December 3, 2020

iMonk Classic: No Big Thing

King Wenceslas

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From December, 2007

I want to start this post with a quote from a typical ambitious evangelical church that wants to grow. Get big. Add lots of people. Become “mega.” Get the crowds and their kids in the doors.

But I’ve decided not to insult you. If you don’t know the vast majority of American Christianity is about churches getting bigger, and bigger…and bigger if possible, then where are you? Iceland? Mars?

Then I want to tell you what a friend is doing this week. He’s in Hurricane Katrina country, building houses. He’s with a group of Christians that moved down there after the hurricane and planted a church. The thing is, this church doesn’t have a building and all the usual church programs. They don’t have that single-minded church growth ambition focus. They are different. These Christians are basically building houses, cleaning up, rebuilding. They are a servant church. “Missional” for those of you who can say that and think good thoughts.

They’ve come into the ruins and incarnated Jesus, the carpenter, by serving and loving the homeless. They build and repair houses. The reputation of Jesus in that community is not displayed on a neon sign, but in the finished houses and tears of those who will live in them.

Those Christians are a different kind of church. A footwashing, gospel-living, Kingdom-embodying, incarnational movement of Jesus followers.

I’ve got a prediction: They never will be big.

Not with goals, attitude and actions like that. They won’t ever have to worry about where to put the crowds or how to finance a worship center to seat the thousands and thousands who want to worship with them.

There are a lot of churches and ministries that won’t ever get very big. Here in the mountains we have what we use to call “Baptist Centers.” Little “social ministry” operations, aimed at mercy ministry for the poor. Ours around here is called the “Friendship House.” We give away clothes to poor people in the community. Sometimes we give away food. We don’t ask any questions. That ministry won’t ever need to worry about stadium seating. Or replacing the audio-visual gear before next year’s Christmas pageant.

In a large city in our state, there’s a mission downtown that’s ministered to the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill for many years. They’ve got better facilities than they did twenty years ago, but never enough resources for the need. They could use better facilities, but they won’t be moving to the suburbs any time soon. Like most ministries of their kind, they use a lot of volunteers. few people are paid. Except for those holiday groups and the occasional youth group doing a project, it’s usually a bare bones crew serving the meal and handing out the blankets.

They’ll never become “mega.” Success in today’s evangelical success race will completely allude them.

It’s that way with ministries all around you. The ones that shelter homeless people. The “rescue missions.” The battered women’s shelter. The facilities providing care for Alzheimer’s families. The outreaches to build houses for the poor and to try to repair substandard houses in Appalachia. The volunteer crisis pregnancy centers. The literacy programs. The “Help” programs that provide assistance with utilities.

They will never become some “big church” featured on the local news. You’ll probably never hear about them unless some celebrity stops in or it’s a VERY slow news day on local media.

These ministries and missions are almost always small while their sponsoring churches are big. The crowds are at the pageants, not at the weekly meal for the homeless. The churches are full. The ministries in the darkness, on the streets, in the mountains, on the reservations, in the poor neighborhoods…they’re small. So small you can miss them if you don’t know about them.

Most of them have no budget for publicity. They aren’t on Christian radio asking for money. No billboards. No golf tournaments. They aren’t getting Joel Osteen’s and Joyce Meyer’s 100 million dollars a year. To be honest, many don’t know if they will be open six months from now. Their staffs aren’t making six figures or driving a Lexus. Those who loyally serve at those ministries long ago got used to getting by on whatever second hand donations of money and goods show up. They depend on God to see what happens. They can’t make it happen otherwise.

They are no big thing. In fact, for many of these small, unglamorous ministries, there is a kind of invisibility, even locally. They aren’t competing for young families with the church across town by adding another kickin’ band. They aren’t working on how to appear hip, cool and relevant. They are trying to hammer a nail, keep a drunk off the street, save some children, hand out some blankets and food. They are trying to do justice and show mercy. They are always walking humbly with God compared to the rest of us.

Of course, one day, you’ll know all about them.

One day, they will be a big thing. On that day when Jesus comes to reveal his Kingdom, there won’t be any way to miss these ministries and the people who keep them going. He’ll make sure of that.

The one for whom there was no room in the inn, the one from forgotten Nazareth, the one with the unwed mother, the one whose infant skin was covered with straw and rags in a stable, the one who had no place to lay his head, the one who was the poor, the cold, the naked and the imprisoned. He will remember those ministries. I assure you.

You might consider dropping in on one of those ministries sometime. They do have one thing many big churches don’t have.

Or, to be more precise, they do have someone many big churches don’t have. And he’s not generated on a big screen or via special effects.

