If someone asks you about your church, what are the first few things you tell them? Denominational background or organizational affiliation? Size and location? Your opinion of the pastor? The character of gospel life? Your assessment of the current worship music situation? Ethnic makeup? Age of the congregation or average age within the congregation? One thing we should all think about our local church—whatever its shape, size, background, and location—is that it is too small.
This may sound all wrong. Our access to podcasts and “YouTube church” has made many of us feel like our church is inadequate by comparison, and several voices lately have called us back to see the beautiful sufficiency of the local, smallish, un-famous church. We need to hear that message and trust that God is not limited in his work by an absence of smoke machines, professional musicians, online followers, or sprawling campuses. Saying that my church is too small is not meant to make me look toward another church that is bigger (and therefore “better”). It is meant to make me look toward God; that is, toward his purposes, his work in the world, and his all-sufficiency. Here are three ways that saying “my church is too small” can help us.
1. My church needs to get bigger
My church is too small… because it needs to grow. Our church in Fredericton is the result of God keeping the promise he made to Abraham a long time ago in a desert far, far away: “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The distance between my New Brunswick church and that promise is about 4,000 years and 8,000 kilometres, yet here we are because of it. In Christ and by the Spirit, this promise has worked its way into the twenty-first century and the Canadian Maritimes.
The gospel that fulfills the promise to Abraham has come a long way to get to us, and that fact should remind us that it is meant to keep going. It did not come to us so that it could create an insulated corner for me and my friends to sit in. It comes to us with the momentum of 2,000 years of boundary-crossing redemptive power. When I say that my church is too small, I am reminded that being the church we were called to be means we get bigger. It means we shape our lives after the pattern of Christ’s and spend our lives for the sake of the growth of his kingdom. It means we do what we do so that others will be drawn to do it with us. It means we rejoice in Christ being proclaimed (Philippians 1:12-17). It means we are disciples who make disciples who will then make more disciples.
There can be a dangerous distraction in our desire to build up our own church. We can spend our time and resources perfecting our corner for our own enjoyment and ego rather than pursuing the dying who surround us. We must not allow ourselves to sit in the shade with Jonah to refine our church’s branding and hashtags (Jonah 4). The reason I am a part of my church is not so that I can bask in its shade but so that I can be part of extending its reach.
2. My church is just one part of a global church
My church is too small… because it is only a part of a much bigger and broader church. There is no problem with identifying ourselves as “the church of God that is in Corinth” (or Fredericton, or Fall River, or…) as long as we remember that we are “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). In fact, it is good for us to realize we are most likely a much smaller slice of the pie than we tend to think.
According to the latest numbers from the Center for Study of Global Christianity, there are around 2.4 billion people on this planet who identify as Christians. Do you know which continent houses more of these self-identifying Christians than any other? Africa. North America comes in behind Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Last year was the first time Africa had the largest population of Christians, and there are estimates that by 2050 the continent could have around half of the world’s Christian population. Currently, Canadian Christians make up a small portion of the world population of Christians (here’s a visual representation of the distribution of the world evangelical population).
My point in bringing up these numbers is to show us that while we can say our local church is “the church” we have to remember that it is not THE church. The fate of the cause of Christ does not rest upon your own particular congregation or even upon the entire Canadian church. Our position in global Christianity is not at the top of a pyramid. We are not the lords of the manor on whom the peasants of world Christianity depend and strive to emulate; rather, we are equal members in a big and boisterous family. We should be both encouraged and humbled by the scope of what God is doing all around the globe that he created and rules over. We should ask both how we can serve our brothers and sisters and what we can learn and gain from them.
3. My church is not my portion
My church is too small… because it cannot save or satisfy my soul. The greatest life jacket in the world will not work as a parachute. The most wonderful and lively church in the world will not deliver you from the domain of darkness and transfer you into kingdom of Christ (Colossians 1:13). As the leaders from the 2018 Gafcon (Global Anglican Future Conference) gathering reminded the rest of us: “The gospel creates the church of God.” It does not work the other way around. Anyone looking for “living water” can and should hear about it through a church, but the fountain is Christ himself (John 4:11-14).
A church can do and provide a whole list of wonderful things, from friendship for the lonely to food for the hungry. But there is no church that died and is alive forevermore and holds the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). There is no church that can cause you to be born again to a living hope and guard you for a salvation to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5). Saying that my church is too small reminds me that although it is a means by which God gives me great and wonderful grace, it is not the source of that grace in itself.
Love your local church and engage fully in its life but never forget that it is too small. It is not an empire to build or a badge to wear. It is not the be-all and end-all of the work of God on earth. It is not your saviour and it cannot satisfy your soul. The irony is that seeing our own church as too small in these ways will draw us further into it. It is as local congregations that we make disciples, that we find our place in a global church, and that we “grow up in every way into him who is the head” (Ephesians 4:15-16). Saying that my church is too small moves me to join with my church in working out the Great Commission that Jesus Christ gave us, in standing as members of his worldwide family, and in laying hold of his gospel.