Embracing My Less than Spectacular Church
Ministry doesn’t have to be mega to matter.
– Daniel Darling
This insightful article on the value of a small church appeared in one of the recent Christianity Today family of publications.
For nearly nine years I was on senior staff at one of the largest evangelical churches in the suburbs of Chicago. We were highly organized, and prided ourselves on excellence in all of our ministry outreaches.
My drive to work every day was about 30 minutes, a commute that took me past many small churches, churches I then considered insignificant. As their tiny, sometimes run-down buildings sailed by, I would think, What’s the point of these churches? Is anything even happening there?
Turns out God had a way of shaking me loose of my mega church arrogance. In a poetic justice kind of way, I found myself pastoring one of “those churches,” the seemingly insignificant, small congregations where God, in my view, wasn’t at work.
It’s been five years and I’m still the senior pastor of a small church, a congregation that may never be profiled in leading evangelical publications, one that will probably never be held up as a model ministry for church planters and revitalizers. However, I don’t consider churches such as ours as insignificant anymore. Though God is still chiseling off my big-church pride, I realize just how important all churches are to Kingdom work.
Some have a bias against mega-churches. They see them as a symbol of everything that is wrong with today’s modern evangelical church. I don’t subscribe to this theory. And yet I have also disabused myself of the notion that unless a church is huge, the Spirit of God is absent.
I recently spoke to a longtime pastor in our area. He’s pastored large churches and small churches. Today he leads a midsize congregation. Among the valuable pieces of advice he gave me was this surprising caution. “Dan,” he said, “Watch yourself for ministry jealousy. If you read too many of the leading church growth and leadership books, you’ll slowly begin to feel that the work you are currently called to is somehow insignificant and even unworthy of God.”
This is sage advice, because I do find I have a tendency to grow discouraged after I’ve returned from a popular conference or after I’ve read the latest bestselling ministry tome. I think the discouragement comes from the knowledge that the church I now lead is not what it should be. In some ways this is healthy. Pastors must constantly be setting vision and moving their people beyond their level of comfort in fulfilling the Great Commission. On the other hand, too much exposure to the “successful” church models can breed a deep and paralyzing sense of jealousy. I think it fuels the wanderlust in pastors who, after a few difficult years, start searching for a more success-rich environment.
I’ve even been lectured by my wife, who after seeing my downcast spirit after a visit to a large church or after a conference will say to me, “If these events are going to get you more discouraged, you need to stop going.” In this way I’m tempted by ministry success like my children are tempted by things in the store they cannot have. I’ve learned, as a parent, that the more I parade my children up and down the aisles of stores whose shelves are lined with toys they cannot have, the more I have to fight their discontentment and envy. Small church pastors like me can make an idol of what we think ministry success looks like.
Where God dwells
Ultimately, ministry jealousy stems from a faulty view of God. During my time on staff at a large church, I mistakenly thought that God only worked through the most cutting edge, organized, streamlined ministries. It’s the same misguided view I carried into my experience pastoring a small church.
But Scripture tells us something far different. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, God often works through the “foolish” and “weak” things of this world. Abraham was an impotent pagan whom God raised up to father the nation of Israel. David was the least likely to succeed in his family and yet became King of Israel. Gideon was trembling in fear when the angel of the Lord called him a “mighty warrior.” Moses was well past his prime when he led the Israelites out of Egypt. The list goes on.
This is not to say we shouldn’t pray for big things to happen in our small churches. But the question is this: what do we consider big? For instance, this year we baptized eight people. For some mega churches, that’s the conversion rate of one small group in one weekend. But for these eight people in our congregation, it was a mighty work of God. Heaven’s chorus is no less triumphant over one soul than it is over thousands.
I think of the man who stumbled into our humble church a few months ago. His life had fallen apart. One of our elders led him to faith in Christ and this man’s faith has grown tremendously. Nowhere in his story will you hear anything about how streamlined our programs were or how slick our Sunday morning presentations are (because they are not). What he found in our church was a relationship with Jesus Christ. He found community. He is receiving the vital words of life from Scripture that are empowering his transformation.
God is still teaching me many things as a pastor, but perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned these last few years is a simple one. God isn’t only present at the churches that get all the headlines. He’s also present at the little, seeming insignificant, less-than-spectacular churches. And I’m OK with that.
– Daniel Darling is pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Visit him at DanielDarling.com