The Power of Small

The following is a column I wrote for the St. Albans Messenger. I hope it is encouraging to you whether or not you are part of the Georgia Plain Baptist Church family. 


A member of our church recently returned from visiting family out of state. There, he attended a large church, complete with a parking crew, a loud worship band, and auditorium seating. When he relayed what the experience was like, he said with a smile that he sure was glad to get back to his little country church in Georgia.

The timing was uncanny, because I had just returned from a conference for Vermont pastors all about rural, small town ministry. It was called a “Small Town Summit” (smalltownsummits.com). I joined two other Franklin County pastors: Jason McConnell, of Franklin and East Franklin United Church, and B.J. Walters of Redeeming Grace Church in Georgia. The Summit’s goal was to gather rural pastors for encouragement and networking, to talk about the value of “ministering a great big gospel in small and forgotten places.”

Vermont is a small, often forgotten place. We have the second smallest population in the U.S. (after Wyoming). We usually make small headlines. We are a land dotted with small towns, small schools, and small churches.

The rest of our country (and world) is quickly moving in the opposite direction. In 2007, for the first time in our nation’s history, more people lived in urban areas than in rural ones. By 2050, only 30% of the U.S. population will inhabit small towns, while 70% will be in urban and suburban settings (in 1950, 70% were rural and 30% urban).

Many of us live in Vermont precisely because of its smallness. We love being out of the spotlight, away from the hustle and bustle. But in the wider culture, rural areas are forgotten and despised. We don’t have much of what the world values: cultural influence, wealth, or political power. How many people in Manhattan know or care about places like Richford or Fletcher?

Unfortunately, the same attitude has crept into the church. For decades, with the growth of the megachurch movement, small places have been overlooked, even despised. Since small places have less influence on culture, they were less strategic to reach, and had less of a return on investment of resources. For pastors, there’s a temptation to see a small country church as a “starter church” on the way to something bigger and better. For members of small churches, it can be tempting to think, “If only we had bigger attendance, a bigger budget, a bigger building, then we would have something to offer.”

But maybe that is all wrong.

It turns out that the gospel Christians believe exemplifies the power of small. If the story were not so familiar to us, it would seem ridiculous. Jesus was born in a stable and grew up with poor parents in a backcountry village. (“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” [John 1:46]). Jesus had only a handful of disciples. They had no property, no wealth, no political power. And when Jesus was crucified, it looked like a complete failure. What kind of strategy is that?

Likewise, God's love for small things is extravagant—even wasteful. He is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go recover one that is lost (Luke 15:1-7). He throws extravagant parties for people who don’t deserve it (Luke 15:11-27). He gave his Son to die for people who can never repay him.

As one of the presenters at our conference said, “God does not disdain what is small.” On the contrary, he esteems it. His kingdom starts like a mustard seed (Matt 13:31-32), and in his economy, two pennies offered in love are more than a thousand dollars given for show (Mark 12:41-44).

The power of small is built into the very way God works and saves. Therefore, if you are a member of a small church, know that God has powerful work to do through you. It may not look flashy, strategic, or impressive, but it is eternally important. Embrace the power of small. 

A poem for the Jacob in all of us

Last Sunday we talked about how God wants to break the back of our self-reliance so that we can trust him. The truth is, as one writer Eugene Peterson said it, "The Kingdom of self is heavily defended territory." Sometimes we, like Jacob, need God's violence against our sinful nature so that we can surrender to him. This 400 year-old poem is by a man, John Donne, who knew that experience well.  It can take some work to make sense of the language, but it's well worth it.

Batter my heart, three person’d God (Holy Sonnet 14)
John Donne, 1572 - 1631
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
 

Try Church

The following is a column I wrote for the St. Albans Messenger's "Faith and Community" page. If you are reading this here, chances are you are already participating in the life of our church. I still hope this is encouraging to you. If you aren't part of our church (or any church), this is written especially for you.

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For many of us, the new year brings fresh energy and resolve to make life changes. Maybe you got a membership to Planet Fitness. Maybe you set a career goal like higher sales numbers, a promotion, or continuing education.

