Well, it’s midnight and I have to get up early for church tomorrow morning, but I know that with these thoughts racing through my mind, I’ll never get to sleep until I write them down. My first mistake, when I laid in bed, was to reminisce about the good old days at my “little” church in Elyria, OH.
I started thinking about how, on most Sundays, I was the only one in my church who was in middle school or in high school. (So obviously, with me being the only one, my church did not have a youth “group”, which by definition would require that there be more than one). So, while I was laying there in bed thinking about my non-existent youth group, I started remembering my teachers – or rather, there is only one teacher that I can truly remember, Mr. Sturgill. I don’t know how long he taught me, but it was a long time.
And then, it dawned on me. Mr. Sturgill showed up to church week after week, year after year, to teach Sunday School for one person. He taught me and only me. And now with that thought in my head, I began to cry. Why would he do that? Why would he show up Sunday after Sunday, year after year, just to teach me? Where was the glory in that? He gained no notoriety for it, no applause, and hardly anyone knew of his faithfulness. He didn’t even have any curriculum to teach from, just his Bible. And yet every Sunday, he would open up his Bible, place it on the little podium at the front of the classroom, and simply teach me.
There were no youth group trips, no games of Sardines in the dark with my friends, no laser tag or trips to Cedar Point, no youth group “crushes”, no treats like popcorn or candy, and definitely no comfy couches to sit on, just cold, gray folding chairs in a plain classroom within sight of preschoolers and elementary kids and within earshot of the crying babies down the hallway. I know some of you who grew up differently, or have different expectations from a church, probably find this ministry style to be horrifying and perhaps even torturous for a such a young soul. But, I don’t think so.
As I look back, I wouldn’t change it. I’m glad I didn’t have a youth group. I learned to love church for the plainness of what it was, I developed a passion for the Word of God, and it was demonstrated to me time and time again that Jesus should be first and foremost in my life. I understood that being part of the church required sacrifice and obedience, therefore I viewed my attendance as simply being an act of worship. Maybe that’s why singing hymns all the time never really bothered me. Worship was bigger than music. Going to church was a time when I laid my wants and desires at the door because I knew it was all about the fact that God wanted me to be there. It wasn’t about hanging out with my friends, or having a good time, it was a place where I could be a part of a family, that included both young and old alike, and it was a place where I was never overlooked or forgotten about … whether I liked it or not.
I am humbled at how my little church invested in me. Not only was Mr. Sturgill faithful in his teaching, but every summer, he and his wife would pay for and drive me to Skyview Baptist Ranch for that “youth group” experience I was missing at church. Every Sunday morning, Mr. and Mrs. Crawford would leave extra early so they could pick me and my mom up for church and then often take us out to McDonald’s afterwards. Mr. and Mrs. Greenwood would let me babysit their son so that me and my mom would have a little extra cash. And, when my mom had mental breakdowns at church, they would all just love on me even more. I didn’t have to be embarrassed at church. I trusted them because I knew everyone in my church and they knew me. Church was a place of stability for me, which was especially important for my spiritual development.
I know some of the more skeptical of you are thinking, “But if the church isn’t growing, it must not be thriving, right?” That’s where you’re wrong. Just because the church’s numbers aren’t increasing, doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s work isn’t getting done (And notice that I said “God’s” work, not “ours”.) I’m pretty sure that, for the most part, we all shared our faith in our private lives. In fact, even though I didn’t set out to try and evangelize my public school, I’d be surprise if there was anybody I knew in high school who didn’t know I was a Christian.
Our goal wasn’t ever to “grow” our little church, but rather to grow the universal church which includes all believers. I don’t remember ever advertising ourselves exclusively as the place to be on Sunday mornings. Instead, we simply advertised Christ, and the Bible in which Christ is found, in our personal lives and from the pulpit. It may not have been planned out, but our actions declared, “Don’t look at us, look at HIM!”