He’s the one I hope we’re all looking for. He’s not so hard to find, even if, in this world, he’s no big thing. Just think like Jesus, and you’ll find the way.


  1. Good article…..I really enjoyed the read. I liked what it said about mega chruches. On top of growing a mega church I would also add the church planting craze that is popular with many fundagelicals to the list of concerns as that is big also. When I attended the fundagelcial mega church kingdom in the Washington, D.C. area known as McLean Bible their church growth and plantation craze led me to email the pastor and ask a simple question.

    “Given the division in Christianity today why can’t McLean Bible partner with some churches in an area, dedicate resources and focus on unity? Instead of launching another church…why not partner with a Presyberterian, Methodist, etc..?” The answer I got back was that they are committed to a Biblical truth. So they have a corner on truth whereas other Christians are in heresy…

    Three years ago before things spiritually melted for me, I heard of a situation that was quite amazing that I think demonstrates the “I have a corner on truth and you are in heresy” line of thinking. In the Ballston/Clarendon area of northern Virginia outside Washington, D.C. a Presyberterian chruch launched a chruch plant, as did Sovereign Grace and another fundagelcial church which name is escapng me at the moment. Three new church plants all within a block of each other….isn’t that lovely? According to fundagelical theology 2 or the 3 don’t have a storng Biblcial emphesis or are not reformed enough. So another fundy church needs to be started (Eagle rolls eyes….)

    A few nights ago I checked Facebook and saw a fundagelcial mega chruch pastor that I knew is now invovled in planting an Acts 29 church in the northern Virginia area. (Oh goody more Mars Hill clones to draw people to the DC area to wage the culture war at ground zero!!!) So I posted the following on his Facebook wall….

    “Here’s the theological end state for fundementalism. 1 million plus churches each convinced they have a corner on truth and each other one is in heresy. Meanwhile the God they claim to love they ignore by causing more division. As such they basically give Jesus the middle finger and move forward with pride. An additional question Justin as part of the Acts 29 network, are you going to reprise Mark Driscoll’s take on SOS? Even down to the part where he talks about how b*** j**s are Biblical? If so I’ll stay agnostic….”

    I just don’t get it…

    Menawhile people are hurting, lonely, confused, in pain, etc… This is the time of year where mental health crisis soar. People are more likely to commit suicide and the holidays hit people hard when they go through their first Christmas without their lost relative, brother, wife, etc… In many cases many people are still mourning. Often these poeple are ignored by many fundagelicals who view them as disposable. When you make success and marriage an idol (Thank you James Dobson….) those who don’t fit into that formula have no place in many parts of today’s Christianity. But there are some who Mike Spencer alludes to who will show them love. I think I could maybe have faith in Christinaity in the former, not the latter were involved and those who bask in the attention learned to exit from the stage.

    BTW.. Chaplin Mike… thanks for your stories of service, love and being a hospice chaplin. I wish more Christians saw things from your perspective. I really do….if they did, I might actually have some hope….

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In the Ballston/Clarendon area of northern Virginia outside Washington, D.C. a Presyberterian chruch launched a chruch plant, as did Sovereign Grace and another fundagelcial church which name is escapng me at the moment. Three new church plants all within a block of each other….isn’t that lovely?

      Just like the dot-com boom where you had hundreds of dot-com startups crowding into a niche market that could only support one or two. THEY KILLED EACH OTHER OFF THROUGH SHEER NUMBERS.

      An additional question Justin as part of the Acts 29 network, are you going to reprise Mark Driscoll’s take on SOS? Even down to the part where he talks about how b*** j**s are Biblical…

      Menawhile people are hurting, lonely, confused, in pain, etc… This is the time of year where mental health crisis soar. People are more likely to commit suicide and the holidays hit people hard when they go through their first Christmas without their lost relative, brother, wife, etc… In many cases many people are still mourning.

      And the Constant Forced Cheerfulness of The Season just makes it worse. I know I’m usually depressed this time of year; for me, The Holidays are to be Endured, not Enjoyed.

    • I’m currently attending an Acts 29 network church, and I have never heard any of the pastors speak from the pulpit or in private about sex the way Driscoll apparently does. I think there would be a revolt if they did and I would be one of the ones who would revolt. But I am uncomfortable with some of the people who feel the need to engage in PDAs during services, and wish sometimes that subject would be addressed.

      This is not to excuse the Acts 29 network in all areas, though. Before our church became affliated with them, we used to be much more ecumenical in our approach to church life. Since then a somewhat more dogmatic spirit seems to have prevailed. So I do think work needs to be done in that area. But I did want to make clear that Driscoll’s gender/sex idiosyncrasies are not reflective of all Acts 29 pastors.

