I forget which Henri Nouwen book it was – one of you reading this will know – but he wrote about how God most often works in ways contrary to the preferences of our culture. Nouwen specifically named our culture’s fascination with things big and fast and famous. In contrast, God’s kingdom comes in ways that are small and slow and hidden. The counter-intuitive methodology of the incarnation is a classic example. God decides to step into his creation, so why not make a huge splash? Why would he not bring his kingdom cataclysmically and get the job done? Why not go straight to the centre of the most extensive commonwealth on the planet, defeat the Emperor and take over the Roman Empire?
But no. God tends to approach things differently – starting with the small, the slow, the hidden. And Jesus tells parables about the mustard seed and the leaven in the lump of dough. Of course, that’s just the beginning. In the end, the small thing grows and becomes vast; the kingdom that commenced slowly will be consummated in a flash, like lightning across the sky when Jesus returns; every eye will see him and his fame and glory will be boundless. But where are we now? Are we basking in the joy of a job well done, the harvest in, the fruit of the church’s faithfulness becoming evident for all to see? Or have we slidden back to the beginning, having to start all over?
Even before this pandemic, there was a sense that the church in the West is facing a massive crisis. The big, fast and famous bubble of Christendom has been popped. Our influence and reputation is in tatters and we’re back at the beginning, in need of a way to rebuild credibility so we can get a hearing for the gospel among people who have ‘cancelled’ the church. Is ‘big’ going to work for us now? Before Covid, a few churches were having some success with running big gatherings that pulled in the curious. Most of us didn’t have the resources for that, and some of us who tried ended up with embarrassing and/or frustrating results. But apart from issues of reputational damage and shortage of the sort of resources necessary for a ‘big’ methodology, right now big gatherings are a public health risk and less likely than ever to be a potent way to either present the gospel to those far from God or to bring disciples to maturity in faith.
Big versus small is an important tension for us to think through at the moment. I heard Alan Hirsch say recently that missional leadership is like playing chess and it’s as if the queen has been taken off the board – the queen being our large Sunday gatherings. But he pointed out that that is how chess champions learn the game. They deliberately take their queen off the board in order not to depend on the most powerful piece and to learn how to use all the other pieces more effectively. Later, they replace the queen and then they can really play! I like that illustration because it affirms that the queen is good, but not essential. There are other pieces to play with.
So, in missional leadership currently, what are the other ‘pieces’? I suggest this is a time to emphasise the small, not as a quantifiable outcome but as a methodology by which we put most of our effort into doing little things well. In the past, we have favoured missional initiatives that we expect will impact the largest number of people possible. Now it’s time to experiment with many little adventures in mission, each of which may only impact a handful of people, or only one! I suggest putting less effort into corporate, ‘church gathered’ missional activities and more into individual ‘church scattered’ ones.
For the internal life of the faith community, a ‘small’ approach means, in part, lots of small gatherings: small groups, one-to-one mentoring partnerships, prayer clusters of 3 or 4 people and so on. Many more leaders are required for this approach so delegation and release of others will be essential. You may not be able to fully train people before they are released – they may need to learn on the job, and you may have to clean up some messes. Leaders also need to reacquaint themselves with the skills needed to patiently deal with people one at a time – very different skills to those required for dealing with crowds. Furthermore, the ‘small’ approach requires small communication. Little, bite-sized chunks of input delivered frequently and in various ways rather than the ‘big meal’ of a weekly sermon.
The persecuted church has been dealing with a situation something like this for a long time. They can’t afford to hold big gatherings or make a big splash in any way. They have to keep their head down. Every facet of how they operate as a faith community is small, slow and hidden. But take the Chinese house church movement for example – it doesn’t seem to have hampered their effectiveness for the gospel!
The day may come when once again the church in the West will have a good reputation, significant trust and influence in society and ‘enjoy the favour of all the people’ as in Acts 2. And we can expect that, in time, the restrictions due to this pandemic will be completely lifted and we will have freedom to gather in whatever numbers we please. But for now, we’ve suffered a setback in these respects and we have to adapt and rebuild from where we are. If we start small and remain true to our calling, not over-reaching, my prayer is that we’ll hear the master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”.