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Ministry Matters: On the Value of Staying Small

The wind whipped and roared as I stepped out on the front porch to “see” Hurricane Florence as she made her grand appearance. After snapping some photos and taking some video clips, I turned to go back inside when something caught my eye. A spider’s web, partially damaged and dusted with rain drops, was swinging between the porch posts. A small spider hung comfortably in the middle of the web. I paused to observe that Small Spider was not in the least hurried or harried to get to higher, more solid ground. He was quite content in his current situation.

Throughout the storm, I checked on Small Spider to see how he fared. Each time, he sat still and unmoved in his wet and waning web. He was still alive at the end of the hurricane, which had come ashore and parked right over us for about four days, dumping several feet of rain and downing multiple trees on the farm where we live.

My husband and I remarked to each other about the irony that something so tiny as Small Spider could survive unscathed, while much bigger (and assumedly stronger) things toppled easily and became damaged beyond repair.

Later, as we surveyed the damage to the farm, we noticed a pattern in the survival of small things. Small beetles, bugs, birds, and animals came through the storm without harm. Small twig-like trees stood straight up- after bending low, they stood up. Tiny collard plants which we threw into the garden soil two days before the storm (I know, it was risky) flooded out, but most of them lived. In fact, just this week we harvested them and enjoyed a large feed of “hurricane collards.” Sweetest of all, our many hummingbird families emerged from the trees, unharmed.

He must increase, and I must decrease.

There is strength in staying small. When I say “staying small” I mean smallness in a variety of ways- not just numerically, but in humility and in the way we take note of small things as if they are valuable and significant. Is this not what Jesus did?

He was born in a small town in a small stable, birthed to a small couple who was shocked to be chosen. He came in smallness with a big plan of redemption.

He beckoned the small children to his lap, and from there He taught big lessons.

He used a small lunch to feed a large crowd with both physical and spiritual food.

He accepted small offerings from people who made small livings, knowing that the gifts came from big hearts that loved Him.

He heard small prayers and pleas for healing, and answered with Himself.

He used as an example His care for the smallest of birds and flowers on His wide expanse of earth.

He uttered a small phrase during a big storm: “Peace, be still.” 

The theme of small things in Scripture is a strong one. The irony of God’s ways is often revealed through stories of small things.

Knowing what we do about small things that have big impact, why then do we secretly stress over numbers in our churches? Why do we feel a humbled, achy small when a family leaves the church, thinking that somehow it will reflect badly on us? Why do we swell with excitement when numbers soar, and deject when numbers fall? Why do we fear that a storm will reduce us to nothing, strip us of everything (as they so often do?)

Of course there are no cliche answers, because we are human and God is God. But I fear our focus is wrong when we think that a small church is less important than a larger church. Our discouragement is unfounded when we think that we have done something wrong along the way if, after laboring for a lifetime, our church is still small (or smaller than ever) than when we began. Our perspective of success changes when we have more storms than sun in our days of small church ministry. Our hope wanes unnecessarily when we feel as though smallness in itself is a storm. (ouch)

Man sees the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.

Of course we want to see growth. And that does include numbers of some sort, even when we are counting hearts. It’s just that- the longer we are in ministry, the more we should desire to look for God’s presence in the small places and the small things, asking ourselves, “Is there something here that I have missed? Something I need to see with my spiritual eye- to see from God’s point of view?” In life’s storms and trials, it is often the smallest of things- sometimes overlooked- that have the greatest impact on us and on others. I recall the utter delight I felt when the tiniest candy cane ever made showed up on my food tray the year I spent Christmas in the hospital. (I couldn’t eat anything, but its presence made a permanent impact.) I can still hear the small verse of “Silent Night” sung outside our hospital room that same year. It meant the world to us.

Oh, all this talk of staying small. It’s countercultural in a world that is striving to be big and noticed and named and remembered. Maybe we are all just grasping to know that the small deeds matter, that the faithful smallness of repeated church service and community service and family service really matter to God. And maybe we need to humble our hearts in order to see this.

For as much as you know that your labor (most labor is a series of small acts strung together) is not in vain in the Lord.

These days I am actively preparing myself for church planting- a small start, with intent to grow but stay small. Church planting is a birth of a small gathering that results from small conversations that have built relationships over time. All churches are the result of a small church plant. How quickly we forget the small things that started it all. The tiny smiles, the small prayers of a learner, the acknowledgement of a small child. The small texts, the small bundle of cash given through a folded hand to meet a big need. The small, awkward testimony given by a growing believer. The small steps of progress in a broken family. The small words of encouragement that years later are said to have been a game changer on the day they were uttered. The small gestures that no one saw but God.

Small things survive storms. Ask Small Spider.

Small things keep growing in spite of (and because of) storms. Ask the small seedling.

Small things taste good long after storms. Ask the small collards.

Small things emerge singing, undaunted by storms. Ask the small birds.

You and I in our humble smallness of place and practice- we will survive and thrive again. We will keep growing- and will disciple others in small moments. We may be small in number, but we will have big hearts. We will taste of the LORD- and find Him to be good. We will taste good to others- the salted Gospel meeting the deepest need. We will emerge singing- praising Him now and in the glory to come. It will be a glory like no other, larger than life and created from a series of small things that took Jesus to the earth, to the cross, out of the tomb, and back to heaven- so that we small people could be with Him…for all of eternity.

Do not despise the day of small things.

There is eternal value in staying small. Embrace it with hope.


A Kindred Spirit