But let me suggest another resolution that, I believe, will have long-lasting benefits reaching into every part of your life: go to church. Here are three things I believe you (and I) need that the church has:

1.       Relationships. Our culture has overdosed on individualism. Church has the antidote. To some degree in every church, you will find community. Not just an affinity group, but real community: people from different walks of life with whom you find unexpected kinship. People to share your sorrows and celebrate your joys. People who challenge you and people who annoy you. People who show up with their truck when you move and with soup when you’re sick. In short, family. That’s why writers of the New Testament call fellow Christians “brother and sisters.” If you are feeling lonely or disconnected, you need the church. If your life revolves around your nuclear family, you need the church. You need the rich relationships that a church provides.

2.       Something bigger than yourself. What draws all these different people together? One word for it is a “metanarrative.” That is, a story that makes sense of all reality, including our own lives. For Christians, this metanarrative is the story the Bible tells—that a good God created us to love and be loved, that we have all gone horribly wrong, and that God came into history in the person of Jesus Christ to make us right again. The church has been the keeper and proclaimer of this story through history. In the act of gathering each week to sing, pray, and listen to the Bible, we remember that we are part of something much bigger than our own lives. And this, we believe, is the key to a healthy, flourishing life.

3.       Opportunities to serve. While there are many organizations through which to volunteer your time and talent, the church is unique because it is more than a service organization. It is a school for love. As we remember how God has sacrificially loved us, we learn to love others (1 John 4:19). Therefore, service in and through the church transcends volunteerism; it is soul-formation. And, paradoxically, as we learn to give ourselves away for others, we discover more about ourselves. Whether your gift is teaching, building, music, administration, encouraging, praying, giving, or something else, your gift is needed in the church.

As a pastor, I talk to people almost every week who tell me things like, “I’ve been meaning to get back to church, but life is too busy,” or, “I went to church when I was younger, but then I drifted away.”

There are many reasons people don’t go to church. What’s yours? Maybe you just don’t believe. Why not give the story of the Bible another hearing? Maybe you left church because you were hurt by people in the church. Why not give people another try? Maybe you think that you have many more important things to do on a Sunday morning. I suggest that you reconsider.

I know I’ve painted a pretty glowing picture. As a pastor, I can tell you that the church rarely lives up to her ideals. The church will disappoint you, and you will find plenty of evidence that people are not perfect. Yet this is exactly the reason we need the church so much. At its best, it is a place where broken people like you and me can find a greater love. 

So, for your sake, try church. And maybe in the process you will realize that it’s about something much bigger than yourself.

 

Thoughts on my Ordination

On Sunday, November 19th, I was ordained to pastoral ministry by Georgia Plain Baptist Church and the American Baptist Churches of Vermont and new Hampshire. Here are some reflections on that experience and what it means for us. 

  • It was about me. I admit this somewhat uncomfortably, as I don't enjoy being the center of attention. Yet the church was full of people who recognized my calling, have supported my ministry, and prayed for me to be empowered by the Spirit. Sunday was a time for me simply to receive that support, affirmation, and prayer. I was grateful and humbled for all who attended to support me--from our church, from my family, and from the community.
  • It was about you, the church. Pastors are called to a church, a specific body of believers. Just as it took many people from the church to host the event itself, it has taken this church as a whole to raise me up as a pastor. On Sunday we celebrated God's work in our church. And the reason I was ordained to ministry is to "equip God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Ephesians 4:11-12). As a "minister," my job is not to do the ministry but to teach and equip you, the church, to do the work of ministry.
  • It was about God. One of the most powerful parts of the service last Sunday for me was our songs of praise. We raised the roof with praises to our awesome God, and in so doing we remembered that we exist for His glory alone. Another powerful part of the service for me was the laying on of hands and prayer. As I knelt on the floor, with leaders laying their hands on me and the congregation stretching out their hands toward me, I believe that something actually happened in our church and in me. God's Spirit filled me in a new way for service to His people. It's all about God. 
  • Other thoughts:
    • For all others who played a part in the service, from setup, to greeting, to running the sound and video, to reading--thank you! And the Social Committee did an awesome job with the reception!
    • No, you don't need to call me Reverend Smith! Although I am a "Rev" on paper, my role is still a pastor to this church.

To God be the glory.