When I was in Jr. High School, I was given the opportunity to lead a young girl to Christ. That young girl soon became my best-friend. She then shared the gospel with her boyfriend, and then her boyfriend shared the gospel with his best friend. (And knowing my friend’s propensity for evangelism, I’m sure she has shared her faith with hundreds more since then.) They never truly called my little church their church home, but they did come with me once and a while toward the end of High School and they even went to camp with me one year. We weren’t an organized youth group, but we went to Cedar Point once and awhile, we listened to a lot of Christian “rock”, we talked about God on a regular basis and we even planned our own lock-in at the church one time. So, eventually, I did have a youth group, but it wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter, and for all intents and purposes, my friend’s new found faith in Christ didn’t grow my little church in the least bit, but these new believers were definitely fruit of that body of believers.
I’m not saying that our church was perfect. I know that we were far, far, far from it. But one thing I do know, human nature is human nature, and it doesn’t matter how good our intentions are, we will always be sinful whether we participate in a little church or in a big church. People, including Christians, are weak, so the further a church strays from the boundaries of God’s Word and His design for the local body of Christ, the more likely we will trip over our own sinful desires. When this happens, the focus of meeting together as a church could simply become enjoyment instead of sacrifice, a time of self-glorification instead of worship, and a time of competitiveness instead of a time for unity.
I am not saying this to condemn anyone or any church, or to act like I know people’s motives, but rather to point the finger at myself. I have been guilty of all three of those things. I have worked towards creating church environments that feel more like a vacation, rather than obedience. I have longed for visitors to be “wowed” by their first-time experience at my church and have often been embarrassed when it didn’t quite meet those standards. And, deep down, I wanted my church to be the best church on the block. Ashamedly, I admit, I have come a long way from the little church I once knew.
But, what does it take to be a “Little” church? (Now when I say “Little”, I’m not referring to size, though I do believe smaller can definitely be better in God’s economy.) Rather, I am referring to an attitude of thinking of ourselves as being little and of Jesus as being BIG. Consider this passage from John 3:22-29 with me:
“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison). 25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Our natural instinct is to increase, but John is thrilled that His ministry is decreasing because it meant that Jesus’ was increasing. He’s saying, “Don’t look at me, look at Him!” For those of us in full-time ministry we all long to SEE success and we want our ministries to flourish (especially if our paychecks depend on it!), but God knows that most of us are too weak for that. More often than not, it goes to our head. For people who struggle, like I do, our mission must be to decrease. For, it is only when we decrease that we truly become useful for kingdom purposes. We become merely a stepping stone, squashed underfoot by those making their way to Christ. It is taking on the role of humility, and not self-platitude, that helps people see Jesus and not us. Remember, our church is not the destination. Jesus is.
“Lord, make me a faithful stepping stone that no one ever sees!”
How would the church in America change if we all thought that way and were no longer driven by worldly schemes but rather by Christ revealed in the Word of God? Like I said, I’m not trying to put anyone down. I guess I’m just wondering out loud and questioning my own philosophy of ministry. I’m not trying to start quarrels, just dialogue.
Maybe we can all agree that we only know in part, and we must constantly be in a state of learning and seeking His will. Could we also agree that there is not a cookie-cutter approach to accomplishing the things of God? We all know that the Holy Spirit is too dynamic for that. And most importantly, I think that we can all agree that it can’t be about us. It has to be about Him.
A friend of mine recently stated to me that he didn’t like it when we said “My Church”. I was puzzled and asked him “Why?” He then looked at me as if the answer was obvious and said, “It’s His.” Oh… right… Wow, did I feel foolish. How could I have forgotten that? So now, I keep reminding myself, God loves the church more than I do …. God love the church more than I do …. and sometimes the best thing I can do is just get out of the way and let Him do His thing. I must decrease and He must INCREASE!
… o.k. it’s 4 a.m. … I really need to go to bed now