Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Listening to the Little Guy

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


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I'm training for Church leadership in the UK at the moment and it really spoke to me. Keep up the good work.

Rong said...

My senior pastor just related the other week that when he's met someone for the first time and the question of what he does for a living comes up he says he can guarantee the next question will be how big is your church. That question just drives him nuts, not because he pastors a congregation of 350 but because in our culture, tiny equates to less significance, which means you must not be that good.

Jared said...

Anonymous, you're welcome. And thank you for commenting.

Rong: I hear ya.
The guy I consider my mentor-pastor left the "big" church where he was a student minister and I was in his youth group about 14 years ago to plant a church in the same city. (I later served as his student minister there.) I moved to Nashville, but he's still there, still pastoring faithfully. They're not big but they're steady and healthy and I'd put their conversion rate up against any of the megachurches in the area.

Yet whenever anyone from the former church asks me how he is, and I say he's doing well, the next question is always, "How many is he running?"

14 freakin' years later! And they're still interested in how many he's got in attendance. I always just laugh.

Philip said...

Awesome, awesome, awesome.

I wish you could turn this post into a book. I'd buy it. :)

Everything you said here is true. No buts. ;-)

dle said...

The little guy will be there when you need him, too.

Thanks for recognizing the little guy.

Rob said...

Dittos. The one thing I would add is that 150 isn't a small church; it's not big either, obviously, but it's large enough to be different in character from what you're talking about. In the typical category system, it's no longer a "Pastoral"-sized church, it's a "Program"-sized church. The greatest pastors I know are guys who've spent their careers in churches of 50 or 60--the sort of church where, for instance, you have one musician, and if they're sick, you all sing a capella.

Les Puryear said...

As a small church advocate, I am enormously pleased to read this post.

Paul Wilkinson said...

The good news for pastors of the mega-sized, top 100 churches is that speaking to and leading a crowd that size is, on a human level, a real buzz.

The bad news is that this same buzz may constitute "having your reward already."

But there's also the element whereby the small(er) church pastor is "in your face" during the week, and involved in the lives of your fellow parishioners, and thereby earns the right to be heard on Sunday morning.

The CEO pastor has no such human contact during the week except with the church's executive branch and the few e-mails that sneak through.

Day by day said...

Hi Jared

This is most certainly true.

Interestingly No. 1 Influencial Church was Willow Creek Church with Bill Hybels who has now repented for what they have been doing in leaving out all Biblical terminology and making the church more world friendly.

See blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2007/10/willow_creek_re.html

Please see my site day-by-day-care.blogspot.com/2008/03/top-100-churches.html

Jared said...

Day by Day, thanks for the comment.

I think you should review the coverage of the story. Hybels and Willow Creek have not characterized their "discovery" as repentance, and we ought to be careful that we do not borrow Christianity Today's language to characterize it. In fact, Hybels and Co. have issued a rejoinder saying in fact they are not "repenting" of anything.

They have admitted mistakes and are going back to the drawing board. I don't recall either CT or Willow saying the mistakes amounted to leaving out the Bible or being world friendly.
I think we need to keep our facts straight, lest we perpetuate an urban legend about the situation.