his flock, because he has to. And over years of doing this, he may not have cutting edge creativity or a conversational preaching style, he may not be dynamic or arena rousing, but he will have learned the art of pastoring.
3. The little guy makes for a better mentor. Not necessarily because he has more time. In fact, he probably has less time because he cannot delegate as often as the big guy with staff support. But the little guy has spent his time pastoring in biblical categories, making visits, gaining the wisdom of engaging people who are dying, divorcing, falling away. The big church guy can pass on skills, systems, techniques, tips, quotable quotes, book recommendations. He can pass on the business acumen of church growth. But the little guy makes for a better heart to heart, because he's not passing on concepts, but convictions.
4. The little guy who's been little for a while is seasoned. The guy who's grown his church from 100 to 4,000 in four years is successful. That is a remarkable achievement. But if I wanted to be mentored by a battle-hardened minister, a guy who's seen increase and decrease, who knows what it's like to have much and have little, a guy who's had his hands to the plow without looking back for the long haul, facing opposition and criticism, who has not banked his success on attractional programming but on the long-term investment of faithful pastoring, I would go the guy who's had a church of 150 for 15 years.
5. The little guy knows what really matters. He is not as often caught up in ecclesiological oneupmanship. He is not easily impressed by or easily dismissive of big churches or their pastors. Being dismissed or considered irrelevant by the big guys doesn't matter much to him, because he knows what matters. He's not a slave to statistics but has his finger on the pulse of his congregation. He is measuring success by faithfulness to his calling and the health of his congregation. He goes through difficult times in his spiritual walk, perhaps deals with doubt and disappointment, but the course of his ministry does not follow the spirit of jealousy or ambition. The little guy really knows what "Blessed are the poor in spirit" means. He doesn't know it as a concept or an idea, but in his life and in his ministry and in his gut.
Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage -- with great patience and careful instruction.
-- 2 Timothy 4:2