      I will also add that the last church I attended, a huge non-denominational, non-charismatic megachurch, did try to help out existing churches in addition to church planting and starting new campuses. They started a fund to help struggling churches around our city, both new and old. They helped a new non-denominational charismatic church in another suburb, a black Church of Christ in the inner city, and an old but tiny Southern Baptist congregation in a “hip” urban neighborhood.

      • WMC…you should read this….

        I’m torn and trying to figure out if I can go to a chrch and lay out my doubts, sin, and be honest about myself without getting singed. I don’t believe like I once believed about god, and I was so burned from prior experineces I’m actually frightened of churches.

        But for me there is a list I am compiling that has to be met. If the church is a part of the SBC, Gospel Coalition, Sovereign Grace Ministry, or Acts 29, I’ll pass…as those are not healthy organizations….

        I’m torn on the General Baptist Conference becuase it has both Greg Boyd and John Piper. But I do respect Greg Boyd…

        Then there are the other issues which I don’t want to rear their ugly head. Young earth creationism, end times theology, lists with a faith based formula, etc..

        So I don’t know….

        • Would you consider Redeemer in NYC (Tim Keller’s church)?

          • Rick,

            I would have to do extensive research and look into it. The days of going to church and taking it on faith (even those who claim who they are and what they are associated with) are over for me. I’ve had plenty of religious experiences to give me pause and lead me to ask…is this a place I would want to get involved with? However, if a church is “reformed” I’d rather have a catheter inserted then pop up and drink the kool-aide.

            So the reformed emphasis would give me pause, but I would have to see who they are affiliated with? Which Christian organizations do they support? What is the theological background of the pastoral staff there? Also what type of crowd are they attracting both in the church and in the academic arena? Are people who deal with alcohol, spiritual burnout, divorce, homosexuality, etc.. welcome there? Or is the Bible used to beat the &*^% out of them? In an academic sense who does Tim Keller hang out with? If he’s buddy buddy with Albert Mohler or John Piper that will give me immediate pause as well.

            I’ve drunk enough kool-aide in “Christianity” and don’t intend on drinking anymore. The bottom line is that I have more questions and doubts than certainty. Would they tolerate someone who had more doubt, and picks apart things in his mind, and is trying to figure things out? Many places will say so on paper, but try doing that in a Bible study, or Sunday school; and you’ll get a different reaction.

          • Eagle-

            I hear where you are coming from.

            Keller is reformed, has hung out with Piper, but he is also widely respected outside those circles. He pastors a very diverse congregation in Manhattan.

            Although there are not necessarily many local congregations in many areas that would fit your liking, a growing number are paying attention to those advocating what you mentioned. Many pastors are listening to and readying Scot McKnight (The Jesus Creed blog and books), N.T. Wright, Keller, etc…, and adapting their views into the teaching and preaching of the local church.

          • Rick-

            I do have a couple close Christian friends that I engage with. One of them is reading JI Packer “Knowing God” with me. We get together and discuss this in the Washington, D.C. area. We’ve also discussed a wide range of other issues that trouble me, to include:

            1. The problem of evil (Why does a loving, omniscient God allow a 6 year old to be molested and killed?)
            2. Salvation and those who never hear the Gospel. (What happens to someone living in Wuhan, China in 200 BCE? Do they end up in hell for not having salvation in Jesus?)
            3. How can one have faith in the current Christian climate. Can one be a Christian and believe in evolution, science, etc…? How can one avoid the ugly issues of YEC, or End Times theology.
            4. How can Christians relate to the world and do it outside of a political, or “us” vs. “them” context.
            5. How do you deal with spiritual burnout?
            6. How should sin be handled? The ‘victorious life” doesn’t work and there’s a huge disconnect between what is taught vs. how life goes. How is someone to deal with sin. Instant transformation leads to dishonesty. I found Christianity to be discouraging because everyone was “perfect” and no one had problems. Is it possible that god allows a person to struggle with alcohol, marriage, pride, money, porn, etc.. for a reason? The instant..”IT’S FIXED” mentality is overwhelming. The gospel of “behavior modification” doesn’t work in real life.
            7. How does one handle difficult passages, or discrepancies in the Bible? The Bible is not some nice, neat book. Its hard, has lots of problems and is quite difficult. There are many things the Bible won’t tell you or me, contrary to the way many people approach it.
            8. How can one be a Christian and divorce the American culture, including the prosperity gospel, etc.. from faith?

