August 04, 2008

Getting Small

by Kyle Childress
About the time I was in college, young comedian Steve Martin had a routine called “let’s get small.” Playing on the mid-seventies countercultural “let’s get high” Martin invited everyone to come to his house and “get small.” Martin said that “getting small” was dangerous for children because they would get “really, really small” and it was also impossible for the police to put you in jail for being small because you’d walk out right between the bars. It was a short, quirky piece of the sort that made Martin famous.

If it was countercultural in 1977, “being small” is even more so in 2008 in a culture that seems to idolize the Big and encourages everyone to “get big or get out” as a Secretary of Agriculture once told farmers. Some years ago Molly Ivins characterized the city of Dallas as the city with Big Buildings, Big Hair, and a Big Jesus. Dallas thought she was paying them a compliment. But even we like living in Big Texas and our society admires Big Business and trans-national corporations, mega-churches, and mega-plexes. We want Big Answers and Big Solutions to Global Problems and we want to super-size everything from fries to storage buildings to football stadiums. Politicians and economists of every persuasion keep telling us that a bigger economic pie is the answer to everyone’s concerns. Closer to home, every day I receive mailings and emailings on how to grow, be bigger, reach more people, raise massive amounts of money, train more people, build bigger buildings, have a bigger sound system, a bigger music program, a bigger youth program, get a bigger church van, where to order a bigger pulpit, or how I can get a bigger Bible with larger print (okay, so I’m keeping that one). In other words, bigger is always better; it is a sign of blessing and success, and if we’re not getting bigger then something is wrong.

Behind these invitations to “get big” lie more alarming assumptions. For example, I also receive more than the occasional letter urging me to join with other clergy, or other churches, in order to stop something in our country or get something done in our town or organize to get someone elected. The underlying and unquestioned assumption is that it is the vocation of the church to run things in our society or at least that we have the size and power to make things come out the way we want them to if we’ll just organize, work, fund, vote, and get involved. Furthermore, if we’re too small to have the leverage to run things then we can use any number of the resources listed above so we can get big.

When we open the New Testament and read Jesus the contrast is startling. He talks about mustard seeds, sparrows, lost coins, and lost sheep. Instead of big productions he washes feet and every time he gathers a big crowd, off he goes to be alone. Instead of seeking power he seems intent on giving it up. And about the closest he came to defining a church is “two or three gathered in my name.” It seems Jesus was interested in getting small long before Steve Martin made a joke about it.

So maybe we need to raise questions about bigger being better. Perhaps we should be questioning whether the church is supposed to run things and whether it is good that the church always needs to grow larger. Maybe it is time to question many of these assumptions and maybe a small church like ours can be one of those who does the questioning. What if God’s Way is manifested through ordinary people doing little acts of grace like sharing bread, asking forgiveness, and being peacemakers? In an empire enamored with “shock and awe,” a capitalistic economy consumed with growth, and American Christianity preoccupied with success, what if the calling of the body of Christ, the church, is to “get small”?

When we come to terms with being small and get over trying to be big, we can be free to trust God rather than our own power and size, and we can be empowered to get on with what God wants us to be about. With help from theologian John Yoder, here are some examples:

We do not assume that we are to dominate our town or the wider society. As followers of Jesus, our mission clearly becomes one of servanthood, healing, and reconciliation, the kind of ministry that works best from positions of powerlessness and humility.

We can do mission and ministry as “pilot projects.” There are needed ministries that the wider society is not yet ready to attempt for any number of reasons (they’re too controversial, people are not yet convinced of the need, etc.) but we are able to start. In our own church’s history, we started the Sheltered Workshop, the East Texas AIDS Project, and the Nacogdoches Habitat for Humanity before many others got involved. Eventually, each of these endeavors was adopted by larger groups and organizations here in East Texas.

We are freed to speak out and practice what we believe is the truth of the gospel even though the wider majority does not agree. Sometimes a small church can act in the same way the conscience acts in the life of an individual. For instance, the Quakers spoke out against slavery 80 years before slaves were freed in this country.

We learn to trust the power of weakness. A small church can be innovative and imaginative. We can approach problems from a different posture and perspective from those with power who tend to approach problems with a direct frontal assault.

We learn to see the weakness of power. Sometimes too much power is an obstacle to our calling. Tanks and bulldozers can get in the way of washing feet and giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’s name.

I am not suggesting that large churches are not the body of Christ. Indeed, I know that the best large churches are built around small groups. I’m also not suggesting that we shouldn’t do outreach and invite others to the Way of Jesus. The fact is that we could grow a lot and still be a small church. All I’m suggesting is that Austin Heights is part of a long history of God working through the small, the humble, the weak, and the odd. Instead of worrying over not being big, let’s embrace the wonderful gift God has given us and thank God for being small.

Let’s be careful out there.

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