December 13, 2018

No Big Thing

a_soup_kitchen2.jpgI 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 arge 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.

Comments

  1. Been reading Matthew 25:31-46 again, haven’t you–or many similar passages? Our suburban UMC just started a food pantry which has blessed those needing help, as well as those helping. Our Lord has much for us to do no matter where we are.

    By the way, weather played havoc with our scheduled choir cantata today, so we depended on the Holy Spirit to lead us–always a good thing to do. Among other things, I read Isaiah 35, then shared your post on Advent, which people listened to intently. At one service, a school teacher told how that he’d mentioned a family in severe need in his S.S. class and raised over $800 for them on a day when we had a fraction of our people present. God is good!

  2. The “No Big Thing” is our Lord leading the “Church” outside the walls and into the streets. That’s where we need to be. Not to discourage those in the system churches or behind the walls, Jesus is there too, but the call to put the “hands” and “eyes” and “feet” of Jesus today into action is clear. This world is clearly in need of the Church in action. There are many “No Big Things” happening around this country and the world today and the reason most are not aware of it is they are no big thing to the world. You said it in you’re statement “one day the world will know all about them”. Jesus is directing His Church!

  3. What a great post, Michael! Thanks for acknowledging and encouraging the unknown, invisible, barely-scraping-by missional Christian ministries of this world. It’s great to hear they’re not invisible to everyone…just most people…and that their work will not go unnoticed by One.

  4. Brother Michael —

    Thank you, from a couple of groups up Ohio way that fit your description; Waters Edge Ministry (http://www.watersedgeministry.org) and the Licking County Coalition for Housing (http://www.lcchousing.org). If you look at the website for LCCH, i’ll grant you we don’t wear the Kingdom on our sleeve (can you say “federal grants”? Sure, i knew you could), but we know why we’re here.

    Blessed Advent to all,
    Jeff

  5. Thanks for this, Michael. I’m a student starting an internship with a small Christian community-based ministry just like the kind you describe here. In my part of the world (west Michigan) it is very easy for truly “missional” ministries like mine and others to be drowned out by all the noise created by the market-driven church machine.

    Thank you for acknowledging the small, unpretentious hands and feet of Christ in our nation today.

  6. Michael,
    As always you get right to the heart of the matter. Thank you for your thoughtful insights into the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven'” (Mt 19:23).

    Blessings!

  7. I know you use qualifying remarks like ‘most’ and ‘not all’ in order to avoid disparaging big churches but your tone leaves no doubt that you have a stereotypical attitude towards them, yet how many have you visited for any length of time and learned exactly what, if anything, they are doing to help their communities or the world?

    My church is on the cusp of becoming one of those big churches with a 2500 seat auditorium being built right now yet we do a lot of the things you mentioned only being done by small groups. We’ve made a huge impact in our local community, the most recent project being a million dollar renovation of an inner city school aimed towards educating the children of single mothers and providing them with after school care as well. I dare say this project could only have been done by a church with our resources. We had the money and several hundred volunteers show up for several weeks in order to get it done.

    It’s also a bit telling that you mention good things being done by small groups, you mention the lack of good things being done by mega-churches but you fail to mention the thousands of small churches out there doing absolutely nothing for their communities. I’ve been an evangelical since I was baptised at 8 years old and have been a member of nothing but small to medium sized churches in several different states and none of them have come close to bringing Jesus to their local communities in the way that my current big church does. My church is getting big because of the good it’s doing, everyone wants to be a part of it.

    I would agree with you, though, in that big churches don’t seek growth for it’s own sake but as an by product of serving.

  8. 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.

    For every big shiny Starship Enterprise…

    In fact, for many of these small, unglamorous ministries, there is a kind of invisibility, even locally.

    …there are hundreds to thousands of little Fireflys and Serenitys making their rounds, completely under the radar.

  9. >I know you use qualifying remarks like ‘most’ and ‘not all’ in order to avoid disparaging big churches but your tone leaves no doubt that you have a stereotypical attitude towards them

    That’s a flying start. Despite my efforts to be fair, I’m still unfair. If you would like to make the case that the average megachurch in America is spending a million a year on renovating local schools, I’ll be glad to publish your piece.

    Not only do I not have a stereotypical attitude, I go and speak in large churches on behalf of our ministry all the time. Of course, the majority of volunteers and resources at our ministry is provided by small churches.

    I thought I was using the “they won’t be mega” line as a descriptive of our overall response to mercy ministries, not as a line saying big churches don’t do mercy ministries. Heck, half the reason big churches DON’T know about small ministries is they try to do everything themselves and have little interest in sharing resources with other churches.

    >It’s also a bit telling that you mention good things being done by small groups, you mention the lack of good things being done by mega-churches but you fail to mention the thousands of small churches out there doing absolutely nothing for their communities.

    OK. I’ll be sure and write a piece on how much small churches are failing to follow the outstanding example of big churches. Just make sure I don’t put any percapita stats in there, or your stereotype will have trouble staying afloat.

    I wish every big church was wonderful, and I am sure many of them are. Big churches have some great things going. But I will put my cards on the table: I think mega churches contain most of what’s wrong with evangelicalism in America, as well as some of what’s right. (And yes, many small churches are small and boring and selfish.)

    I don’t have time to reread this piece and see where it became a screed against large churches, but that was never my intention. Large churches can serve Jesus too. My suspicion is if they do, they won’t be big very long, but that’s just my opinion.

  10. Large churches can serve Jesus too. My suspicion is if they do, they won’t be big very long, but that’s just my opinion.

    As in there may be an optimum size, and if you keep trying to grow into a Megachurch you’ll go over it and suffer from becoming too large?

    And consider what happens to pastors of small churches (like under 100) who are under pressure to become Megachurches. To become what they are not. I know one who’s been told by his superiors that Every Church In Our Denomination WILL Become a Megachurch, and If You Can’t Grow Yours Into One, We’ll Replace You With Someone Who WILL!

  11. Josh Bridges says:

    Michael, bravo and amen. Nuff said.

  12. Ken, love the Firefly reference. Good one – definitely gets the point across!

  13. “Heck, half the reason big churches DON’T know about small ministries is they try to do everything themselves and have little interest in sharing resources with other churches.”

    This is very profound. It frustrates me that suburban megachurches feel they have to be the ones to go into “the ghetto” and start a ministry, when there are dozens of struggling ministries already in place – and most of the staff/volunteers actually LIVE in “the ghetto” – that the megachurch would do well to support financially and with volunteers, technical expertise, etc.

    The ministry I’m involved in is supported largely by the South Classis of the Reformed Church In America. I don’t see anything wrong with wealthy congregations sharing their money and talents with smaller ministries: it’s “give all you have to the poor” on a larger scale.