            Those are some of the issues

            You’ll be happy to know that I figured out the problem of Adam and original sin, and why you, or I, or HUG, CM, or Rebeka Grace are sinful. It was kind of like an a-ha moment. I posted about it on the Saturday Ramblings. Basically I think the gospel is being masculinzed and that it is affecting sin by redefining it. It assumes that man could have prevented sin by guiding and leading a women successfully in the Garden of Eden. So after 3 years I solved a problem that was kicking my butt. No if I can get the other issues resolved in some manner. 🙂

            The problem of evil is a huge barrier for me. Its been hard to discuss in many evangelical circles.

          • Rick I also posted about this on December 15 on Jeff Dunn’s post on “Christianity in Crisis”

          • Eagle-

            Thanks for directing me to those posts/comments. Good stuff.

            Keep asking the questions. Nothing is wrong with that.

            Also, I think you are right on with the “behavior modification” and how many approach Scripture problems. I am excited to see many encouraging people (IMonk for example) revisit those issues and how they can hinder the faith.

            “Knowing God” is a great book! It is one that I have gone back to time and time again.

            I hope the monastary here will help you on your journey, and I recommend Keller’s “Reason for God” in regards to many of those questions you have.

            Likewise, many of those questions you have come up regularly at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog (coincidentally it is linked to here on today’s new post). He and the other writers (one is a scientist who holds to evolution) deal with many of those issues you bring up on a daily basis. Good stuff.

          • Eagle…..what do YOU think about looking at some of the older, more liturgical churches, such as Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox? I am NOT recruiting, but I think many of your questions might find some resolution in these faith expressions. Mystery, suffering, science supporting faith, salvation to those unaware of Christ, sin and repenting, the contradictions in the Bible……all of these have some solid explanations that I (RC) can live with. No pressure, but just a thought of where to look. You know that God is looking for YOU a million times harder than you are looking for Him. All this old lady can offer is what I know……..Hugs, Pat

    • Many true observations here about the evangelical scene. That aside, I want to echo that I, too, have been encouraged to see Chaplain Mike and other’s dedication to the principle of living out the gospel through plain, practical service to others. This is a reminder of the heart of the gospel–as opposed to all the other stuff I worry about. Thanks, all.

      I think there is always hope. Every generation contains so many people mucking things up, and no doubt I am a contributor to it all. But that is never the whole story.

  2. “Those Christians are a different kind of church. A footwashing, gospel-living, Kingdom-embodying, incarnational movement of Jesus followers.

    I’ve got a prediction: They never will be big.”

    so true! great post!

  3. Gee thanks, you made me cry this morning.

    God bless you, and the churches you pointed to this morning. They are the kind of folks that truly prove that Jesus is the reason for the season.

  4. Yes I cried also. For US. How did we get it so wrong??

  5. Rebekah Grace says

    Oftentimes I find myself in a collision of sorts……any attempt to “fit in” and the collision is obvious…..deep in my soul and heavy on my heart. The old legalistic devil on my shoulder tells me that it’s because I’m not cut out for this journey, that it’s really not for me, “After all, you ran off once, you’ll do it again!” It’s as if the culture around me screams one thing and my heart desires another……..what do you do with that? The Christian culture and all it’s pull, isn’t that the way, the truth and the life? (she said with slight sarcasm).

    And then I read this and I know this is where the collision comes from…’s this that I want. Not the culture…..but the Life.

  6. The rush to get on to the next big blog post while ones which we should ruminate on disappear from the front page strikes me as much along the same lines of the rush onward to grow, to get big, to add more and more people…err hits.

    • This is the one thing that troubles me about this site. When there are two or three posts a day, sometimes one will strike me especially deeply. It takes me a day or two or three to sort my thoughts out to reply, but by that time, two or four or six more posts have been posted and nobody is reading the old posts.

      Could the site owners provide a link to “Recent Comments” on the front page? I know WordPress offers that widget.

      Otherwise, I’ll have to make my own blog of “Reflections on InternetMonk posts”. We really don’t want that to happen.

      • DebD, there is a link on the lower right, “Comments RSS” that works, more or less. I usually have to refresh it as soon as it comes in, though… And it shows fewer comments on my wife’s Mac than on my PC… And it’s not completely reliable… For example, I just tried to find a comment that I posted this afternoon without success. Several others from this afternoon, and then it skips back four or five days (!). But aside from that it’s useful… 🙂

    • Michael Snow,

      Knowing the authors of this blog, I do not share your cynicism. I view this blog as a conversation. bringing up important topics, some popular, others not. As a conversation, it tends to come back to important themes while continuing to promote not just the “next big blog post”, but other items that people need to read as well. Note the Sunday emphasis on the readings of the day. Not well commented on, but Internet Monk, still continues to be commited to them.